An Interview with Tom Watkins: On Leadership and it’s Rewards and Awards

Oct 6, 2011 by

Michael F. Shaughnessy
Eastern New Mexico University
Portales, New Mexico

1)  Tom, I understand that you are to receive a Lifelong Leadership Award given by “Leadership Detroit” a part of the Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce. First, congratulations, and secondly, as Michigan’s former State Superintendent of Schools, why is a one of Michigan’s top business organizations recognizing you?

Thank you. The Inaugural Leadership Detroit Awards honors three “unique” individuals for their work in leading and creating positive change in our community. I am honored to have been selected for the Lifelong Leadership Award.

Rachele Downs, selected for the Emerging Leadership Award, is the Program Manager of Detroit Revitalization Fellows Program. Dara Munson, President of the Detroit Big Brothers Big Sisters program was awarded the Inspirational Leadership Award.

Tom was nominated for the Lifetime Achievement Award with these career highlights: “A leader from the beginning of his 35-year career, Tom Watkins started Counterpoint Runaway Shelter at age 21 and served as an elected member of the Wayne County Charter Commission. He has also been a management consultant with Plante & Moran, Director of the Wayne Center, Director of the Michigan Department of Mental Health under Governor Blanchard, a co-developer of first Michigan’s, then Florida’s first charter schools, and Michigan School Superintendent under Governor Granholm. Tom is passionate about fostering U.S. business relations with China and is a contributor on this topic to major newspapers and radio media outlets in Michigan.

Recognized for innovative ideas and challenging the system to do ‘what is right and good’ without personal, political, or financial gain, Tom ‘tells it like it is’. Years ago, he suggested concepts for educational, social, and foreign policies which are only now being considered. He speaks for those without a voice, taking that voice to a national platform.”

I am honored to be selected for this award — I only wish my Mom were still alive today to hear such things being said about one of her kids.

2) Tell me a bit more about this program the Detroit Regional Chamber developed — “Leadership Detroit”?

Leadership Detroit was founded in 1979 and has well over 1,500 alumni today. I was in the second class of Leadership Detroit.

Its mission is to provide the foundation for a lifelong commitment to leadership by creating awareness of key issues that affect the Detroit region and to challenge emerging and existing community leaders to bring about positive change in the community through informed leadership.

Each year approximately 65 individuals are selected to participate in the program, representing a cross section of the community, including business, labor, government, education, media, civic groups, health services, and community organizations.

The benefits of the Leadership Detroit program are many and include:

* Developing leadership skills

* Enhancing knowledge of regional issues

* Diversity of networking opportunities

* Gaining greater understanding of diversity

* Becoming a knowledgeable, committed leader to the Detroit region.

I experienced this as an opportunity upon which to build a foundation of learning skills essential to the various leadership roles I have assumed in Michigan and Florida.

3) The Greater Detroit Chamber appears to understand that a solid business climate is measured by more than simply low taxes and eliminating regulations — they seem to be quite progressive in this regard. Am I reading this correctly?

Yes, you are. Historically The Greater Detroit Chamber has focused on the expected business issues of lower taxes and eliminating burdensome regulations. However, they are also actively involved in developing leaders in the non-profit, educational, and government sectors.

The relatively new President and CEO of the Chamber, Sandy Baruah, is committed to building on past success and taking one of the largest Chambers of Commerce to the next level. He understands we are living in a hyper-competitive, disruptive, transformational, and technologically driven universe where ideas and jobs move around the world effortlessly. He and his team are working hard to help prepare our region to not simply survive, but thrive on the global stage.

4) When did this award begin in the City of Detroit?

This is the inaugural year for these awards making being selected that much more special.

5) Tell us about Counterpoint Runaway Shelter – when did you start this and is it still going strong?

Counterpoint is now a program of Starfish Human Services and is still helping children and their families 36 years later.

Growing up in the Washington DC area, I witnessed many kids struggling to “make it” and decided at an early age I was going to help kids. Taking Counterpoint Runaway Shelter from concept to reality was like a “final exam” for me at that point in time – I was just 21 . I feel warmly about the fact that it is still operating all these years later, continuing to help runaway youth and their families.

You have also been involved in charter schools. Tell us about your endeavors in that arena.

I believe strongly that our system of public education is the bedrock upon which this great country was built. Traditional and charter public schools are the true ‘statute of liberty’ in our country. There is no other institution in America that takes the tired, hungry, poor, disabled, immigrant children and provides them with hope and opportunity for a better life.

We need to stop thinking that public education comes in a ‘one-size fits all’ model. Henry Ford once remarked about his Model T car, “Any customer can have a car painted any color he wants so long as it is black.” In today’s world, we need to place our focus on quality and be willing to innovate to educate and stop attempting to contain change.

I am proud that I helped start the first charter schools in two states and have worked with many adults and quality educators to develop alternative pathways for learning and success for students.

7) You have also been a leader and pioneer, not only with the charter school movement, but also in promoting personalized digital and e-learning. Your 2005 ground-breaking report, “The New Education (R)evolution — e-Learning for Michigan” has been translated into multiple languages ,  clearly an idea ahead of its time. The report provides a number of policy recommendations that many states are considering today. Michigan was the first to mandate that all high school students have an e-learning class prior to graduation. Is the report still available on the web?

Yes, it can be found at: And I am STILL asked to speak on the value of e-learning, both in the U.S. and China.

One blended e-learning program I am excited about is the WAY Program or Widening Advancement for Youth (SEE  It is a high standards, student focused, blended e-learning program using project-based learning to help kids not simply acquire their high school diplomas, but build relationships and learn.

8) Some people have a career ladder, yours has been a rock climb with your having held leadership roles in such diverse fields as juvenile justice, mental health, elected and appointed politics, government, the media, higher education and now business. What do you see as your most important career contribution?

Few people today will have a career where they will spend 30 plus years at one job. Change is a constant in our lives today and going forward. I have been fortunate to have been able to add value and make a difference in a number of fields, as you point out. I like working with diverse teams, building coalitions to advance causes.

I have only been able to accomplish this by working with many smart, capable people, all working together to accomplish our goals. I grew up with 4 sisters and 2 brothers who kept me humble and reminded me I was not the brightest of the bunch. They taught me the lesson of teamwork very early: together we are always better.

9) I believe, like many others, that we have to have good relations with other countries, and I can think of no one locally who has done more to encourage civil relations with China.

Did Leadership Detroit mention this area?

Yes, they mentioned my work in helping build economic, educational, and cultural bridges with China. I have been working for nearly a quarter of a century to assure China’s rise does not come at Michigan’s demise.

I have been fascinated with China ever since a great 4th grade teacher opened my eyes to this country. It is the fastest growing large economy on the planet and home to one-fifth of all humanity. Moving forward, all major world events will intersect at the corner near the U.S. and China.

We are far too ignorant about China’s history, language, and culture and must do more to change this.

Oxford School District in Michigan is leading the way towards re-calibrating for the new world, adopting the right attitude and programs to help prepare children and the community for our now-global economy, driven by technology and change.

Their theme says it all: “Oxford Schools — Where the Globe is Our Campus.” Under the leadership of Superintendent Dr. William Skilling, a progressive Board and dedicated staff, this small school district is entrepreneurial, and creative. It embraces the concepts of globalization and their China program is one of the best in the country. I encourage educators who want to bring Chinese to their schools to look at what leadership can do by checking out Oxford Schools at

10) Tom, we need people willing to lead. There appears to be a huge leadership void in multiple arenas — am I wrong about this?

No, I wish you were.

Leadership matters. It is needed now more than ever. Leadership Detroit, a program of the Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce, has taken it upon itself for decades to develop leadership for our state.

We need more and more educators willing to lead change. More importantly, we need progressive leaders, less interested in simply managing their careers.

Today, China and other emerging countries are seeking the equivalent of the “American Dream.” Our children must be able to compete on the world stage. They will have billions of new competitors — people their parents and grandparents did not have to contend with moving forward.

Education, talent, technology, innovation, creativity, globalization, change and leadership — all these will matter going forward.

11) Another passion of yours which you promoted both as a business leader at the Economic Council of Palm Beach County, Florida and as Michigan’s State Superintendent of Schools is quality pre-school and early childhood education. Why do you consider these so important?

It makes a lifetime of difference – brain researchers vouch for it, educators swear by it. Nobel Prize winning economists say early education is the best investment we can make as a state and nation.

We know that investing in the early years provides the foundation for a lifetime of success and needs to be invested in more.

Early reading skills are critical indicators of academic and lifelong success. One program that is making a significant difference is: “Raising A Reader.”

Raising A Reader is a proven early literacy program – an excellent example of children getting core skills while cementing the parent-child bond. Working with 110,000 preschool children at nearly 2,500 locations across the country, Raising A Reader delivers bright red bags filled with age-sensitive books into children’s homes every week, exposing each child to approximately 100 books a year.

In our largest city of Detroit, nearly 50 percent of the adults are functionally illiterate and far too many of our children are dropping out of school. Our schools are not preparing our children for the hyper-competitive, knowledge, global economy.

Research has demonstrated Raising A Reader can help close the achievement gaps between low-income, minority children, and their wealthier suburban white peers.

What is happening to far too many minority children borders on educational genocide. We do not have one child to waste in America. Intellectually, we know what to do but the question remains: Do we have the will to act?

12) If people wish to uses your services, how may they reach you, Tom?

My Blackberry is always close at hand, email me @

13) Have I neglected to ask anything else?

No. As usual, good questions! I appreciate the opportunity to respond. Thanks to you and Jimmy Kilpatrick for creating this forum in which to exchange ideas.

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