McPherson & Jacobson

An Interview with Thomas Jacobson, Founder of McPherson and Jacobson
By Walter Frank Eng and Ulkar Turabova, Creighton University MBA students

McPherson and Jacobson, LLC is a national firm that specializes in recruitment and placement of school superintendents across the country. The firm has worked in 38 states and has 110 consultants.

Tell us a little about your background

“I started consulting with my department chair Dan McPherson, who is now deceased. I never thought there would be a shortage in replacing school superintendents, so I asked Dan if he would like to consult with me. There is a large turnover rate in the field, similar to that of baseball coaches and managers. We started this business in 1991, and I bought him out in 1994. From then on my goal was to become a top national firm and now I can proudly say that we are. McPherson and Jacobson has conducted over 600 searches and currently has 110 consultants who cover a total of 38 states.”

What do you like most about your work?

“I love the people part of it. I just returned from Charleston, South Carolina after completing some work with a board. This is the first search we have done in South Carolina and I loved meeting and interacting with new people.”

And least?

“I think the least favorite part of my job is seeing a division of the Board. When you have elected positions, there are bound to be people who don’t get along. But on the flip side of that, we are great at bringing people together so when we leave we usually turn that around. We have worked with some very contentious boards and at times it may become very difficult. This is probably the part that I like the least. But when I can walk away and say that we really made a difference for the kids, it makes it all worthwhile.”  

Can you define ethics and tell us what it means to you?

“Being an educator, I’m going to quote Warren Bennis, “Managers are people who do things right and leaders are people who do the right thing.” Alternatively, good businesses do things right, whereas exceptional businesses do the right thing. I think that ethics is a state of mind and is a belief system. It is who you are and what you believe in.  

During our work with boards, we tell them to develop and write down their core beliefs and find the things that are non-negotiable. When you come to an ethical crossroad, knowing exactly what your belief system is comprised of can aid you in making an ethical decision.”

Do you think there is a difference between ethics and morals?

“I think they are one and the same. If you aren’t moral you aren’t ethical and vice versa. I think they are intertwined.”

Is there a formal ethics program within your firm?

“We do not have a formal ethics program, however all of my consultants go through training on yearly basis that involves ethics. Every two years we bring all of our consultants together to foster an ethical corporate culture.”

Have you ever had employees for whom it was difficult to buy into your culture?

“No, because then I wouldn’t have hired them in the first place. My consultants are working part time. This isn’t a career track, and a lot of them are retired superintendents.”

Talk about the ethical culture you mentioned earlier. What is tolerated and what isn’t? Any examples?

“I have had a couple of situations where I had to go back because the clients were not happy with my consultants. I wouldn’t say it was unethical, but they weren’t as truthful as they should have been. I can think of an example where I got a call from a client and we had two consultants on the search and one of them had violated the client’s trust. I went and met with the clients and asked them what happened and what I could do to make it right. They had a legitimate gripe. One of my consultants had made a promise that he could not keep. That is unethical behavior, however he broke the promise for what he thought was a very good reason. They agreed to stay with us and I took over the search. Now they give us glorious recommendations.”

Have you always done business in Omaha?

“We started in Kearney and in 2003 we moved to Omaha. Initially, it was all based in the Midwest. When we were in Kearney we were covering Nebraska, Kansas, Iowa, & South Dakota, and then when we brought it here to Omaha we made it national. Like I mentioned earlier, we have 110 consultants who cover a total of 38 states.”

If something is not tolerated what happens to the consultants?

“I have never fired a consultant. I just don’t give them any more work.”

The Ethical Omaha Project of the Business Ethics Alliance has identified the Omaha business core values to be the following: Accountability, Community Responsibility, Financial Vitality, Integrity, Moral Courage. Can you elaborate on how any of the above fit your organization and what do they mean to you?

“They all definitely mean a lot to my organization. Accountability means talking the talk, walking the walk. You have to be authentic. That means every one of my employees and consultants have to be authentic. We are working with schools and thus community responsibility means a lot to us. We are a community based search. Working with the community in each search is very important to us. Financial vitality is a struggle for us. First of all, all my consultants do this part time, and most of them do it to give back to education and the community. We have to be able to pay the bills and keep the lights on, however no one is getting rich of off this. Moral courage and integrity go together, it’s something you live. If you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything.”

How do you keep all these core values accountable and uphold these values?

“We have a training session that we conduct as well as meetings where we bring everyone together. We process everything we do. We send out evaluations to every board member. When we get together we go through these evaluations and look at the things we get negative feedback on and we try and change and adapt to the input from our clients. Over 25 years, our business has really changed to meet our clients’ needs.”

Describe an ethical situation in business that was relatively easy to handle.

“I looked back at our application for the integrity award. With our service, we work with the Board and new superintendent for one year. We will come back the first year and help establish performance objectives. Sometimes the board forgets that they bought that. It would be really easy to say you forgot and not come back. That wouldn’t be ethical however, so we call and remind them of the service that they have purchased. Sometimes they say they don’t need it and we make them sign off saying they won’t take this piece.”

Why did you call the previous situations ethical? Why not just call it business?

“There’s no such thing as just business, you either believe it or you don’t. If it’s just business you might as well be selling hotdogs and not worry about what is in them. Ethics is a belief system.”

What do you have to say to the people who believe business is money? Is it all about making money?

“They don’t have a vision about their business. Obviously there is a bottom line. You want to be profitable but our mission statement states “when it is all said and done, it’s not the money we made, it’s the difference we made in the lives of the children”. We are all about improving education. Education is not a business it’s a calling and you have to believe in it.”

How did you know this is what you want to do? How did you know you want to be a business owner?

“I went to a state teachers college where I was taught how to become a business teacher purely by accident. As a superintendent one of my responsibilities was running a multimillion dollar budget.  I very much so enjoyed being a superintendent but I had a desire to own and run a business. Twenty years ago I wanted to own a business and now it owns me. But it is fun and it is all about making a difference.”

How do you judge the ethical background and character of superintendents?

“Last night working with the board, we have criteria that talks about honesty and personal characteristics. We are going to write that on the application, but that doesn’t verify it. When we do our background checks, we start with the listed references. I’ve been in HR, and consider it to be one of my strengths. In 45 years I haven’t found someone who puts a reference down and the reference doesn’t like them. We know that so we start with those people. We have a list of questions and we have two questions at the end. The second to last one, is there anything in this person’s background that if it became public would be an embarrassment to a school district? Our last question is can you give us two or three people that can speak to this person’s ability. We keep calling until we have gone a minimum of three deep in reference checks.  . About 10 years ago we had someone that looked good but the second or third reference heard rumors about spousal abuse. I heard it from one person. The third or fourth person said spousal abuse again. We look for consistency of answers from the references and the references that the references refer. And I’m not aware there is anyone else who does that. That is what makes us unique.”

How do you talk about ethical quandaries in the firm? Is ethics talked about or is it assumed?

“We discuss ethics with our consultants especially when it comes to ethical dilemmas. It is definitely a constant, never-ending conversation.”

Do you have to be a teacher first before becoming a superintendent?

“In some states yes. A few years ago in South Dakota they had no certification at all. The local barber could become a superintendent. Most states require that you’ve come through the education process or there is an alternative certification process. For example in South Carolina, the alternative process is you must have a master’s degree or above in whatever field you are in. You must have had a leadership position, and then you could apply for an alternative certification.”

That is interesting. You would think that for a specific field like education, a board would want someone with educational background.  

“The counter to that is you don’t need an educator to run the business. The budget for these schools can be in hundreds of millions dollars range. I have a firm belief that you need to have a passion for education and belief in what you are doing.”

Have you had any ethical mentors and where do you derive most of your ethics? Is it from your parents?

“My grandmother played a very influential role in my life. My parents as well as the rest of my family have also contributed profoundly. Professionally, I had a board chair who was an Army Sergeant Major who taught me how to lead.”

What role does your upbringing play within your company? Do you think it gives you a competitive advantage?

“Well I would hope that my concept of ethics and the concept this business has about ethics give us an advantage. You’re not going to read about us on the front page of the news.”

Have you ever placed a superintendent that you regretted or were not happy with?

“Not personally, but we offer a two year guarantee. If a district hires the wrong person, we’re going to come back and fix that. We’ve done over 600 searches, yet we’ve only had two placements that were not a good match.”

Now having the BBB Integrity Award, Why is that significant for you?

“This is almost as good as getting your PHD. You are recognized in your field as a leader. My staff and my consultants are just so proud of this. This reflects so well on what we do within our business field.”

What is the biggest ethical challenge that faces the younger business professionals today?

“I think it’s the same for every generation. What do you stand for? What do you believe in? What are you going to hold yourself accountable for? Ethics is what you will do when no one else is watching.”

Are there any ethical dilemmas, such as a client recommending their friend?

“I have had some of my consultants apply for a position in a search we are conducting, in which case we do a full disclosure and make sure to notify the client (the board).”  

What do you do in the situation where you have an ethical candidate but it ends up being the board that is unethical?

“When I do my sales presentation, I lead with a statement:  We do not hire superintendents. We provide you with a tool for a decision making model. It is your decision and we want you to own this. There are a couple of times that they’ve said something and I just say you can go ahead and do that but we won’t provide a guarantee with that hiring.”