Jan O'Neill has returned to the University of Wisconsin–Madison campus 25 years after she graduated from the La Follette Institute of Public Affairs.
The longtime quality improvement consultant and 1986 alum joined the Population Health Institute in August as a community engagement specialist with Mobilizing Action Toward Community Health. "I'm looking forward to working with communities in the U.S. that are seeking technical assistance to improve their county health rankings," she says.
O'Neill came to La Follette after seven years teaching in the Madison school district. "I wanted to get involved in change at a larger, more systemic level," she says. "La Follette offered the most flexibility for putting together a program of courses that would lead to a master's degree. As a returning student, I was pretty sure what I wanted to learn about, so this level of autonomy was important to me."
O'Neill used her graduate education to stretch herself. "Having survived John Witte's quantitative analysis course, I know I can survive any challenge," O'Neill says. "I'm kind of kidding, but his course was intensely challenging for me, especially since I was still teaching full-time when I took it. I applied myself to an area I had not previously had much confidence in and proved to myself that with hard work I can learn almost anything."
One of her last classes led to her first consulting job — a multiyear contract with the city of Madison to train staff and leaders in quality improvement tools and methods. The opportunity grew out of a one-of-a-kind statistics-engineering course taught by the late Bill Hunter, O'Neill says. "A core part of the course involved facilitating a quality improvement project, for city engineering in my case, and in the process I got to know now-former mayor Joe Sensenbrenner and a number of department leaders and staff."
O'Neill later worked several years for Joiner and Associates as a management consultant, helping corporate clients with process improvement, system redesign and leadership development. She met business partner Anne Conzemius while organizing a conference, and they found they shared a commitment to education. They collaborated on a yearlong project for the New Berlin School District then formalized their partnership in 1998 by starting QLD, an education consulting company, to bring quality improvement concepts tools and methods to schools via the classroom vs. a business or corporate model.
"The time was right because the standards and accountability movement was just beginning, and schools needed help and didn't know where to turn," O'Neill says. "Anne and I had many contacts in education, knew the industry well and were well-versed in quality tools and processes. We began to be known as the 'tools people,' able to make the complex simple and relevant."
QLD in the News
Making Kids Work on Goals (And Not Just In Soccer), March 9, 2011, Wall Street Journal
O'Neill and Conzemius are proponents of the S.M.A.R.T. (Specific and Strategic, Measurable, Attainable, Results-based, Timebound) system of goal-setting and monitoring. "The purpose is to build sustainable internal capacity for continuous school improvement by students, teachers and administrators," O'Neill says.
They have worked with clients around the United States. O'Neill is especially proud of a rural, high-poverty district in east Texas that adopted S.M.A.R.T. in 2007 as its top strategy for bringing about systemic change. "We've heard from teachers, students and administrators that integrating our system into their practices has been the single most powerful change process they've ever been involved in," O'Neill says. "Most gratifying are the stories from students, including some who were having behavior problems and never expected to continue their education past high school."
While an outside perspective can help an organization improve and reach its goals, O'Neill reminds clients to also look to their own organizations for leadership. A long-term partnership with a consultant will improve long-term impact, she notes. "Many clients are looking for an 'expert' or guru' who will be the 'silver bullet' that will solve all their problems. The downside is that emphasis minimizes the expertise that resides inside the client's own organization and doesn't build capacity for change, learning and improvement over time."
In some ways, O'Neill sees a parallel potential loss of capacity in the public sector. The recent budget bills passed in Wisconsin have cost the state and its residents, says O'Neill, whose husband retired early from the Department of Natural Resources due to concern he could lose benefits he'd earned over many years of public service. "Most public employees are mission-driven, hard workers dedicated to public service," she says. "Many people — in the private and public sectors — approach work as a calling or mission. I think when leaders lose this focus, the integrity and wisdom of the heart goes out of the organization. Employee productivity — not to mention joy in work and impact on consumers — suffers as a result."
QLD will continue its work nationwide under Conzemius' guidance, and O'Neill will periodically consult with the company. O'Neill looks forward to helping advance the Population Health Institute's mission to become a primary resource for stimulating, creating and communicating useful public health and health policy research and analysis. "When I started at La Follette, I wasn't at all sure where I'd land, but I knew I wanted to be involved with system change, either in government or the private sector," O'Neill says. "As it turned out, I ended up working in both, so I feel comfortable in both worlds."
"It will be exciting to apply what I've been learning to broader communitywide initiatives that include education, business and health care."