In Conversation with Chuck Gardner

Julia Bernath

Lives in: Marietta

Current Job: Chief Operations Officer, Marietta City Schools 

Previous Job: Principal Riverwood International Charter HS


Leadership: Leadership Sandy Springs, Class of 2017, Project Management Professional (PMP), past Board Smyrna Business Association, Cobb Education Consortium

Family: Wife, Kelley

For Fun: My wife and I take ballroom dancing.  I play trumpet in the Cobb Wind Symphony, and I do a little woodworking as a hobby.

Favorite Book Recommendations:

I read a lot, so this is an incredibly difficult question. A book that truly changed my professional life is Never Eat Alone: And Other Secrets to Success, One Relationship at a Time by Keith Ferrazzi. This book was recommended by my brother-in-law who has a long and distinguished career as a Chief Information Officer for large companies. The book forever changed the way I thought about work relationships and led me to reach out to Grant Rivera, my current Superintendent, more than fifteen years ago, when I was a teacher, and he was Principal of South Cobb HS.

With the start of the school year, please share your thoughts on challenges and opportunities you face as the Chief Operations Officer of Marietta City Schools? 

School safety is obviously at the forefront this year after the tragic events in Uvalde, Texas. We have enjoyed a fantastic partnership with the Marietta Police Department who provides School Resource Officers for us. We are working together to ensure that our teachers are provided access to in depth training and that our protocols are fully vetted, and research based. We implemented the CrisisGo application last year which allows alerts to be sent to cell phones, computers, tablets, and interactive display boards and we follow the standard response protocols developed by the “I Love U Guys” Foundation.

Have you seen the leadership landscape change in your career; what do you think is the biggest change?

I believe the pandemic impacted leadership at all levels. The need to be nimble and respond quickly to change and feedback was greater than ever. Leaders had to embrace growth mindsets and become more comfortable with rapid change. The right decision today might not be the right decision tomorrow and what works in one situation may not translate to the next. Successful leaders have learned to humble themselves and listen like never before.

What does today’s leader need to do, know, consider to be successful?

Today’s leader needs to be a voracious learner. What helped you be successful yesterday may not help you going forward. The skills and dispositions that are needed for success in the work place are constantly changing so leaders must stay current and stay humble.

How would you define a successful leader? 

A successful leader develops and communicates a compelling vision for the future that inspires others to act. They serve others by removing barriers, giving away credit for successes, and taking the blame for failures. They see failure as an integral part of success and are never satisfied with the status quo.

What is one big leadership challenge today?

We are all walking through times that are difficult to understand and unprecedented. The ability to attract and retain talented people is one of the biggest challenges facing leaders right now. A leader is only as good as those they have around them. This challenge is present in public education as we experience national shortages of teachers and bus drivers.

Have you had to navigate such a challenge and how did you handle it?

We have been talking about bus driver shortages for the last several years. We have been intentional about building a positive culture in our transportation department and have provided raises and bonuses like many of the other metro school districts. I’m proud to say we are starting the year with no driver vacancies due to the family atmosphere and positive culture that we have intentionally built. Nearby districts that pay more currently have hundreds of vacancies illustrating that attracting and retaining people is not only about the money.

Do you have favorite leadership quote and/or leader you admire and why?

I believe leadership is not about attaining perfection and that criticism comes with the territory. I love the following quote by Theodore Roosevelt that reminds me to “dare greatly”.

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who who neither know victory nor defeat.”


Can you tell us a little about your RockWater Consulting business and how you find the time?

RockWater Consulting was formed to give me a platform to help other leaders with the challenges that they are facing. I do a small amount of coaching for Principals and other leaders in the evenings and on weekends as time allows.

What keeps you awake at night?

Not much. I sleep well at night because I try to lead in alignment with my values and have peace when lay my head down.

What excites you about what you do?

I’m so passionate about my work as an educator. I still can’t believe that I get the opportunity to do this for a living! This role is incredibly rewarding because I get to oversee the construction and renovation of school buildings that will impact our community for the next 50 years. Additionally, there is no better feeling than seeing the face of a small child when they see a new playground for the first time.


Any words of advice for parents as the school year begins?

Remind your children that they are not defined by test scores, but by the strength of their character, their creativity, their work ethic, and their empathy for others. Continue to love them and encourage them to build up their confidence when they become plagued by self-doubt. Many of the things that matter most can never be measured by a standardized test. The goal is to discover their passions and gifts while maintaining their innate curiosity.