Occupation: Director of Career and Technical Education, CEWW BOCES
Hometown: Mechanicville, NY
Family: Two adult children; spouse Scott, two dogs Doc and Marty (‘Back to the Future’ reference intentional)
Education: B.S. in Education (N-6 Elementary Education 7-9 Science 7-12 Earth Science), M.S. in Education: Curriculum and Instruction; both earned at SUNY Plattsburgh
Community Involvement: Board of Directors U-First Federal Credit Union
You wouldn’t know it driving by, but there is a little bit of magic happening on the corner of Military Turnpike and Route 3 in Plattsburgh at the CV-TEC campus. Michele Friedman, our featured Insight candidate this month, is at the heart of it. It is impossible to meet her without noticing the passion she has for her work, and her energy and positivity are contagious.
Friedman grew up in Mechanicville, New York as the oldest of three daughters in a close-knit Italian family. She enrolled at SUNY Plattsburgh with the intent of becoming a teacher, but soon realized she liked working with older students. She met her husband in college and the couple decided to stay in the area to raise a family. At the time there were few teaching positions available so Friedman spent a few years struggling to find her place, working in a restaurant and taking substitute teaching positions while waiting for the right job to open up.
She eventually landed a substitute position at CV-TEC which made an impression on her. “I saw 16-year-old kids working on equipment that I couldn’t even pronounce,” she recalled. “I had busted my butt working my way through college, and then realized I could be making close to $30 an hour if I had chosen to go to technical school.”
Friedman’s substitute position eventually turned into a fulltime teaching spot at CV-TEC. After 15 years on the job, she left to become an administrator at Westport Central School where she stayed for eight years. She fondly described her time in Westport, furthering her education and assuming leadership roles there. Her decision to transition away from the Westport district was a difficult one. She spoke about her conflicted emotions when she needed to choose between her once-coveted superintendent’s role at Westport, or a homecoming to CV-TEC when the top job opened. With the hard choice behind her, Friedman returned to CV-TEC in 2013. She and her leadership team have ushered career and technical education through a paradigm shift in the years since. Her service area includes 16 school districts across Clinton, Essex, Franklin, Warren, and Washington counties. She describes her work as an extension of educational opportunities in the North Country. Programs at CV-TEC include traditional daytime programs, adult literacy programs, and business and industry specific training.
“My job is to have a 30,000-foot view, knowing our business and industry partners well enough to understand what they need and find ways to connect them with the incredible talent we have here in the North Country,” Friedman explained. “There is so much talent in this area and we have an obligation to cultivate it.”
Friedman sat down with Strictly Business recently to share some of her infectious energy and insights with our readers.
SB: What challenges did the pandemic bring to your work?
MF: It was the hardest work I have ever done in my 30-year career. Before the pandemic, any time I was struggling with a new problem I could call a mentor and ask how they handled the issue. Then all of a sudden, the pandemic hit and the playing field was leveled. No one had any more experience than anyone else. Whether you were a brand-new administrator or had decades of experience, we were all sitting around trying to problem solve and make the best decisions we could.
SB: How would you describe your job to someone who is not familiar with BOCES?
MF: I love my job! I oversee programs and services in relation to career and technical education. My job is an exercise in problem solving. Trying to find the best way to utilize the talent that surrounds me—talent not only in my leadership team, but also the talent of the faculty and students on my campuses, and the talent within our business and industry partners.
SB: Who was your most influential mentor?
MF: My mom is amazing. She was a single mom of three girls back in the 80’s when nobody was doing that. She was a business owner and had her cosmetology license. She managed to raise three independent, grateful, strong women at a time when nobody’s parents were divorced. She is the epitome of always choosing courage over comfort. As a mom myself, I realize now how hard and scary that must have been, but she always figured it out.
SB: What important lessons did you learn early in your career?
MF: There are things I did not get right. Sometimes you are blinded by your youth, and sometimes the loudest person in the room is not the most insightful person. I’ve learned along the way that not all people receive feedback the way I like to receive feedback. That has led me to listen a little more and talk a little less.
SB: What advice would you offer to someone starting his or her business career?
MF: You need to listen to your inner voice, and know that it is not the critic that counts. You have to know what is in your heart that is driving you, and you have to love it. Sometimes folks find that early and some find it later on. When the spark ignites, it is not work anymore. Trust your instincts and follow your passion. It is not about the job, the money or the car. Of course, you have to pay your bills. My advice is to find something that sets your soul on fire, and then go and make it your life’s work.
SB: What does success look like to you?
MF: Success to me looks like peace, when all pistons are firing, there are no misfires and things look easy. Nobody’s success happens without others, and there will always be wrinkles. Even when things underneath the surface are hard, there is harmony.
SB: Tell us about your approach to management and leadership.
MF: Who you are is how you lead. The experiences you have had–good, bad, and neutral–all shape you. You can’t separate the job from the person, so as a leader I embrace that connection. I try to be an empathic leader, aware of my own imperfections and offer understanding to those I work with.
SB: What are you most proud of professionally?
MF: A real stand-out moment for me was the first time I was able to stand on the graduation stage at the Fieldhouse. Watching over three hundred of our graduates walk in wearing their caps and gowns was amazing to me. They were finally having their moment, equal and respected and acknowledged, and knowing I had a hand in that made me so proud. It is amazing to me what happens when kids walk in these doors. It is like they have a clean slate.
SB: What do you believe the North Country community should do today to ensure a prosperous future?
MF: We need to train and sustain our talent. We need to identify where the needs are and match them with the talents we have. Our own local students often have these grand visions of careers that exist somewhere outside of the North Country. My job is to connect our business and industry partners with the training programs that we have, and help them find talent now, so that kids can go off to school but still want to come back here after college. It is unbelievable how much talent we have here. If we can just open our students’ eyes to the type of industries that are right here and the range of employment options there are here, it would make a big difference.