How to Hire – and Keep – Your Next Superintendent
By: Linda J. Dawson and Dr. Randy Quinn
Used with permission of The American School Board Journal, where this article was initially published in 2012.
The enormously high rate of superintendent turnover in this country is legendary. When a superintendent’s departure is involuntary, both the board and the superintendent usually engage in the blame game. And there usually are no winners at the end of the game.
It well might be that the game was lost before the superintendent’s actual departure—maybe even as early as when the superintendent was hired. The board’s most egregious failures could have been: first, its decision to hire the wrong person; and second, its failure to establish clear roles and responsibilities to assure that the new superintendent had a realistic opportunity to succeed.
At least three of our current clients recently have found themselves among the hundreds–maybe thousands– of school boards that now face the immediate task of choosing their next superintendent. All of them are concerned with the process, appropriate involvement of stakeholders, the scope of advertising, screening and interviewing, the challenge to attract quality candidates in an era when fewer and fewer strong administrators even want such jobs, and ultimately … making the “right” choice.
The burden is on the board. No question. No debate. And we believe the chances of a board’s failing to make the right choice are at least as great its chances of succeeding.
Focus. Focus. Focus.
So just what can a board facing this exceedingly important decision do to increase the likelihood that its choice will be the correct one, and that once made, the relationship will be set up for success?
There are some very concrete steps boards can and should take to position themselves to attract and hire the right person for the job, and then create an environment that assures mutual understanding of the job to be done and who is responsible for doing it. If boards follow the plan, they dramatically improve their chances for success.
Focus One: The board must get its own act together before it places the first ad. In order to attract quality applicants, the board must make itself attractive. Many boards don’t seem to understand that choices are made about them, just as they make choices about candidates. What quality administrator would want to work for a board that has no idea what its role is or how to execute it with integrity; that engages in internal fights every time the board meets; that permits itself to be pulled off-track by political agendas; or that supplants solid, strategic administrative decisions with member whim or grandstanding?
When we first began assisting boards with superintendent searches, we could reliably count on 100 or more applicants for almost every vacancy. Those numbers have dwindled to a consistent 20 to 25 today—or even fewer. There may be many reasons for the diminished numbers, but one of them, in our opinion, is the rampant under performance of boards and their failure even to recognize there is a problem.
Speaking then directly to board members: dare to be leaders!
Determine if your board is performing at its best. Engage in self-reflection under the hot lights of honesty. Secure the outside support necessary to train and commit your board to lead and to govern, not engage in pseudo management and ego-driven agendas or petty manipulation. Define and execute your unique and powerful trusteeship role on matters that make a contributing difference to your school system. Define and agree to the values, the policies and the procedures to establish your role, your superintendent’s role, your standards for all operations aligned to focus on student success, and define your expectations for student achievement.
Finally, challenge yourselves to exercise the self-discipline to stay true to your role definition. Be as rigorous in your own self-determination and evaluation of performance as you are with evaluations of the superintendent, employees and students!
Focus Two: Define the vision for the organization and hire the leader who can make it happen. All boards want a “visionary” leader – someone who sees and can articulate a bright and exciting future. But think about this: the district’s owners—the citizens—elected a small number of people from among their ranks to serve and represent them and to own and create a vision for the district that represents the shared values of the community.
It is not the superintendent’s job to bring a vision for the district; it is the board’s job to create it, and then hire a leader who has the best skill set for how to systemically, systematically, and strategically align all operations to achieve that vision. Therein lies the board’s power! Establishing high standards for operations and defining challenging levels for student achievement on behalf of the community are the fundamental elements of the board’s job. Hiring the person with the best skill set to make both happen, giving them latitude to do so but holding them rigorously accountable for the results of their decisions, extends the board’s reach through logical delegation.
Focus Three: Identify specific skills and experience. Each board must dig deeply to determine the specific qualities and experience the district needs at this particular time in its historical journey. Find a way to get beyond global descriptors that are hard to assess and get as specific as possible.
Should non-educators be considered? Does the board prefer breadth or depth of experience? Is past experience as a superintendent required, or will an up-and-comer be considered? Is a doctorate required? Does the board want an avowed change agent who will try new and different strategies to achieve the board’s vision, or does it want a leader who can stay the established course and move the district forward on its current path of success? Is there a bias toward internal or external candidates? Will you require urban or rural or suburban experience? Talk it all through so that everyone gets their opinions, fears and hopes on the table. Know what you want and seek out the best match you can find. Caution: remain open to surprising and exciting applicants who may not fit all of your criteria but who may bring new and unanticipated qualities that you hadn’t thought of.
Focus Four: Internal and external working relationships. One of the negative consequences of executive leadership turnover is the toll it takes on trust and on-going cooperative relationships. Figure out how to get everyone’s oars pulling in the same direction as you conduct the search and as the new superintendent comes on board.
Both the board and the new superintendent must be able to overcome peoples’ natural fears and skepticism. First, determine the meaningful strategic relationships necessary for the success of the district and nurture them. Identify the groups whose support is important. These usually include the staff, unions, important and vocal community groups, businesses, political leaders, self-appointed watchdogs, and others specific to the community. Find meaningful and well-defined ways to involve them in identifying key superintendent criteria. Seek the advice of your consultant in determining to what level you want community involvement in the search – ranging from social interaction to screening applicants to interview participation. Be wary and cautious to leave the board in firm control of all decision making.
Secondly, determine whether the potential superintendent has demonstrated the ability to engage, persuade, and negotiate with other people, leaders and organizations to focus everyone on common achievement of board-defined results for student achievement. And finally, once the new superintendent takes office, the board should take a lead position in introducing its new leader and engaging the community in conversations that set the superintendent, board and district up for public support and engagement.
Focus Five: Wisdom, savvy and good judgment. New leaders will be flooded by overtures from well-wishers, various influential individuals and groups, historical revisionists anxious to recast things to their own advantage, and everyone else who wants to see just what this new Chief Problem Solver is made of. All deserve a measure of attention and respect, but the new superintendent must have the savvy to judge just what hidden motives are behind all this attention and be able to sort through constantly competing agendas and demands.
The ability to make sound and accurate evaluations about people, circumstances and conditions is one of the most critical skills any leader must demonstrate. Not everyone is who he or she claims to be. Not all circumstances are what they appear to be. Not every problem can be anticipated or planned for. The board must ask the critical probing questions to determine the candidate’s skills in sorting through the noise and clutter, and the ability to effectively and wisely evaluate people, circumstances and conditions and to make strategic decisions focused on the welfare of the district and its students.
Focus Six: Third eye. Effective leaders seem always to have the ability to see beyond the immediate walls and boundaries of their job, to peer across the horizon and see what lies beyond the present. Many boards expect their superintendent to serve as their “thought leader,” a person who can challenge the board to view the future before it becomes the present and prepare to shape it to the organization’s best advantage.
Boards challenged to select their next superintendent need to be satisfied that he or she can identify trends, the trendsetters, and the looming factors that either threaten the organization or offer opportunities for improvement. The board’s challenge is to determine whether the candidate is able to embrace opportunities and avoid threats that can redirect the future of the district—either positively or negatively–and create an agile organization that is resilient in the face of ubiquitous uncertainty and unpredictability.
Focus Seven: Positioning the new superintendent for success. Once this critically important relationship has been negotiated, its long-term success depends upon a number of factors, none more important that establishing clear lines of responsibility and accountability. Many boards seem to want to delegate as little as possible, but still hold the superintendent accountable for as much as possible. That never works.
Remember the Cardinal rule? He who makes a decision is accountable for the result. If the board wants to make all the decisions and delegate as little as possible, it must be prepared to hold itself accountable for the decisions it makes – including the operational decisions.
The superintendent deserves to know precisely how far authority extends, and precisely what accountability is being demanded. Clear lines of authority and accountability help to assure a successful working relationship focused on the future of the district. If either is missing, what usually begins with a parade and a party quickly degenerates into bickering and rampant frustration on the part of both the board and the superintendent.
In our combined experience, boards are loath to admit to a mistaken choice once an employment decision has been made. Even if it becomes abundantly clear after a short period of time that the choice was not a good one, boards are understandably unwilling to start the process over at the expense of additional time and money, but also fearing that doing so risks the loss of public confidence.
Boards will customarily support their choice – no matter what – for at least a year or two, despite the impact that choice may have on the organization and its outcomes. The board pays a large price, whether it chooses to sever the
relationship quickly and cleanly, or whether it tries to make unworkable conditions tolerable. Unfortunately, neither choice is a good one.
Maxims for the Board
- Determine the organization’s specific needs and hire to those needs. Determine priority skill sets and experience requirements and hire a person who brings that set. No one candidate can be everything to everyone, so the board should choose based on the district’s priority needs.
- Make sure–absolutely sure–that the candidate knows and understands how the board governs and what his or her relationship with the board will be. It is not within the purview of the superintendent to change how the board governs. If the board cannot clearly articulate how its governs and what the superintendent’s role is in relation to the board’s, the board may not be governing at all. It may be trying to manage the manager. This is precisely why we began the list of focus areas with a challenge to the board to start this process with a rigorous examination of its own culture and practice, and be absolutely sure the board understands what its job is before defining someone else’s.
- Support your board choice by extending reasonable authority—balanced with appropriate accountability. Allow the new superintendent to assemble his or her own leadership team in order to balance personal skills and experience gaps. Maintain supportive relationships as individual members – but give direction only as a board. And there must be universal recognition that he who makes a decision is accountable for the result.
- Avoid being pulled into making operational decisions for the superintendent. The superintendent is hired to do a job and must be accountable for it in order for role clarity to be maintained. A skilled leader will seek the board’s counsel and wisdom, but will be strong enough to make independent decisions without deferring them to the board for cover.
Bottom Line Success for Boards
Boards face increasing scrutiny of every decision they make. No decision is more important to the success of the organization than the selection of a superintendent. A good decision demonstrates to the board’s owners—the citizens—that the people those owners chose to lead and serve their interests are capable and responsive to their expectations. A bad decision casts doubt on the ability of the board to lead, and opens the opportunity for every board decision to be scrutinized by the public even more fiercely.
This is a decision that cannot be fumbled. Whether the decision is a good one or a bad one, the board will live with it—and its consequences—for years. Stakeholders increasingly are intolerant of failures at the top, expensive buy-outs, in-fighting and flavor-of-the-month reforms. This is a task that deserves to be done right the first time. If it is, long-term continuity and organizational sustainability should be the board’s legacy for the next cycle of leaders who will serve the community’s interests.
Linda J. Dawson and Dr. Randy Quinn are founding partners of AGI: Aspen Group International LLC Governance Leadership Development. They work across that United States and Internationally with boards and their senior leadership. They are the authors of two books on board governance, Good Governance is a Choice, and The Art of Governing Coherently, published by Rowman and Littlefield Publishers. They can be contacted by email at . Read more about their work at www.aspengroup.org.