Where have all the superintendents gone?
When we started doing superintendent search work years ago, we could anticipate anywhere from 50 – 100 applicants for any given search we were conducting. Those days are gone.
Over the last three to five years, applicant pools have diminished dramatically, producing fewer and fewer candidates – and disturbingly often with candidates unprepared for or unsuitable for the job.
What has happened?
Some people, like a former Chicago school board member, offers this opinion: “Number one, we don’t pay them enough; number two, they get treated like garbage; and number three, they get run out of town.”
All three of those causes have happened in every state we have worked in. One result is greater superintendent turnover. In one western state we work with, turnover is so high that 2/3 of districts have a Superintendent in the first two years of employ.
Clearly there are districts where CEOs and boards part company over financial mismanagement, poor relations with staff, poor community relations, or ineffective leadership skills to deal with the complexity of the job.
But nevertheless, the community, the district, the board – and most of all the students – lose with this lack of leadership continuity. The job simply requires sustained leadership in order to actualize increased student performance.
Several key factors contribute to the turnover and small pool of individuals willing to tackle this critical job. First of all, the value system of many Americans is changing. Any employee values quality of life, which often relates to the balance of time between personal and professional. Working 24/7/365 no longer is worth the pay, let alone the constant scrutiny, second guessing and criticism.
Some other key factors in this unceasing churn at the top include:
- Inadequate preparation to work with, serve and honor a governing board – whether the board is highly functioning – or not.
- Lack of understanding about the fundamentally different roles of governing and administering – paying homage to a strategic plan rather than to defined outcomes for students of the community and the elected board.
- The challenge of aging and inadequate infrastructures that hamper a forward focus on modern curriculum delivery and preparation.
- Too much of America has become an uncivil place to work in public service. Communities and their divisive splinter groups invade classrooms and boardrooms rather than forging common ground.
- Far too many boards are populated with individuals playing out single-minded agendas. For them, the concept of board members working together with trust in their CEO can be foreign concept. The lack of common focus on Results, the political agendas, the ego needs, and the resultant hostilities make life miserable for both the board and the CEO.
- Executive leadership demands have changed. Superintendents today are required to have good public speaking skills, an open communication style, empathic listening, strategic vision and vision to demonstrably improve student achievement, and the critical understanding of how to lead and follow simultaneously.
Our country should be attractive to superintendent candidates. But that does not mean the superintendent’s job should be one of “Christian” service. We must think carefully, cautiously and strategically about how to attract, retain and reward the best possible education leaders.
Our next issue will address how to attract the best possible candidates and position the board, CEO and district for success.
The task begins–where else–with the board … in the board room.