After serving 18 years as superintendent of schools in small rural districts as well as in very large urban school districts, I have obviously experienced the superintendent search process several times. But now, being retired and having worked part-time as a career advisor at a local university, I’ve had the luxury of time and age (and wisdom?) to reflect on what might be missing in the typical superintendent search process.
It might sound trite, but in these challenging times, leadership matters more than ever. The job of superintendent is ever more complex and demanding, which makes the selection of this person the board’s single most critical decision.
The reality is that school districts pay significant dollars for search firms that typically generate a list of candidates, some of whom succeed and some who don’t. While there are competing firms, their search processes tend to be very similar and, in fact, often come up with many of the same candidates. My purpose is not to be critical of the firms (after all, I was usually hired) but rather to highlight some key factors that I believe will increase the chances of a successful search and, ultimately, a successful superintendent.
- While it might seem obvious, it is important for a board to understand that the superintendent is the one and only employee that they hire directly, evaluate, and even sometimes fire. Every search firm will utilize surveys, forums, community meetings, etc., to gain public input, which, of course, is important. But, with that said, the person selected is the board’s employee, and thus, it is the board that is accountable for the actual selection. Listen to the public input, but don’t abdicate your responsibility.
- To find the right superintendent, the board must first identify the future issues and challenges of the district. Again, public and staff feedback is important, but the ultimate task must fall to the board. Failure to do so will find the board searching for a leader without being grounded in purpose. This leaves the district vulnerable to being swayed by factors in the selection process that have little to do with what is truly needed.
- Assuming the board has identified these specific needs, its task is then to find the candidate that best aligns with the board’s objectives. While valuable information can be gleaned from resumes and interviews, I recommend that a simple question be asked of people who know the candidates. The question is, “What does this person stand for, and what really matters most to them?” What leaders truly care about should be evident from their past decisions, values, and priorities. Those who know these leaders and have worked with them should be able to articulate easily what has been most paramount to them. (Tip-seek feedback from individuals, not just groups. Ask parents, community members, and staff at all different levels to see if there is consistency.) Possible priorities such as academic rigor, curriculum development, student support and equity, sports, financial stability, technology implementation, staff morale, training and development, community support, effective teaching, student safety, or a hundred other priorities may start to emerge. There is no right or wrong, only whether they are aligned with what the board believes the district needs now and in the immediate years ahead. Too often, this question is not asked, which leaves a huge gap in the selection process.
Boards are cautioned that few experienced leaders are loved by all. True leadership entails making decisions, sometimes hard decisions which are never universally loved. Don’t let a few disgruntled staff or community members overly influence the decision-making process. Keep in mind also that, as a board, you are seeking a dance partner, not a marriage partner. While certainly long-term tenure for superintendents exists, that tends to be the exception, not the norm. A typical employment period is 3-6 years. There are many factors that contribute to this reality. Usually, it is because the superintendent that is hired has specific experiences and skills which match the needs of the district at the time of employment. As these needs change, different leadership is often required.
Thinking about leadership for changing needs raises the question of how best to deal with internal candidates. As a rule of thumb, with some exceptions, internal candidates represent more status quo while external candidates are often desired to bring new energy, priorities, and/or direction. Once again, it is up to the board to grapple with the fundamental question of what the district will most benefit from. If a board feels good about the direction of the district and they have a strong internal candidate, I recommend skipping the search. To do a superintendent search when you have an internal person who clearly aligns with the board’s priorities and goals costs the district money and places other candidates in a difficult position as they often must inform their present employer when they are being considered in another district. It also can be somewhat demoralizing to a strong internal candidate. Opening a search just to say you did one does no favors for anyone.
Regardless of internal or external, I would personally look first for a candidate with strong communication skills. “Communication” being two-way; effective speaking and writing skills; as well as being open to input, including having their district email available on the website. It’s true that you receive some “interesting” emails, but you also gain (and provide) information that is unfiltered by others.
In addition, pursue a leader who understands financial realities. Effective money management translates into better services for students. Most communities love their public schools, but there can suddenly be resistance if citizens feel their tax dollars are taken for granted.
Finally, select a superintendent who focuses on quality teaching, demands thoughtful school leadership, and believes that all students deserve to learn in supportive, caring, and joyful environments. Look for evidence that your top candidate is a true advocate for students, as they deserve a leader who prioritizes them above all else.
These are difficult times for public education. The charged political rhetoric can be overwhelming at times. Despite this reality, the mission of public education must remain focused on providing support for all students and their learning. It is this continuing mission that requires thoughtful, caring leadership, perhaps more now than ever before, and securing such a leader is the board’s most important task.
Steven Enoch (email@example.com) is a retired superintendent of schools and career advisor.
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