In my experience, brand new superintendents often travel a pretty rocky – and often perilous – road during their first year or two in the top spot in their district, primarily because they haven’t acquired the knowledge and skills required to succeed as a chief executive officer. As David Schuler, Lead Teacher, and Helen Morris, Program Lead, of AASA’s Aspiring Superintendent Academy point out in the podcast I recorded with them earlier this week for boardsavvysuperintendent.com, new superintendents are highly unlikely to have learned much of practical value about the chief executive function, including the K-12 governing “business,” in graduate school. And they almost certainly will not have acquired the practical knowledge and skills that are critical to succeeding as a chief executive officer in the process of climbing the district career ladder on their way to the top spot.
This lack of preparation, as Dave and Helen observe, is perhaps most dangerous in the governance arena since school boards not only hire – they also fire – superintendents. Experience has taught me that school boards are among the most difficult governing bodies to build positive, productive, and enduring partnerships with. Why? For one thing, working as a governing team doesn’t come naturally to school board members, who more often than not feel more committed to the voters who elected them than to their colleagues on the board. For another, board members often bring an adversarial attitude to the board room, seeing their governing job as largely a matter of “watching the critters so they don’t steal the store.” By comparison, other public/nonprofit governing bodies I have worked with over the past quarter-century – of hospitals, community colleges, economic development corporations, social service organizations, etc. – are far easier for chief executives to build solid working relationships with.
As David and Helen explain in their podcast, AASA created the Aspiring Superintendents Academy to ensure that Academy participants are well-prepared to hit the ground running as new district chief executives, including being board-savvy enough to take the initiative in building an effective relationship with their new board. At this point, more than half-way through its second year of operation, the Academy, while a work in progress, has already achieved impressive results: helping a number of participants secure their first superintendency and building a growing professional community whose members freely share knowledge and experience with each other.
No doubt the Academy’s success thus far is the result of a meticulous selection process that has assembled an outstanding group of professionals passionately interested in – and quite capable of mastering – the various chief executive leadership functions and of a curriculum that creatively blends theory and nuts and bolts best practices. I’ve found working with Dave and Helen in presenting two “Hit the Ground Running With Your New Board” workshops for the Academy an energizing and professionally growthful experience. Dialoguing with Academy participants hasn’t been just a matter of sharing what I’ve learned about the board-superintendent partnership over the years; their pertinent and often challenging questions have enriched my understanding of my own field.