The following article is excerpted from Chapter Four of Doug Eadie’s forthcoming book, Building a High-Impact Board-Superintendent Partnership: 13 Critical Questions You Need to Answer (Rowman & Littlefield, 2019).
In my travels around the country, I see growing recognition that taking the helm as superintendent of a school district means joining a powerful profession: Chief Executive Officer. Now the superintendent’s peers and colleagues are other CEOs, not just of school districts but of all other public, nonprofit and even for-profit organizations. By the way, since the traditional title “superintendent” does not sound very CEO-like to leaders outside the K-12 setting (after all, other “superintendents” manage coal mines and oversee utilities), readers will probably see it replaced over the years by more standard titles such as “Chief Executive Officer” and “President & CEO.” This likely development would certainly strengthen the superintendent’s role in external/stakeholder relations, one of every CEO’s top priorities.
Since the superintendent (CEO) position is different in kind from all other executive positions in your school district, newcomers to the C-Suite are highly unlikely to have learned much about what’s involved in being a full-fledged CEO in the process of climbing the district professional ladder. These newly minted CEOs are embarking on a radically new, extremely challenging and often risky (a highly visible lightening rod for dissatisfaction that is dependent on an always fragile relationship with the board) leg of their professional journey. Their long-term success depends heavily on aggressively seeking practical wisdom not only from other superintendents, but also the CEOs of other public and nonprofit sectors. For this reason, an increasing number of superintendents are regularly getting together in sub-state regions, often over lunch, to share notes on CEO-ship in their districts – especially how they’re handling thorny issues reaching the C-Suite, often relating to the board-superintendent partnership. And I’m seeing many superintendents these days become members of chamber of commerce and economic development corporation boards as an easy way to interact with CEO colleagues.
As your district’s chief executive officer, the superintendent is responsible for at one of the highest priority CEO leadership portfolios – governance, which encompasses the governing work of your school board and the precious but always fragile board-CEO working relationship (see Chapter Five). In my experience, the superintendents who succeed in handling this highly complex, high-stakes portfolio have a couple of really important things in common. For one thing, they don’t see themselves as simply the highest ranking professional staff member reporting to their only boss, the school board. They know that this hierarchical we/they approach is doomed to failure. They recognize that governing is a highly collaborative function shared by both board members and the CEO, and they understand that they’re occupying a unique hybrid position: part top-ranking district executive/part district board member. In the for-profit sector, of course, the chief executive is virtually always a board member and often actually chairs the board. In the nonprofit sector, an increasing number of chief executives serve on their organization’s board, typically as non-voting board members, but in the public sector, including school districts, CEOs are never board members.