“You’re kidding, right? Speaking for myself, things are going great in my district, the board and I are getting along, and I don’t intend to move on anytime soon. Why would I want to get my board members involved in thinking about my successor?” This is, in so many words, what one of the superintendents participating in a leadership workshop I was conducting not long ago said when I strongly recommended that she and her colleagues work with their school boards to put a really detailed superintendent succession plan in place in their districts. In my experience, her reaction wasn’t uncommon. Many, perhaps most, CEOs, including superintendents, see succession planning as a negative process that boards get involved in when their relationship with their CEO is frayed or even totally broken. But in my experience, developing a superintendent succession plan isn’t just a very positive process, it’s also part of the imprint – the legacy – that that a really board-savvy superintendent will want to leave in his or her district.
Superintendent succession planning, which a recent report of the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City defines as “a structured process to ensure leadership continuity,” should deal with at least the following elements:
- The identification of the superintendent’s duties and responsibilities that will need to be carried out if the position is vacant.
- Specification of how the superintendent’s duties and responsibilities will be handled before the position is permanently filled: by an interim superintendent or by a number of executive team members.
- The timetable for filling the superintendent position.
- An updated superintendent job description based on an assessment of the current and future leadership needs of the district.
- And a detailed description of the process that will be employed for identifying, recruiting, interviewing and selecting the new superintendent.
Since selecting a new superintendent is one of the preeminent responsibilities of a school board and arguably the highest-stakes decision that any board can make, it is critical that the superintendent succession plan be developed by the board’s governance (or executive) committee and that it is formally reviewed and adopted by the whole board. And, of course, the guy or gal currently sitting in the superintendent’s seat should be a full participant in the succession planning process. Indeed, I recommend that every superintendent should take the lead in convincing his or her board to develop a succession plan now – when all is going well and the board-superintendent working relationship is essentially healthy. Not only will having a well-designed plan in place in your district avoid the stress and strain that putting a plan together when you’re already on your way out will inevitably cause, it will also communicate to your board that you care deeply for the district’s welfare beyond your tenure and that you are self-confident and secure enough to play a leading role in planning for your eventual successor.