We all know that superintendent tenure has been steadily – and dramatically – declining all over the country. So far as I can tell, superintendent turnover is far more frequently the result of a ruptured school board-superintendent partnership than of subpar district educational performance or inadequate superintendent educational leadership or executive management. Whatever the cause, we now see increasing numbers of former superintendents aspiring to take the helm of a new district. This is the first part of a two-part series, “Reaching the Top Spot and Staying There,” which I’ve undertaken in response to this dramatic trend.
Over the past 35 years, I’ve helped several of my superintendent one-on-one coaching clients fashion strategies for securing new posts in larger districts, typically involving significantly higher salaries and larger employee counts and budgets. One of the most important topics related to professional advancement we’ve addressed over the years in our one-on-one coaching sessions is what you can do to hit it off with the search committee interviewing you for the job you’ve applied for. Five very practical steps have proved very effective in getting search committee members in your corner.
#1 Familiarize yourself with your potential new district.
Getting to know your potential new employer will be critical to updating your resume, preparing answers to likely search committee questions, and coming up with questions you will want to ask the search committee. In your sleuthing, you’ll want to pay special attention to strategic educational and management issues your potential new district is grappling with, district governance – particularly the board of education – and your predecessor’s working relationship with the board. The district web site will be an obvious source of information, especially board meeting minutes and district news clips, and Googling will turn up significant developments. Talking with colleagues you trust who are familiar with the district can also generate useful information.
#2 Update your resume.
You’ll want the resume the search committee will be reviewing both to reflect important national trends in the K-12 sector and to be tailored within reason to the situation in your potential new district. For example, increasingly these days, school boards all over the country are keenly aware that they sorely need full-fledged chief executive officers at the helm who are far more than merely super-administrators and who are willing and able to work in close partnership with the board. So you’ll want your resume to open not with the old school list of academic credentials (which are best put at the end), but with a clear CEO-like leadership vision identifying your envisioned leadership impacts and the preeminent values that will guide your leadership. Your vision should also make clear your commitment to working closely with – and providing strong support to – your new school board. And in detailing the professional experience you’ll be bringing to your new position in your resume, you’ll want to make sure you are describing experience directly relevant to critical district issues you’ve uncovered in your sleuthing. Finally, keep in mind that search committee members are highly unlikely to be masochistic enough to read more than two pages, so edit your resume down to the truly key points.
#3 Anticipate and be prepared to answer questions the search committee is likely to ask.
Critical district issues that your sleuthing has turned up are likely to inspire search committee questions. For example, if your predecessor’s departure was the result of a ruptured relationship with the school board, you’re well-advised to be ready to explain how you plan to build and maintain a really solid working relationship with your new board. If board minutes indicate that business involvement is a big issue, you’ll want to be prepared to discuss potential involvement mechanisms. And on a different tack, you’ll want to be prepared to explain problematic aspects of the experience recounted in your resume. For example, if you will be making a dramatic jump from a district with 4,500 students to one with 20,000, you’ll want to be prepared to explain in detail how you can meet this daunting challenge.
#4 Be prepared to ask the search committee questions.
Inserting your own questions into the search committee interview is a tried and true way to demonstrate your interest in – and command of – important facets of the job of district chief executive officer. In this regard, boards all over the country these days are looking for superintendents who are willing and able to build a close partnership with them. So it will make the best of sense for you to demonstrate your “board-savviness” by asking such questions as: “What do you consider the characteristics of a really effective board-superintendent partnership?” “What process do you follow for evaluating superintendent performance?” “What do you consider the preeminent governance issues facing the district?” Questions that you insert into the process can stimulate discussion with the search committee and enable you to showcase your grasp of chief executive-level leadership functions.
#5 Consciously think about the persona you’ll bring to the search committee interview.
Long experience has taught me the facets of your personality that you choose to display – what you might call your “persona” – in your interview with the search committee will play a large part in helping you bond emotionally with the committee. In this regard, I’ll share the case of one of my coaching clients a couple of years ago – the superintendent of a middle-size Midwestern school district with slightly over 21,000 students. She had spent seven stunningly successful years spearheading dramatic change initiatives in a district that sorely needed large-scale innovation when she took the helm. On her watch, the board’s structure and engagement processes had been revamped, several new cabinet members had replaced a number of old-school administrators who’d been long retired on the job, the district’s human resource and financial management systems had been upgraded, and the district’s terribly frayed relationship with the regional chamber of commerce had been repaired. It was definitely time for her to hit the onward and upward career road.
After my client had identified a highly attractive opportunity in the same state – a district of 35,000-some students – we spent two coaching sessions focusing on making her case in writing, in her cover letter and resume. After she was invited to interview with the search committee, consisting of all seven school board members, in our third session we homed in on the persona she would employ in the interview. My client was brilliant, by nature highly intense and hard driving, articulate, and never at a loss for words. Her current – soon to be former – board had loved the assertive, highly prescriptive style she’d employed in her interview over seven years ago. The district had been in crisis and the board was desperate for answers; they knew that extremely forceful leadership would be required to right a listing ship.
As she learned through some skillful sleuthing in preparation for her interview with the search committee, her prospective district’s situation couldn’t have been more different than the one she encountered when she was interviewed by the search committee of her current district almost eight years ago. The retiring superintendent of her prospective district had done a superb job over the course of his nine years at the helm. The highly stable board – four of whose five members had served for between six and eight years – was functioning at a high level, modern administrative systems were in place, and the district’s educational performance had steadily improved over the years. This ship was without question in great shape. So in our third coaching session, we came up with a persona reflecting different facets of her personality that we thought would serve her well in her first meeting with the board sitting as the search committee: “serenity/admiration/patience/curiosity.” To make the desired impression, we identified such tactics as: waiting a few beats before responding to a question; whenever possible, asking questions as often as answering them (for example, “I’d be very interested in knowing how you would define a really effective board-superintendent working relationship?” “It would be really helpful to know what you see as the top-tier issues I should focus on as your new superintendent?”); avoiding snap prescription to the extent possible (“I agree it might make sense to strengthen the board’s role in strategic planning, but I can’t be sure how to accomplish that without really studying the situation after I come on board.”); and expressing admiration for the outgoing superintendent’s accomplishments (“I’m keenly aware that I’ll benefit tremendously from the really solid foundation Dr.____________has worked with you in building.”).
I’m pleased to report that the story has a happy ending. My client made a strong positive impression in her interview, was offered the superintendency, and has been doing a great job at the helm of her new district.