Four Actions to Make Your First Year As a Superintendent Count
Let’s just be clear: there is a very short honeymoon period for a new superintendent.
From day one, people have expectations of you as the new superintendent. They want you to be exactly the same or completely different than your predecessor. They have their hopes pinned on you bringing new ideas or have their fingers crossed that you won’t. They are wondering how long you will stay and what you will do during your tenure. They both expect you to know everything about the district right away, and yet know that you don’t and are frustrated by it. They have so many things they want to say to you, and yet voice few of them, as if you can read minds.
What they really want is a unicorn!
The first few months of being a new superintendent are busy ones – you need to listen, to learn, to communicate, and to do.
According to AASA, successful superintendents are good listeners, strong leaders and have a cohesive vision. As with any leadership role, we know that high performing superintendents must strike a balance between not acting too quickly but also demonstrating quick, visible and measurable moves. Leaders must also be cognizant of what made the previous person in their role successful (or not successful) and how to build on those successes (or failures or challenges).
So what’s a new superintendent to do?
Based on our experience working with over 100 school districts, we have developed a list you can focus on as a starting point:
Ask questions. Conduct interviews and focus groups with the board, the cabinet, the principals, teachers, parents, and students. Don’t forget the union reps, the PTA, and the business and community leaders. Include stakeholders from buildings and grounds, from maintenance and from transportation. Remember the parents who are happy and the ones who are writing negative comments on the Facebook wall. Talk to a lot of people – you will learn by listening and they will feel valued that they were heard.
Find patterns. As you ask questions, capture what you are hearing. Start to create buckets and synthesize the feedback. Look for commonalities and differences. And then go back and ask more questions to test if you are hearing it correctly
Develop a plan. Yes, everyone wants to be heard. But no sooner is the feedback out of their mouths than they want to know what you are going to do about it. Don’t rush it and start providing solutions in those early conversations, but know that pretty soon your community is going to want a plan for your next 3, 6, 12 or 18 months. There is a lot of anticipation when a new superintendent comes in and as soon as you are ready to share, you will likely find a community that wants to hear from you.
Ask more questions. As you share your ideas, make sure you are still incorporating community feedback. Consider this a dialogue and your plan a starting point that you will iterate on as you get new data and as the district evolves. Keep showing you are open to listening and discussing.
Be realistic with yourself when executing your initial plan. Can you talk to enough people? Can you collect honest feedback (i.e., are your new direct reports going to level with you)? Can you quickly synthesize the patterns/themes you are hearing and analyze trends based on what you see within the district and your experiences in other districts (if any)? Can you put together the communications vehicles needed to craft your plan for the first 3, 6, and 12 months? Can your team help you at all? If the answer is no to one or more of these questions, consider getting outside support.
This, of course, is only the beginning of your journey. The real work is determining how to keep the district engine running, how to successfully implement new things, and do so with the most effective team structures possible. The 6 vital practices from The New School Rules offer great tips on how to make engagement more sustained and leaders and teams more effective.
So superintendents still aren’t getting to enjoy a long honeymoon phase. But getting off to a good start will pave the way for a tenure that is healthier, happier, longer and more successful.