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Navigating and Building Your Leadership Team: A Guide for New Superintendents

By: Leila Nuland on June 18th, 2024

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Navigating and Building Your Leadership Team: A Guide for New Superintendents

Innovative Leadership  |  Organizational Leadership & Change Management  |  District Leadership  |  Superintendents

“Congratulations!” This is a common note sent via email and shared on LinkedIn as so many of my friends and colleagues transition into the first year of their superintendency on July 1st. As I reflect on my 10+ years having the privilege of working alongside district leaders and observing what works and where some have experienced pitfalls, I want to share some thoughts on the importance of building your leadership bench.

As you step into this pivotal position, it's essential to recognize that your success depends not only on your capabilities but also on the strength of your leadership team. Building and coaching your team is a cornerstone of effective school administration. Here are some best practices and recommendations to help you navigate this aspect of your new role.

1. Clarify Vision and Expectations

I have heard so many of my superintendent friends refer to the first months as “drinking from a fire hose” which can make it extremely difficult to focus and articulate your vision and expectations in a succinct and impactful way. Research shows successful superintendents are great listeners, strong leaders and have a clear, cohesive vision. As you step into your new role, set aside dedicated time to articulate and reflect on your vision and expectations. 

Where I have seen folks succeed is when they journal or find a coach who can help them take their ideas and turn them into messages that will resonate with others. Chunk your vision into 30-60-90 day plans to make your first few months approachable and ensure that your vision is aligned with the district’s goals and values to foster a cohesive approach. Once you’ve refined your ideas, clearly communicate your vision for the district and your expectations for your leadership team. 

A quick note: If you’re new to a district, be sure to acknowledge past achievements and thoughtfully set the stage for future ones. The staff and community have been working towards previously established goals, and in rolling out a new vision, you don’t want to discount or invalidate prior progress. Engage in a listening tour to ensure that you are taking into consideration various perspectives and sensitivities before you roll out your vision.

I recently read an article on the neuroscience of trust, in which the authors found that leaders who are transparent about their goals and challenges tend to foster a culture of trust more effectively. Trusting environments lead to strong teams, and strong teams lead to sustainable progress. In my years of working with hundreds of district leaders, I have found leaders who build trust and credibility fast are leaders who embrace vulnerability and authenticity and model it for their teams.

I am a big fan of Brene Brown’s work and think her suggestion of building a short list of your naysayers is critical. While it’s critical to find one or two people within the organization who you can trust immediately, you don’t want to surround yourself with those who embrace every idea or expectation. You want a few individuals who make you challenge your assumptions and expectations - that’s when you know you have clarity!

2. Recruit Strategically

Surround yourself with individuals who bring diverse skills, experiences, and perspectives. In getting to know your new district, you’ll likely want to identify high-potential members who can lead critical projects or initiatives. Look for team members who are not only competent but also share your passion for education and commitment to student success. A piece of recruiting strategically is “knowing thyself.” The best leadership teams I have worked with are those with complementary strengths (not the same strengths). Make sure you have a deep understanding of your development areas/blind spots and then find leaders who can compensate for those—it will also help you more readily overcome the imposter syndrome that so many superintendents experience in their early days. You can do this by determining which capabilities are critical to delivering on your vision - and which ones complement your leadership style, for example:

  • Strategic Visionary: This person can see the big picture - often thinking long-term.
  • Operational Executive: This person is strong at managing the day-to-day functions. They implement processes and execute effectively.
  • Innovative Thinker: This person is creative - often open to taking risks, bringing new ideas, and challenging existing thinking.
  • Logical Analyst: This person needs data to inform decisions and is a rational thinker. They may try to mitigate risks more than take them.   
  • Relationship Builder: This person fosters a positive, collaborative environment. 

This isn’t an exhaustive list - it’s meant to get your thinking started. As you get to know the team, start jotting down your team’s perceived strengths to inform how you engage them. Not every individual will have each or even some of these strengths; rather, your team should encompass a combination of them.

3. Invest in Professional Development

The constantly evolving nature of education makes investing in professional development a necessary component of your leadership strategy. We know from years of research that professional development can increase job satisfaction, morale, positive district/school culture, and lead to higher retention rates - all of which are critical for the leadership continuity and productive learning environments our students need today.

Before investing in any new programs - it’s important to understand the current structures and internal perceptions of professional development. Once you have a grasp on what has worked and what your teams need, align professional development goals to your district’s goals. One area I recommend focusing on regardless of your district’s goals is helping your teams build their leadership skills and stay abreast of emerging trends and education research. 


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A professional development plan needs to be continuously nurtured. Regularly check in with your team members to offer support, guidance, and constructive feedback. The goal is to create a culture of continuous improvement where everyone feels valued and encouraged to explore, experiment, and grow professionally.

If you can build in the time, find an organization that can help you develop cohesion and ensure your team has the space to align on the principles that will guide decision-making across all departments. 

While it’s vital that individuals focus on their own development, you can enhance collective efficacy by encouraging teams to communicate, collaborate, and share ideas, resources, and best practices. By building in time for professional learning for your leadership team (and leaders at all levels in the organization), you are ensuring your leaders are ready to enact on your strategic objectives when you are ready to roll those out. Too often in my time with district leaders have I seen initiatives, priorities, and goals fail because the leaders across and within (think vertical and horizontal) are not fully prepared to implement and execute.



Remember, building and coaching your leadership team is an ongoing process. Be patient, stay adaptable, and celebrate successes along the way. Together, you can create a thriving learning environment where every student has the opportunity to succeed. Welcome to the journey of the superintendency!


PS I'm facilitating a panel next week with superintendents across the country to further discuss how to navigate the first year of your superintendency. Join us by registering here.



About Leila Nuland

Leila is Senior Vice-President & General Manager, Professional Educational Services at Education Elements and is passionate about bridging the gap between rigorous research, policy, and practice. She has experience managing large groups of researchers, professional service providers, and instructional design specialists who deliver and execute a range of methodologies, advisory services, and provide online professional development for instructional leaders and staff. Over the course of her career, she has leveraged her experience as a high school teacher to build out high-impact products and services that support K-12 educators and leaders. She is passionate about inclusive leadership and has a track record for developing strategy for and managing teams in a high-growth environment. In her free time, she enjoys cooking, running, meditation, and reading fiction.

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