To What Roles Do School Boards Want Their Superintendents to Give the Greatest Emphasis in Their Work?
According to AASA's mid-decade national survey, the superintendents said their boards placed the highest emphasis on these responsibilities (in order beginning with the greatest): effective communicator, problem solver, fiscal oversight leader, operational manager and community leader. The order largely did not vary by enrollment size of school district.
I found the results of this survey to be very interesting. I thought I would add my own thoughts on how a superintendent could be successful in these five responsibilities.
: I have written several times this year about the communication role of the superintendent. This skill is not just communicating with the Board of Education; it is communicating with all staff members and the public. Communicating with school district constituents must be done on a regular basis. To refresh some of the strategies I previously mentioned, superintendents need to communicate regularly with the board as a whole but also with each individual board member. Regular written and verbal updates need to be communicated. I believe if you question if the information needs to be communicated to the Board then communicate it. Don't get caught just communicating to one or a few board members, communicate to all. A good strategy to use is when one board member asks you a question you should summarize the question and your answer and share with all board members.
Don't stop with just communicating to board members; your staff and community need to be communicated with as well. The best way to communicate to staff is face to face. Get out in your buildings and regularly talk to teachers, academic support staff and non-academic support staff. When big issues need to be communicated, try to do so in writing, so all receive the same message. For the community, remember the story I told about the community member who asked me why I do not communicate with the public on a regular basis instead of just when we are asking to pass a referendum. Because of that conversation I started to write a weekly column published by the local newspaper of important topics I thought the public would want to know about.
: This is a great responsibility of the superintendent. You are the CEO and you are the highest paid employee. The buck stops with you. As a former colleague of mine who was a superintendent at the same time once said "If there weren't problems to solve, they wouldn't pay us so much money. So just shut up and solve the problems."
While the buck stops with you, do not act like you are the only one with the solutions. Most successful leaders rely on the input and expertise of others when solving problems. Last week I wrote about a board member who had some special skills that helped us to solve problems. Just today I was reading an article in the AASA magazine written by superintendent who revealed that she had little to no background education or knowledge about school security, but she relied on the training and advice of others to become more educated and thus has made many changes in her district's facilities to improve the safety of the education community.
The point to make here is that the superintendent needs to take input from others and then make recommendations to solve the problem. School boards want leaders to make decisions and make recommendations. They also want leaders to consult and collaborate with stake holders before making the decision.
Fiscal Oversight Leader
: In some ways I am surprised this is not number 1. (By the way, did you notice no reference to curriculum and instruction as a major responsibility?) When the finances go south in a school district, the first place the board and community generally look to is the superintendent. It is very important that a school leader know and understand school finance. Large school districts usually have Business Managers but, in the end, it is the superintendent who is responsible. I have seen more superintendents lose the trust of the board and community over school finance than any other single issue or responsibility.
: The role of the superintendent as operational manager varies depending on the size and complexity of the organization. Many Illinois superintendents are responsible for all the central office operations. Some even drive a school bus or are a building principal in addition to their operational duties. Obviously, the roles are dependent on the duties of the leader.
As a superintendent of a large school district, when I had an opportunity to hire assistant superintendents for areas such as finance, personnel or building or grounds, I hired individuals who were professionally trained in those areas, not educators who were working their way up the organizational chart. I hired a CPA to be business manager, a person with a master's degree in Human Relations to be the Human Relations Director, and a person with extensive experience in related duties to run Building and Grounds. Whoever the operational manager is, they need to have expertise in the field so the operations of the district are handled well.
: This is another responsibility that looks different in different size organizations. A superintendent in a small school district in a small town might not even have clubs and organizations to join because the city or village is so small. These lightly populated areas will have churches and small cafes, and that is where the superintendent can make an impact.
In larger areas superintendents spend a great deal of time actively participating in the local Chamber of Commerce and other organizations. The key for both small and large school districts is for the superintendent to have a presence in the community besides just being the school superintendent. Nick Polyak and Mike Lubelfeld lead the IASA Aspiring Superintendents Academy, and they do a whole unit on how the superintendent should contact all local leaders in the first 90 days on the job--local politicians, police, fire, business leaders, organization presidents, parents who lead school clubs and organizations, etc.
How Long Does It Take to Be Trusted or to Trust?
I read an interesting article by Patrick Allan titled "It Takes 90 Hours to Make a New Friend." This article summarized a study that suggested you need to spend at least 90 hours with someone before they consider you a friend. It takes 50 hours of time together to go from acquaintance to "casual friend" and over 200 hours to form a BFF-type bond. The definition for spending time together included doing things together as long as you're both choosing to spend time together.
This article interested me because of a leadership tenet I believe in. For a leader to effect change in an organization, the leader has to be trusted. Trust is similar to friendship as defined in the above-referenced article. It takes many hours to be trusted. You cannot just be in the same room with someone and call that trust. You must spend time with the person because you both choose to spend time together.
As a new (or veteran) superintendent you need to gain the trust of your board members. I have advocated that superintendents need to spend independent time with each board member. When I was a superintendent, I attempted to meet with each board member at least once every seven weeks. This resulted in my goal to meet with one board member each week. The particulars of the meeting will depend on your location and the location and responsibilities of the individual board members. In my last district I was able to meet each board member for lunch at least once every seven weeks. This resulted in one lunch per week for me.
These lunch conversations were often about topics other than school business. They would include conversations about family, sports, church, the board member's job and/or responsibilities, etc. We got to know each other on a personal as well as professional level. We developed trust between ourselves.
This same analogy with friend/trust should be used with others you interact with in your school district: your administrative team, the teacher leadership team members, support staff members, and so on. Trust developed over time will result in a stable and productive work environment.
Is Your Honeymoon Period Over?
Most new superintendents starting their tenure in their new school districts have a period when they are treated with respect and deference regarding both formal and informal recommendations they may make. Not all new superintendents end this first school year with the same admiration.
We hope your first year is ending on a positive note and you have not used up all the goodwill you started with. Now is the time to reflect on where you stand with your school board, your administrative team, your staff and your new community. I would recommend that you consider some type of survey to gauge your first year's leadership. If nothing else, ask selected individuals in each of the above referenced categories how you are doing as a leader. I am sure there is feedback you could use for growth.
Tip of the Week
Houston and Eadie wrote about important work between superintendents and school board members. Important work centers on vision, mission and beliefs. "The old-time passive-reactive school board that merely responds to finished staff work cannot provide the leadership that the times demand: in making truly strategic decisions, in selecting key district innovation targets, in monitoring district educational and administrative performance, and in building district ties to the wider community." (Houston and Eadie, 2005)
"A school board that consistently produces what we call high-impact governance produces a close, positive, and productive board-superintendent working partnership. A school board that takes deep satisfaction in and feels strong ownership of its governing work is a more productive and happy board." (Houston and Eadie, 2005)