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The new superintendent’s 5-step survival guide

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You never get a second chance to make a first impression.

Whether you’re a rising educator entering into your first superintendency or a veteran administrator making the leap to another school district, this is the time of year when school boards hire new leaders.

These contracts are entered into with the sincerest intentions. Everybody wants the relationship to succeed. Many believe that a new leader will reshape completely the fortunes of the school district. But the honeymoon rarely lasts.

As a former school district superintendent in Louisiana and Michigan, I’ve had the privilege of serving as a new district superintendent on two occasions. In both instances, the decisions I made during the first 100 days of my tenure proved vital to my success.

Laying a foundation
Trust capital is fleeting for school administrators. As a new school superintendent, it exists hardly at all. Disagreements with board members and parents are inevitable. But there are plenty of ways to instill confidence in your decision-making.

These are among your must-dos:

1. Respect the culture. People have personalities. So do school systems. One of the biggest mistakes a new leader can make is to underestimate the depth of the organization’s existing culture. Too many superintendents enter into new districts and promptly clean house. Asserting yourself is important. But it’s easy to go too far. You’re going to need people who understand the institutional knowledge and history of the organization. Identify those leaders early and hold tight to their advice.

2. Conduct some recon. As a former Marine, I’m a big fan of preparedness. A good leader never sends his troops into a situation without advance scouting. The same is true for a good superintendent. Start building relationships now. If it’s summer, you’ve got three months to prepare. Visit with new employees and spend some time in the community talking with parents, business owners and others. Hang out in front of the local supermarket for a day. Go to the bowling alley. Hear what people have to say about the school system. Learn about its finances. Kick the tires on its facilities. It’s important to know what you’re walking into.

3. Reach out and touch people. When you arrive on the job, you’ll likely be pulled in 20 directions. There’s a lot to learn. The tendency is to put your head down and power through. Bad idea. As the leader of the school system, your community expects you to be front and center. Spend the first few days or weeks visiting with faculty and staff at different school buildings. Talk with parents and students. Create an expectation of open and honest communication that you can carry throughout your time at the district.

4. Empower the silent majority. You can expect to hear from a handful of people no matter what. Certain parents and community members are vocal by nature. It’s important to listen to these folks and field their concerns. But don’t let one opinion color your view of the entire school system or its problems. You need a broad and comprehensive perspective. Find a way to connect with those community members who aren’t quite as vocal and listen intently to what they have to say.

5. Align your personal goals and those of your staff. Leadership doesn’t happen in a vacuum. If you come into a school system with one set of goals and your staff comes into the school year with another, progress will be slow at best. Work closely with faculty and staff to communicate your vision. Muster as much support as you can get and make sure people understand how the work they are doing each and every day contributes to the greater goal.

Don’t go it alone
There was a time when superintendents and others could accomplish these goals by themselves, often through a combination of old-fashioned networking and fact-finding. These days, it is virtually impossible to keep all of this information straight on your own. The old system of sticky notes and to-do lists won’t do. Your best hope is to create a strategic process to effectively manage these communications. Fortunately, it is possible to cover more ground faster and in a shorter amount of time. Shoot me an email at gdawkins@K12Insight.com to find out how.