Stepping into your first job as a superintendent can be daunting, overwhelming, and exhilarating.
Every school leader wishes there was a step-by-step template to navigating your first 100 days in office, or even beyond that. There’s not. But there are several steps every superintendent should take to ensure their administration gets off on the right foot.
Recently, I called on my experience as a school district superintendent in Michigan and Louisiana to outline those steps for a group of incoming and aspiring superintendents.
Here are four essential areas that new superintendents need to master to set the tone for their entire tenure:
No matter how much progress you make elsewhere, academics will be the top benchmark by which you are judged. Make sure you know how your students are performing and create a plan for improving student performance in the future.
All superintendents understand that they have to do more with less. Good budget planning can be daunting, but it’s key to your success. Your first order of business should be to sit down with your finance team, comb through the data, and understand how budget decisions will affect your students.
You will have to develop strong relationships with many people, both inside and out of your school buildings. But new superintendents must focus on their school boards first. The board represents the leading voices in your community and the biggest potential roadblocks to your vision.
A key step in good superintendent entry planning is knowing your district calendar. Then, really dive into your strategic plan, make sure your staff understands that plan, and develop concrete steps for putting it into action.
Want more ideas for how to lead in your first 100 days? During my presentation, I entertained a few questions from school leaders. What follows is a quick Q&A from that conversation.
Q: You talk about the first 100 days. But what about the first day? What’s the first thing I should do as a leader coming into a new school district?
A: On the first day, for me it’s important to just find out operational procedures: board meeting protocol, safety regulations and protocol procedures in place for the school district and central office, for the people who are responsible for responding to that. It’s getting a rhythm for the calendar. It’s the operational, day-to-day kind of things that you’ll be confronted with immediately. When is the first board meeting—is it at 6 or 7? Or what’s the protocol for receiving calls from board members and how is that information followed up? Are there critical issues on the table right now that we must get resolved before school opens? I think these are the types of things you have to prioritize right away, on that first day. It’s finding your way around the building. It’s going to see where everyone’s located. You have to get a lay of the land right where you are, before you can get off to a good start.
Q: How did you handle board members that didn’t vote for you?
A: (Laughs) That’s a challenge and I’ve been in that situation before. What I tried to do and what served me very well is that in setting up my individual meetings with board members in my entry plan, I had a consistent number of questions, the same questions, for every board member. I set aside an hour for each one of them and spent the same amount of time with them. I tried to understand how they like to be communicated with and got their personal preferences included in everything that we talked about. In short, you treat each of them equally—give them equal time, equal opportunity to meet with you and you meet with them. And, just be honest and truthful and open with them. And what I found, even for those who disagreed with me, they usually reciprocate by being honest and open with me. They don’t want to be treated less than, because they didn’t vote for you and I don’t think you should approach it that way. You give everyone else an hour, give them an hour.
Q: How do you handle teacher leadership or unions that have not previously been open to talking to the superintendent?
Well, what I tried to do in the two districts I was superintendent in was to make it a point to meet with the union leadership within the first two or three days that I’m in the district. You can believe that the union leadership has a network that is nationwide and they know about you before you even hit the street. So, it’s incumbent upon you to reach out to them. In my case, I went straight to the union office, offered my cell number to them, and asked the same of them, and just agreed that we would tell the truth to each other even when we disagreed about something. Let’s tell the truth and let’s work from that, even if we were on different ends of the continuum of trying to get some things done. Usually, it’s a personnel matter or a procedural matter with them, but I’ve found being open and honest with them will get you to a resolution quicker.
Q: When getting to know your board, how did you set up those meetings? Were they individual meetings? Were they group meetings? Did you start with the board chair? How did you do that?
A: I started with the board chair and went down the list according to the hierarchy with the officers of the board. And then from there I went alphabetically. Each of them had one hour. Each of the meetings were individual meetings. And again, each were the same length of time. And I tried to do that within the first week I was there. As a matter of fact, I had a head start with a couple of the board members, but I try to do it as compactly as I can to give them my complete focus. We usually met wherever they wanted to meet. If they wanted to come to my office, that’s fine. If they wanted meet at a coffee shop, that’s fine. But we gave them just 100% of our attention and focus during the time we met with them. And I was pleased, and surprised sometimes at just how honest they were. I appreciated that, because I think it helped me to get off to a good start in both districts. There’s some laws that govern whether you can bring more than one board member together. So I’d have new superintendents be really cognizant of the rules that govern your state’s ability to bring board members together.
Q: I like what you said about building relationships. What are some ways I can do that ahead of time, maybe even before I take office?
A: That’s a great point and you can make some entries as soon as you’re involved in the interviewing process. There’s some people who will reach out to you and offer to give you some time. I met the president of the Chamber of Commerce who happened to be coming to my city of employment where I was then currently working. And we had lunch together. It just gave me a new perspective—a different perspective—on what to expect when I got there. He pointed me out to some committees that I should be on—made me understand the function of that within the culture of that community. He gave me a better perspective on the types of possibilities that could happen for our school district. So, I think any opportunity you get during the interview process or when you’re researching their district that you reach out to individuals there—business leaders, church leaders, city leaders—and find out if they have a little time for you. Just local community people: I stopped in the barber shop one time and talked to some individuals who gave me some clear insight on what they thought about the school district. Don’t miss any opportunity to talk to anyone who wants to talk with you—and the sooner you do it, even before you get there, the better off you are.