My Advice for New Superintendents

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About three months ago a few aspiring superintendents asked me what pieces of advice I would give a first year superintendent. I am sure it was an assignment for grad school – I am not that cool to be randomly approached. I rattled off a few things – that I deeply believe in – but I did not give it a ton of thought at the time. As I approach the end of my fourth year as a superintendent I forced myself to take some time to reflect and naturally meandered to a place where I was constructing a mental list of “Things I wish I would have known.” I quickly realized I was developing a much more comprehensive answer to the question I was asked months prior. So, I decided to commit these thoughts to paper (well, at least digital paper). This exercise was interesting because I was also writing to myself. These are not just pieces of advice for new superintendents; these are reminders for everyone (including myself) that has the privilege to serve in this role.

  • You never see the people that struggle
    • When you attend your regional meetings, cooperative meetings, and other local professional development you never see the people that are struggling. I mean this sincerely. In four years I have been witness to many colleagues being ushered out of their district. Those colleagues are not the ones you see. This is a chicken/egg argument – but when you feel lost in your work so much that you cannot connect and contribute to your colleagues you need to reset.
  • Superintendents with bad Boards
    • Every superintendent that tells me they have a bad Board and leave to find greener pastures tells me that Board is bad too. No, this is not universal truth. There are some truly difficult Boards to serve, but most of the people that blame their difficulties on their Boards have the same difficulties in their next position. As Jim Rohn said – Do not wish for fewer problems – wish for more skills.
  • You will receive the behaviors you model and tolerate
    • Leaders are always leading – whether or not you doing so consciously. One of the hardest lessons to learn is that you are constantly building culture. Every decision. Every interaction – positive or negative. Every time you ignore an issue that needs to be addressed you are unconsciously giving your people permission to do the same thing. Every time you lose your temper, every time you do not return a call, and every time you act selfishly, you are articulating through your behaviors that those things are acceptable in your organization.
  • You build capital to spend it (Great leaders are willing to get fired)
    • I believe sincerely that a leader needs to consciously build political capital or make deposits in the emotional bank account. Great leaders do this naturally through acts of kindness, humility, and building trust. Other times, it will have to be intentional as great superintendents are playing chess when everyone else is playing checkers. NONE OF THIS MATTERS IF YOU DO NOT SPEND IT!! There are times when difficult decisions must be made to best serve your kids and community. Make the decision. The political capital you built deserves to be spent on something of consequence. Have the courage to make the difficult decisions.

  • Negotiations are a referendum of your leadership
    • You will negotiate a contract with a bargaining unit. You will work hard prior to the negotiation to form a productive relationship with the bargaining unit. The hard will seemingly fly out the door as the negotiation may well turn into a referendum on your leadership. This will be hard. Find kernels of truth to fuel your growth, but do not let it dominate you.
  • The visibility conundrum
    • You will never be visible enough. This is true in terms of perception and reality. It would be amazing to attend every game, concert, and science fair. It is also impossible. No matter how many things you attend it will not be enough for some community members. Work hard to be visible for the kids and the staff you are supporting. Do not chase an arbitrary and constantly moving benchmark set by someone who most likely does not understand the complexity of your job.
  • Approval ratings
    • If everyone loves you then you are probably not pushing hard enough. Anything with 100 percent buy-in is probably not worth doing. You were hired to lead a district, you cannot do so alone. But, in order to effectively lead does not mean you need 100 percent approval all of the time. Lead with intention and integrity – not to win support.
  • Authenticity and kindness
    • You were hired for you. Do not try to be anyone else. That is, unless you are naturally not a kind person. Kindness wins. Kindness travels. Treating people like humans is always a good idea. Outside of kindness, lead from your strengths. You have them – probably in abundance. Mitigate your weaknesses, but never lead from them.

  • Salary
    • Most people probably think you make too much money. I have found that the majority of people think that anyone that makes more than them makes too much. Also, your salary is not ALWAYS indicative of your value. Wrap your brain around that and try not to get competitive. Your BOE is considering a myriad of things when offering a compensation package not simply how great they think you have or can serve the district.
  • Job Description
    • The job is SO big that there is no possible way to have a standard job description. So, go into the position with vision because you get to create the job on the fly in many ways. Obviously, part of this is listening to what your Board and community demands of you, but ultimately there is a great deal of ‘choose your own adventure’ in the role of the superintendent. Said differently, the ‘stuff’ that needs to get done always does – there will be other time in your day to demonstrate and act upon what you truly value and where your strengths lie.
  • Tell the story
    • If not you, then who? Someone has to be the mouthpiece for your district and for public education in your community. Educators are humble by nature (well, at least most of them) and telling our story and branding ourselves may seem counterintuitive. The thoughts of what would Negative Nellie say on Facebook if we post something good serves to dissuade us from this key function of our job. Do not be afraid of the trolls and the haters .They are out there trolling and hating anyway. Communicate for the other 90 percent of your constituency and explain to them the incredible things your district (AND YOU) are doing on behalf of kids.

 

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