Opinion
School & District Management Commentary

Experience vs. Potential: Hiring Superintendents in a Tight Market

By William D. Silky — June 23, 2008 6 min read

It is hard to argue with the age-old maxim that “experience is the best teacher.” We learn the best lessons from our daily life encounters. This is why, as a superintendent-search consultant for nearly 20 years, I have found that most school boards weigh experience in the position so heavily when hiring a new chief executive officer. Having been a superintendent provides a potential hire with much of the knowledge one can only have by occupying this role—knowing how to work directly with a board of education being but one, albeit highly important, example.

Today’s applicant pool for the superintendency is very different from what it was even a few years ago. Research has documented that applicant pools are smaller and contain more candidates with less experience (see, for example, the 2007 report “The State of the American School Superintendency: A Mid-Decade Study,” by Thomas E. Glass and Louis A. Franceschini). My own experience confirms these findings. In 1995, I received 92 applications for a small city school district in the Saratoga region of New York state. Today, the typical applicant size in the state is between 20 and 30 applicants, with some being considerably smaller. I find myself constantly telling school boards that they must look for the person that they feel can do the job, regardless of experience, and that they must offer the support that will allow that new superintendent “to grow into the role.”

These conditions raise the question: What are some indicators that will help school board members predict which candidate has the greatest “potential” to be successful as a superintendent in their district?

The single best predictor of how someone will perform in a given situation is how they have performed in a similar situation in the past. In learning theory, there is a concept known as the “identical elements of transfer.” Its gist is that what people learn in one context can easily be transferred to another, if the new situation has identical (or very similar) characteristics. No two situations are ever exactly alike, however. So predicting how someone will perform in a new one is always a precarious task. We always have to recognize that we are factoring in how a person performed in a “somewhat” similar situation if we are to make sound predictions.

It is also important to note that success as a superintendent is heavily dependent on the match of the individual to the specific district. Many very successful chief executives have struggled earlier in their careers simply because of a mismatch with a particular school district.

With these cautions in mind, I offer the following indicators for spotting superintendent potential:

The applicant’s career is characterized by progressively increased responsibility. In other words, the candidate has moved “through the chairs,” accepting and having success in positions of increasing responsibility. The applicant, for example, may have started as a classroom teacher, then become a department chair or grade-level leader, and perhaps entered administration as an assistant principal before becoming a principal. This career path indicates that the individual is willing to project forward and accept administrative challenges, can learn a new role by transferring previous experience into current work, and has likely been viewed as successful enough to warrant a district’s promoting him or her. (This is especially true if the person has crafted such a career path in a single district.)

The applicant has been a school principal. The nature of the principalship is such that one occupying it is the leader of the organizational unit (the school). A principal is the final decisionmaker at that level. Being at the top of the organizational chart in a school places a principal in a position to work effectively with people and make decisions on personnel (hiring, evaluating, firing, disciplining), budgets, relations with the public, and so forth. While the organizational unit of a principal is smaller, the type of responsibility is similar to that of a superintendent.

The applicant has some central-office administrative experience. While being a principal places one at the top of his or her organization, district administration is different from school building administration. The major differences, depending on the central-office role and relationship with the superintendent, include exposure to aspects of district operation such as contract negotiations, the politics of dealing with building-level administrators, and closer work with the board of education and individual board members. How an individual has handled each of these experiences in the past can be a key indicator of potential success as a superintendent.

The individual has sound interpersonal skills. One trademark of nearly every successful superintendent is the ability to work well with others and to enlist their help and cooperation in solving common problems. This skill is especially critical when dealing with members of a board of education (and when board membership can change fairly frequently). There is a saying in the business that “the board that hires you will not be the same board that fires you.” This implies that superintendents are often let go by a board made up of members who were not involved in the decision to hire them. It further implies that the superintendent was not successful in getting new school board members to embrace his or her style and approach to leading.

One’s ability to gain the support of new board members is largely dependent on interpersonal skills. To assess this, it is essential to check references and find out how the candidate worked with a variety of individuals—teachers, clerical-staff members, custodial employees, cafeteria workers, parents, supervisors, and others.

The person is a risk-taker. Superintendents have individual, personal contracts with their local school boards. In New York and some other states, the position is not granted the benefits of tenure. This is typically not the case in other administrative jobs. The person aspiring to the superintendency needs to understand this and be willing to accept the risks involved. Questions asked of candidates as well as their references should give some indication of their tolerance for risk. In other words, inquire about the biggest personal and professional risks the individual has taken and assess the degree of risk. Has he or she been on the cutting edge of some important initiatives that involved risk-taking?

The individual is understanding of and comfortable with the public nature of the role. The superintendency is not simply a job, but a way of life. It is a 24-7, 365-day commitment. One is always “the superintendent.” Being aware of this public nature of the role and being comfortable with the close scrutiny is essential for success. A history of successfully handling similar situations is an important indicator. Did the candidate, as a principal, for example, reside in his or her school district? If not, why not? Wanting to get away from the job to keep home life separate from work is a bad omen for the candidate’s future comfort level in the public arena.

A board’s profile of the desired superintendent will probably include many attributes, not all of which can or will be found in any one applicant. Moreover, the current marketplace often demands that the board look to individuals who do not yet have experience in the job. For that reason, the indicators I have proposed are only those that might serve as a proxy for previous superintendent experience.

A more important realization for boards as they begin a search process may be this: The probability of a first-time superintendent’s success can be greatly increased by a board’s provision of adequate and timely support, especially at the beginning of the new hire’s tenure.

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