School & District Management Opinion

Filling a Leadership Position? Wait!

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — April 12, 2016 5 min read
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Is this scenario familiar? A principal in a district retires and the hope of the district leadership team, including some of the board members, is that the new hire could bring change to the building, shake things up and bring the building forward. A vacancy is announced and recruitment sites notified. Then, the pool of applicants fails to bring forward any such candidate. What are the options? One is to hire from the pool you have. The other is to take a road less taken, step back and find the next right answer. Survey the alternatives. Ask questions relevant to this fork in the road. Here are just a few:

  • Do we really want change in the school or are we content with the school and are truthfully just looking forward to a change of leader?
  • Is there a constituency supportive of change in the school?
  • Is this the only building in the district where change is necessary? Or, will this become a prototype for others?
  • Is there a clear vision for the district design for learning?
  • Where are the models for what the district hopes to become? Where did they find their leaders?

Taking Action
Given the century we are in, it is important to remember that most schools remain in a teaching and learning format that is frighteningly similar to the one from a century past. So vacancies now present extraordinary opportunities with consequences that may last decades. What do schools for this century look like? From our research when working on The STEM Shift, we discovered a wonderful reality. The vision for schools that prepare students to graduate and live and work in this century is a local decision. In the midst of much frustration in the field about mandates, regulations and demands from afar, how we create and implement the vision can still be designed locally.

That is the good news. That might also be the bad news. Leaders and their boards may not be experienced in visioning that scans the frontier. Too often vision has meant what is next step on our path. The questions about whether it remains the best path or whether winds of external change have blown them off course are seldom held for long. And, when that is so, the tendency to fill vacancies hoping that a new person will bring new answers often becomes a functional illusion. The new person becomes a step neither forward nor backward but instead a mere next step into sameness.

Using Jim Collins’ concept of the bus, and the seats on it, opportunity arises especially when there is an opening in the driver’s seat. But, the destination, the route and the passengers matter. So, first, with an open leadership position, before asking if someone’s seat needs to be filled, the question has to be “Do we all have a clear vision about where this bus is heading?” If not, then how can decision makers be sure they are recruiting and hiring the right person? Frequently, input is sought about the skills and qualities of the person for which the district is recruiting. But, would those be different if the destination were changing? If the path is clear and great support exists, one person might be best suited, but if the path is laid with land mines and the destination ambiguous perhaps another person might be a better choice. A board and the district leadership team must answer these questions before hiring. Is the plan in place or does it need to be developed when the new leader arrives? It is then, and only then, when the hiring process can proceed and the next right answer be identified.

In the meantime, school goes on. Perhaps, the absence of a hiring decision or the timeline of the vacancy require the services of an interim. A highly experienced interim is not a placeholder but can offer insight, bring wisdom and act decisively if welcomed to do so by the district team.

Taken from Jim Collins concept of level 5 leaders, the great, (or level 5) leaders first “got the right people on the bus, the wrong people off the bus, and the right people in the right seats” (p. 12). That proved true in the extensive research he did. And although designing clear and shared vision requires the right people at the planning table, the fact is, in schools, the people you have sometimes are difficult to move, remove or change. So for schools, before inviting another person to drive the bus, make sure the vision for the district and the school is clear to everyone. Be transparent about what is needed, what is desired and why a particular new leader is chosen.Then, give that person enough support to make the desired difference. Only then can the selections be made to allow for candidate success.

Our belief for 21st century schools lies in the potential that STEM, or STEAM, or STREAM holds, particularly when it is inclusive of all subjects, includes partnerships with business and higher education, and utilizes authentic problem solving and student presentations alongside and to professionals in the field. But whether or not STEM is the vision you hold, one truth remains:

Schools have been fundamentally the same for over a century. Buildings are recognizable, outside and inside. Meanwhile, the world in which schools exist is alive in a life process, as all living things are. Actual change within schools has occurred in painfully small increments. But beware or be excited, STEM holds the potential to change the system itself and, at the moment, it is not being mandated. It awaits the choice of leaders courageous enough to enter the transformative stage of chrysalis, frightening as it is, believing in the powerful and exciting educational system that will emerge (Myers-Berkowicz, p. 58).

So, before filling that open leadership spot, ask questions. If moving forward and offering a new vision for what your graduates will know and be able to do by the time they walk across your graduation stage, the opportunity to select a new team member is significant. The issue of the quality of the pool may radically change if the clarity of the district vision and their plan for forward motion is clear to potential applicants. A district, or a school, in forward motion is an exciting place to work.

Collins, J. (2001). Good to Great. New York: HarperCollins Publishers Inc
Myers, A. & Berkowicz J. (2015). The STEM Shift. Thousand Oaks, CA. Corwin

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Illustration courtesy of Pixabay

The opinions expressed in Leadership 360 are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.