School & District Management Opinion

New Supe? You Should Be Leading in Dramatically Different Ways

Step 1: Build a strong team of people who don’t think alike
By Nancy Gutiérrez — October 11, 2022 5 min read
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Thirteen percent of school systems across the country—and up to a quarter of urban districts—welcomed new or interim superintendents this school year. Whatever the circumstances surrounding the previous superintendent’s departure, the next leader faces the daunting task of leading a community that, at the very least, is experiencing loss and change.

This raises a big question: What leadership dispositions, skills, and knowledge do superintendents need to lead their community today, at this critical moment?

The Leadership Academy has supported hundreds of district leaders through the COVID pandemic and the nation’s racial reckoning and culture wars, and we have identified a few essential skills and leadership qualities that have helped leaders guide their communities in dramatically different ways:

  • Knowing how to build and maintain a strong team of people who don’t think alike;
  • Positioning communities at the center of district operations and decisionmaking in intentional and transparent ways;
  • Understanding how to cultivate a culture that elevates historically marginalized voices to support systemwide transformation.

Build a strong team of system-level leaders who don’t think alike. The top job in a school system is not one to go alone. I can’t think of a time in my career as a school and system administrator when it has been more critical for district leaders to take shared ownership of decisionmaking, distribute leadership, and explicitly break the organizational silos that keep people from collaborating in meaningful ways. That does not mean creating a team of mini-me’s. Every adult has their own ideas, identities, and life experiences. If you value and nurture these unique and diverse assets and perspectives, your team will be stronger and better able to move through complexity and toward your shared vision.

Engage your team in exploring approaches that challenge the status quo and identify solutions to new and persistent challenges and inequities, while allowing for failure, disagreement and debate, vulnerability, reflective practice, and short cycles of learning. In Kentwood, Mich., Superintendent Kevin Polston gathered his team for a retreat in July to cohere leadership cabinet goals around district priorities: strong genuine relationships, excellence, equity, and data-driven research. The retreat was about workshopping ideas, asking for help, and offering critical feedback to improve the collective. For Superintendent Polston, building a strong team requires creating processes to work through the messiness of cross-functional, interdepartmental partnerships.

Position communities at the center of district operations and decisionmaking. If it wasn’t clear before 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic made it known how essential strong community-school partnerships are for supporting student learning. Schools that had those strong connections before 2020 were better able to meet students’ needs. Consider how you can put systems in place for learning from families about their children’s learning preferences, interests, and values, information teachers can use to connect with students and enhance their instruction. Make home visits and phone calls to families to check in, discuss curriculum, and highlight their child’s achievements and challenges. Let families know the role their school plays as the center of the community.

You will be most successful if you ... communicate and move in ways that help lift the voices of those not traditionally heard.

This year, the New York City Department of Education prioritized the development of 45 community-centered superintendents by launching a citywide effort to “listen and learn.” Inspired by Chancellor David Banks’ vision for building partnerships with families and communities that cultivate trust and participatory decisionmaking, these learning tours were designed for leaders to engage with a cross-section of stakeholders about issues most important to them, building the partnerships that research suggests help improve school and community outcomes.

Superintendents asked:

  • What is and is not working well here?
  • What changes do you think would make the biggest difference?
  • What do you need to hear or experience to heal from what’s been difficult?
  • What hopes do you have for our district and community?
  • What does a meaningful partnership look like to you?

Cultivate a culture that elevates historically marginalized voices to support systemwide transformation. Whether you lead a school or district, you will be most successful if you are strategic and communicate and move in ways that help lift the voices of those not traditionally heard, intentionally creating systems and processes that bridge a wide range of differences across people and the system.

But you can’t decouple strategy from building a strong culture. Harvard Kennedy School Professor Mark Moore’s “strategic triangle” framework hinges on what Moore calls “the authorizing environment,” the formal and informal authority required to deliver public value. The authorizers of the work you hope to achieve often do not hold formal roles. To determine the most strategic entry points and leadership moves, understand your context around three key levers:

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Two diverse educators with laptops sitting on an oversize cellphone with communication symbols and text bubbles on the phone and in the air around them.
Gina Tomko/Education Week and DigitalVision Vectors

  • Understand the public value you and your organization seek to make.
  • Identify the sources of legitimacy and support necessary for your organization to take action and sustain the effort.
  • Understand the operational capabilities that your organization will need to rely on or develop to deliver the desired results.

When Dr. Tauheedah Baker-Jones became chief equity and social justice officer of the Atlanta public schools, staff were having little to no explicit conversations about racial disparities and race.

“People knew what the root causes of the issues were, but no one named them,” she said. Since her office engaged the district in an equity audit, “people are talking about equity across the organization,” she said. She added that the audit design team, comprised of a cross-section of stakeholders, helped people have a dialogue about deficit mindsets and the inequities Black and brown students experience that she had not seen before.

By strategically partnering with formal and informal authorizers, by listening and building consensus among staff and the community, Baker-Jones has been able to move equity-focused work forward in support of Superintendent Lisa Herring’s vision.

As leaders, let’s set goals for our schools around what should be as opposed to what has been. And let’s give ourselves and our colleagues the love and support we need to transform practice in service of systemwide change. Let’s each learn to lead in dramatically different ways than we are used to. Because if we don’t lead with intention, we will simply recreate what has always been.


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