Dangerous Expectations: Why a Superintendent Search Often Breeds Discontent and Unsatisfying Results

Why a Superintendent Search Often Breeds Discontent and Unsatisfying Results by Susan Jernigan

"... several curious little circumstances transpired as the action proceeded." -- Charles Dickens, Great Expectations

Everyone has high hopes during a superintendent search. School board members want new vision and high energy. Candidates are inspired by a new opportunity to exercise leadership. Sometimes the entire community gets caught up in the contagious excitement of a pending appointment.

So what goes wrong? Why is the average superintendent’s half-life so short? Why do so many relationships between superintendents and boards of education self-destruct—often within the period of the first contract?

Sometimes the search process itself nurtures the seeds of future discontent.

Flawed Methods

The objective of any professional superintendent search is to define a district’s issues, determine the qualifications needed to address them, and design a strategy to identify and attract the best possible candidates. Tough organizational issues demand premium candidates. But far too often, school boards and candidates are constrained by flaws in traditional superintendent search methodologies.

When such process defects limit the quality of the candidate pool, the stage is set for dashed expectations. If school boards aren’t getting the best candidate choices and the best candidates can’t discreetly explore career opportunities, everyone must settle for less.

Modifying the traditional search process can maximize the odds for the best possible match. Luckily, school boards don’t have to reinvent the search wheel. Executive searches have been evolving over 50 years in the corporate and not-for-profit sectors. When I compared notes with others in the search consulting business, several alternatives emerged that seemed capable of producing better choices for both board members and candidates.

The best matches are made when superintendent searches:

  • Don’t rely on ads and applications;
  • Don’t assume that "public" and "confidential" are incompatible adjectives;
  • Don’t allow inappropriate employee and community participation;
  • Don’t tolerate candidate pools that can be severely limited by outdated state certification requirements and the restraints of state retirement programs; and
  • Don’t create unrealistic expectations.


Ineffective Promotion

Too often, school boards have pinned their hopes to a notice of vacancy in the local newspaper, an ad in one or more state education trade publications, and an ad or two in national education periodicals. Since this may produce no more than 50 applications today (many unqualified), some boards now run similar ads in The Wall Street Journal or The New York Times.

This pricey strategy can flood the post office box with applications, too many of which have been broadcast-mailed by overzealous, indiscriminate, and often unemployed (or soon to be unemployed) job seekers. One such applicant has actually applied for more than 20 superintendent searches conducted by our firm. Every resume was identical; each cover letter was customized for a specific position. The districts ranged from 4,500 to 112,000 students; many were in the Sunbelt. The "man for all districts" applications stopped when he was hired by a small, Midwestern district earlier this year. We are keeping our fingers crossed.

The old adage still holds true: most outstanding candidates are too busy to be reading the want ads. School boards that pro-actively recruit a targeted group of "best fit" candidates are far more likely to end up with strong choices. To "woo a few" can take more time and effort than evaluating, and eliminating "wannabees," but it is worth it. We all want to be wanted.

Assure Confidentiality

While statutes in a few states mandate full disclosure, most superintendent searches could offer far more confidentiality to candidates. Almost without exception, quiet dialogue about the district and the board’s expectations enhance the quality of the candidate pool.

Just the rumor that a sitting superintendent is considering another opportunity is certain to land on the front page and the six o’clock news. The best candidates won’t risk the inevitable fall-out without a guarantee of private consideration time. They need to assess the new board’s level of interest and commitment. It’s one thing to roll the professional career dice as one of two or three serious finalists. It’s something very different to be one of 6 or 10 or 50 publicly identified applicants for the position.

The longer confidentiality can be maintained, the better. Sometimes, just the freedom to explore an opportunity without a signed application frees a candidate from potential complications in his or her current district. For instance, an artificial application deadline can eliminate an outstanding potential candidate because a voter initiative or a district activity might be compromised. A minor delay can make a big difference.

The school board must balance attracting the strongest possible candidate slate against potential criticism from the news media and some of the public. There are always reporters, staff members, and citizens who demand to know every detail of the search process. Few in this group would tolerate their own career decisions being aired prematurely. A wise school board understands that, in the end, the public interest is best served by recruiting the best candidates.

Along with our school board clients, we have been blasted by district employees, berated by community groups, and beleaguered by the press when we insisted that confidentiality be maintained until the final stage of the search. Board members have been accused of devious objectives, threatened with defeat at the polls, and intimidated by the threat of lawsuits. The reality is that often the candidate disclosure that has characterized so many superintendent searches is more a matter of tradition than legal necessity.

Inappropriate Outsiders

To be successful, a new superintendent must develop the right relationship with district staff and the at-large community. But, unfortunately, a search is frequently an inappropriate "get to know you" vehicle.

Many school boards view a superintendent search as a wonderful way to involve the entire community—the ultimate photo opportunity. But large and unwieldy advisory groups, "cast of hundreds" citizen interviews, employee review groups, televised interviews, and a myriad of public stages for critics of every stripe do not necessarily lend credibility to candidate selection.

Stakeholder groups tend to develop favorites based on feedback (often exaggerated or erroneous) from candidates’ current or previous districts. The darling of one group is often the devil for another. The decision to support or oppose is all too often based on only one or two candidate sound bites.

The very fact that district employees so frequently interview and evaluate superintendent candidates is unique in itself. A subordinate employee questioning and assessing a potential CEO would be considered inappropriate in most corporations, as well as in most not-for-profit and public sector organizations. In any workplace, meeting the expectations of a board of directors can conflict with popularity among the staff.

We have struggled to facilitate consensus in a 17-member citizen advisory committee hand-picked for their opposing views. We have flinched when illegal interview questions were posed by community members who ignored professional advice. We no longer are surprised when highly critical, prepared statements by a community search participant (representing a special-interest group) is a verbatim repeat of a statement made months earlier and in another state during a previous search. Superintendent candidates bump into some highly networked groups and draw critics out from under many rocks.

More and more potential superintendent candidates are saying "thanks, but no thanks" to the prospect of these public spectacles. No one needs mean-spirited criticism and open hostility from special-interest groups and political factions. When a school board legitimizes the frenzy in its search process, it raises the question of how it will manage thorny district issues in the future?

Outdated Requirements

At a time when more and more corporate and not-for-profit boards of directors are "cross fertilizing" vision and strategies by recruiting executive leadership from outside their own niches, most school boards still are tightly bound by overly rigid certification standards. Does it really matter if a candidate took a three-hour facilities course in graduate school 25 years ago when he completed an award-winning $42 million district building program last year? Is it really a game breaker if a candidate taught for only two years early in her career instead of the requisite three? Would a district really suffer if the superintendent had started his career as a school psychologist rather than a classroom teacher?

We have encountered disqualifications in each instance. In one search, the author of a state’s model education reform legislation could not be certified as a superintendent in that state. With an already shrinking candidate pool, can we afford such regulatory shortsightedness?

State retirement programs also have played a key role in keeping candidates "married to a zip code." The financial price tag for crossing a state line to take on a superintendency can be immense if the candidate doesn’t have enough gray hair. More school boards must face the need to design "make whole" annuity, split-dollar life insurance, and supplemental retirement plans for the candidates they wish to recruit. It simply isn’t enough to wait for vesting in the new state. Most vesting periods are longer than the average tenure for superintendents.

The recent phenomenon of hiring non-traditional candidates is closely related. Many school boards want to consider non-traditionals, but only a few actually have appointed superintendents whose professional experience has been outside of K-12 public education. Is it the beginning of a trend or only a blip on the radar screen of school reform?

Can a captain of industry or a military general lead a school district effectively? Can a superintendent find happiness and success in the corporate sector? Are the CEOs of the major airline carriers all former pilots? Is AT&T’s recently selected CEO from the telecommunications industry? Where was Elizabeth Dole before she ran the American Red Cross, recently cited in the Chronicle of Philanthropy as the country’s most efficient charitable organization.

Today school boards are being challenged to think outside of the squares more than ever before. Can non-traditional candidates bring new solutions to old problems? Can they apply old lessons from other sectors to new problems in public education? Deregulation can help us find the answers to these questions.

Unreal Expectations

Today’s intense focus on public schools has produced a tremendous demand for superintendent candidates who can "leap tall buildings in a single bound." School boards feel intense pressure to recruit superheroes who will improve student achievement, reduce the employee count, implement accountability measures, and guarantee safe haven schools in dangerous neighborhoods. They also need to engage the entire community in their spare time. The mandate is to change the status quo.

In our experience, many school boards have unrealistic expectations about what one individual can achieve in a relatively short period of time. Mandates are easier to talk about than to implement. Systemic change is a bear even in cultures that feature more technology, more training, more transfers, more terminations, more external hires, more incentive bonuses and more measurable accountability than most school districts.

Additionally, some school board members are closely aligned with district employee groups. They can find themselves between a rock and a hard place when the change process starts to heat up. Machiavelli wasn’t kidding when he wrote in The Prince that change agents have "the enmity of all who would profit from the preservation of the old institution and merely lukewarm defenders in those who would gain by the new one."

It’s all about choices. School boards want substantive choices in superintendent searches. Candidates want to make choices discreetly. It’s a victory for public education when a search produces the best possible candidate for a district. The challenge ahead is to structure superintendent searches that can accomplish that mission.

Susan Jernigan is managing partner, Sockwell and Associates, Charlotte, N.C.