Guest Column

A Superintendent's Sales Perspective

by Robert J. Gerardi

Ihave had (and still enjoy) a wonderful career in education, including 38 years in the superintendency. But in the early ‘90s, my career path took a temporary, diversionary turn: I worked as a salesman.

During the three years I served as a regional sales executive for The ServiceMaster Co., I gained a unique perspective on the superintendent’s office that few of my colleagues can claim.

I left school leadership temporarily because, in dealing daily with such stressful issues as desegregation and court orders, I found myself turning negative when I’d always considered myself a positive person. I had begun to see the glass as always half empty and never half full. Educational reform was moving too fast with too many new unworkable ideas, bandwagon fads, process replacing skill achievement, and national goals that never could be achieved.

At age 60, I could easily have chosen retirement and lived off my pensions quite comfortably. But I wasn't ready for the pasture. So I landed a position with ServiceMaster, selling management services for custodial, maintenance, and grounds to school superintendents and college administrators. In this role, I stayed connected to education but away from the pressures.

The Gatekeeper

During this period I called on superintendents every day in my six-state New England territory. Though working in sales for a widely respected management services firm, I found it fascinating how little respect I suddenly received. Of course I was well-received by those superintendents who had known me as a superintendent, but this was a small minority.

In most school systems where I was not known, the biggest hurdle was getting past the superintendent's secretary. These people are so protective. While some are aloof and many were gracious, others can become downright nasty. I concluded the single most critical part of selling to superintendents was to establish rapport with their secretaries.

Sometimes, the secretary’s behavior while shielding the superintendent goes well beyond rudeness. Once, a secretary asked me not to call her boss because he didn’t want to talk to me. I continued to call each morning at 9:15 to try to talk to the superintendent about my employer’s services. Finally, she threatened to press charges against me for stalking! Ultimately, the superintendent got on the phone and reiterated the stalking charges routine. When I realized it was his order not to speak to me, I discontinued my calls. I never have met this "empty-suit" superintendent.

Once inside their offices, some superintendents were extremely cordial when they heard in my introductory remarks that I was a former superintendent. They wanted to know where I had served and had I experience with the issues they were wrestling with at the moment? Indeed, these superintendents were looking at me as an experienced resource, as someone who had walked in their shoes and might have a few answers.

Often I would ask these superintendents about the changes they were making in the disciplines, about organizational changes, about anything new on the horizon, and how they were dealing with educational reform.

Other superintendents were polite but aloof. They dutifully listened to my presentation but were not particularly interested in what I had to say, so we did not develop a long-term relationship. A small number were pompous, arrogant, and difficult to get an audience with. While generally treated with courtesy, I certainly did not command the same respect I had experienced as a superintendent.

Many superintendents I called on considered themselves too busy to talk with me and referred me to the business manager. Some business managers, in turn, would shuffle me over to the director of buildings and grounds. I figured if I couldn't speak with the superintendent or the business manager, I wasn't interested in pursuing a business opportunity with the district. I was surprised by this lack of interest because when I was a superintendent, I never turned a salesperson away. I welcomed the opportunity to meet for at least a brief period, and over time I became friendly with many of them.

Renewed Respect

Following my three-year stint in sales, I returned to the superintendency and made it a point to invite all salespeople in to visit with me. Perhaps most importantly, I made sure my secretary understood that I welcomed their visits. I listened attentively to their presentations and gave them the respect they deserved.

Even if I had no interest in their product or service at the time, I established a rapport for the future. Sometimes, I found it paid off in the long run with better service and cooperation from the company they represent.

Robert Gerardi served as superintendent in eight school districts in five states, most recently in Kingfield, Maine.