Board-Savvy Superintendent

A One-Team Mentality


Jane was shocked. She had signed on as superintendent with a failing district in south-central Pennsylvania and quickly noted that board of education meetings were characterized by heated arguments. Members and administrators openly attacked one another and rarely reached resolution.

The environment was acrimonious at best, as an us versus them dynamic, inadvertently fostered by the previous superintendent, was firmly entrenched. Jane realized if she was going to succeed in her county, she, the district administrators and the nine-member school board needed to see themselves as members of one team.

Joe FrontieraJoe Frontiera

Pat Crawford has seen various iterations of Jane's story, always to the detriment of the students these leaders are supposed to serve. Crawford was a highly accomplished superintendent in a past life (2007 Pennsylvania Superintendent of the Year), and now he regularly assists others in his position as executive director of the Pennsylvania Leadership Development Center. Crawford believes "board-superintendent battles are not sustainable, and that it's the superintendent's responsibility to create a team mentality among various constituents."

A Five-Point Plan
What follows are five measures a superintendent can take to cultivate a team mentality.

•  Lead with sincerity. Abraham Lincoln said, "If you would win a man to your cause, first convince him that you are his sincere friend." While it's unrealistic to be friends with every board member, there are plenty of opportunities to be sincere, even in disagreement.

Sincerity is the best tool for building trust, which is essential for any team. Sincerity can be communicated daily by a superintendent -- ensuring actions align with words; transparently outlining the rationale behind decisions; publicly supporting a board initiative that you disagreed with in private; and, being consistent and clear with your vision for the school. Board members' belief in your sincerity will impact their buy-in and your success. 

•  Address the climate. The climate of a group can dictate its productivity, and if a climate of anger exists, then a group will be ineffective. A group may not be consciously aware of the climate it creates, but a superintendent has the opportunity to raise the collective awareness by saying, "I noticed a lot of frustration at our last meeting. Can you help me understand where that's coming from?"

This simple question accomplishes three objectives that are key to healthy group dynamics. First, it demonstrates the superintendent cares, sincerely, about where the group has been. Second, it raises the collective awareness of the current group climate. Third, and most importantly, it can help lay the foundation for forward movement.

•  Establish a baseline. Once a superintendent has made the initial attempt to address the emotional climate, he or she has a distinct opportunity to establish a baseline of operations, or a set of non-negotiable principles that will be honored at all times. These principles help the entire group understand what the members can expect from each other.

For example, a superintendent can suggest that it's important to show a high level of respect for one another and explicitly outline what that means (e.g., the superintendent and his/her administration will never criticize a board member in public, and likewise, a board member should never criticize a superintendent or administrator in a public forum). 

•  Remind yourself it's not personal. Sometimes what a superintendent doesn't do can be as important as what he or she does do. If a superintendent is attacked unfairly in a contentious meeting, the superintendent might be justified to label the board as hardheaded, obstructive and antagonistic.

With those labels in mind, the superintendent might attend the next meeting and look for further evidence to justify these labels. Or, worse, the superintendent may indignantly come down on the board for its obstinacy. The problem with this approach is that it moves the group further from a team mind-set and further separates the two sides.

While it's sometimes difficult to separate personal feelings from issues, the more a superintendent can check his or her ego and focus on unifying the group around issues, the better off the entire group will be.

•  Embrace conflict. Many governing boards think open conflict should be avoided at all costs. Time and again, two board members experience a disagreement, but rather than openly discuss their differences, they clam up and let the issue grow. In severe cases, each quietly recruits others onto "his side," growing a two-person disagreement into a larger battle.

Within a team, it's much more effective to embrace conflict. While counterintuitive, any conflict presents an opportunity to clarify mission, values and process and to develop a better understanding of the different personalities that make up the board. A superintendent has an opportunity to model that behavior and demonstrate how conflict can be productive.

Jane's story has a happy ending. She cultivated a team mentality after two years of consistent effort, and she credits that perceptual shift for a widespread turnaround throughout the district's schools.

It's amazing what a group can accomplish when its members are all pushing in one direction.

Joe Frontiera is a managing partner of Meno Consulting in Morgantown, W.Va. E-mail: Dan Leidl, also a managing partner, contributed to this column.