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Welcome to the Jungle: The First 100 Days of a Superintendency

The new superintendent’s transition can build a platform for later success while avoiding pitfalls — but there’s no guarantee by ART STELLAR

Presidents, governors and mayors are often publicly assessed on what they accomplish in their first 100 days in office. This is a traditional measuring stick for public officials.

Starting off on the right foot also is viewed as a factor in how superintendents are remembered or whether there will be sufficient reasons for being remembered at all.

When I became a superintendent for the first time 25 years ago, the superintendent’s first project was getting to know the community and building relationships and district teams to develop five-year plans. Some communities now rush to judgment. In fact, the joke is some newly arriving superintendents have no honeymoon period, just a one-night stand.

After my first 100 days in one community, I was proud of what had been accomplished and felt good about sharing what were quite impressive results. I believed everyone would be pleased.

Most of the school board, staff and community were satisfied. The hitch was that two former superintendents, still active in the community, took offense at my “bragging at their expense.” I should have anticipated this and framed everything as building upon the foundations constructed prior to my arrival. I revised my approach from then on, but the public relations damage had been done. This experience added, albeit belatedly, to my learning about transitions.

Due Diligence
A few years ago, a friend with strong opinions and a quick temper accepted a superintendency with a board president with all the classical “superintendent wannabe” tendencies. Six weeks later, this district was again searching for a superintendent. This was predictable from the interview.

 

A superintendent’s transition starts as soon as he or she is being considered for a new role. While initial thoughts may be focused on selling oneself, it is important to keep the interview consistent with what is real and what your message is going to be months downstream if you land the position.

Feat_StellarWith seven superintendencies on his vitae, Art Stellar strongly believes an entry plan ought to serve as a reality check. PHOTO © BY THE NEWS HERALD, MORGANTON, N.C.

If the school board and search consultant are good at this process, you will be offered the job only if you are a positive match for the kind of superintendent that is truly wanted. Every candidate should be doing the same due diligence on the board members, organization and community.

Before accepting an offer, you should find out exactly why the job is available. Then you can decide if the risk is acceptable, career threatening or insurmountable.

How should you prepare for the first 100 days?

First Impressions
Joining a school system from the outside enables you to position yourself in a fresh way. Being promoted from within the school district carries unique challenges.

Manage the internal announcements and impressions others have of you in your new role. There will be no grace period, so round up your supporters and the rest of the team and do something. Internal candidates are expected to produce in short order because they already know the organization.

As soon as you are selected for a superintendency, there will be a public announcement that you should help shape. Be prepared to make a statement that will let the public and your new associates see a glimpse of what to anticipate.

Sometimes you have limited control over events and announcements, and you have to adjust. In my most recent district, my predecessor had been popular, which created a public firestorm when his contract was bought out by a board disgruntled with his direction and leadership style. The night of my appointment, while the board of education was in executive session, I tried to be inconspicuous in the rear of an auditorium packed with mostly angry citizens. It didn’t take long to be discovered, and for the next hour, I was peppered with pointed questions and comments as people vented their frustrations upon the superintendent-to-be.

The front-page photograph in the local newspaper the next day had a man pointing his finger at me shouting, “We’re going to run you out of town!” When the board voted 5-2 to approve me as the superintendent, a couple hundred individuals stood and turned their backs. This was not in my entry plan, although it did later bring on an exit plan.

Review the research you did during the selection process and organize it for your initial foray into the school district. What was in the job announcement? What about the last superintendent was appreciated and what were the criticisms? What were the news stories about over the last year? What did you learn from board members or others you met? Anything interesting from prior board meeting minutes?

Most importantly, determine whether a community survey or focus groups identified desired characteristics or goals for the next superintendent. Create a list of the most prominent words, phrases or ideas. Organize this information into usable categories such as finance, curriculum, personnel, community relations, extracurriculars, etc.

One purpose of this compilation is to start assessing how to outline your entry plan, to market yourself and to identify what actions are needed shortly after your arrival. How do you want to be perceived? What is the community expecting? Do you want to start out being seen as strong and decisive or collaborative and incremental? Should you position yourself as a superintendent with an open-door policy or one who spends time out of the office at community activities and schools? You have a choice on where to place your attention.

Major Caveats
Just as you may have glossed over your own blemishes, the board members who hired you may have done likewise. Without totally discounting all you were told, take everything with a grain of salt and check it out. An entry plan becomes a reality check.

You may assume you were selected to replicate your former successes. Prior glories undoubtedly contributed to your selection, but your new situation is different. The same traits that led to your past accomplishments might lead you over a cliff if you haven’t done some advance scouting.

New leaders can assimilate, adapt and evolve, or shock their new system. Assimilation is the safest method as you conform to the organizational norms. Adapt and evolve is a relatively safe middle ground. Start where the organization is and attempt to move the culture slowly.

Shock is the riskiest approach and only recommended for an organization needing a quick turnaround. While the school board may have expressed the need for a hard-charging superintendent, they probably didn’t mean it. Principals have a better chance of using the shock style when a school is declared at-risk. Superintendents can back up a principal using shock therapy, but who is going to back up a superintendent who tries shock techniques?

A Fuzzy Period
After the acceptance of the job offer, what you do or don’t do will send a powerful message to your new school district well before you sit in the superintendent’s chair.

Embracing the extra time before physically being there increases your chances of success. A tendency exists to spend too much time and effort on winding up the old job. That is no longer your long-term responsibility. Going on a vacation or unwinding to clear your head may be appealing, but it fails to give you a head start.

One of your first tasks is arranging with the outgoing superintendent about how key decisions will be made until you arrive. Some superintendents reward favorites with long-term contracts or make other decisions that may tie your hands. Of course, this discussion can be delicate. Assume that what you suggest and how you propose it will be added to the folklore of your transition. Follow the lead of the current superintendent who is still in control.

Overall, seven activities ought to be addressed during the time between selection and start:

  • Identify key stakeholders
  • Craft your initial message
  • Manage your office set up
  • Manage your personal/family set up
  • Conduct pre-start meetings and phone calls
  • Develop an information-gathering and learning plan
  • Plan your first 100 days

Some activities bleed into the actual first few weeks. The more you finish early on, the more time you have later for building relationships.

Opening Signals
While your message will evolve over time, you still need early themes. Think of this as your initial brand identity. Everything you do or say communicates and will be part of your message.

In one school system, upon making the rounds as the new superintendent, I encountered some teachers dressed in jeans and informal attire for an outdoor picnic. I made a joke about the need for a teacher dress code and everyone laughed. By the time I arrived at the next school, two teachers had gone home to change clothes.

By the end of the day, the word had spread like wildfire to the extent that a message from the teachers’ association on my desk demanded to discuss my directive that all teachers, male and female, wear suits. My message had become corrupted, although it did open up conversations about professional dress.

Some superintendents make mistakes over the setup of their offices by spending too much time or money buying furniture and redecorating. Renovating during the first week on the job sends the wrong message.

While you cannot meet with everyone at the same time, you should recognize that your order of contact is taken as a sign of relative importance. Some people will boast of talking with the new superintendent. Be cautious of those who seek you out, as they may have a hidden agenda or wish to get a decision by the prior administration overturned. Once you are on duty, the order of whom you meet is indelible. Opinions are a bit more open and flexible prior to your official start date.

Reaching out ahead of time can reap fantastic information if you only identify the sacred cows and people who are untouchable. To be successful, especially early on, you have to avoid these landmines. Who has to be handled with kid gloves because of bloodlines or because they are the town gossip? You don’t have to vow never to address these areas or people, but you should probably wait until after your first 100 days.

A Typical Plan
Many superintendents think of entry plans as tools for learning about the organization and community. Most plans actually are completed by a task force of local administrators. This strategy can be problematic, as these individuals have their own biases and departmental interests.

A better approach to information gathering, as part of the entry plan, is to hire a consultant. An independent professional or team will not be influenced by local politics, norms or egos. Thus, the superintendent can receive an objective report.

Your board members should know about your entry plan. In this age of transparency, it is a good idea to communicate to your internal audiences and the public at large your plan and openly display a follow-up report.

The plan’s purpose will vary. Some stress organizing data to analyze strengths and weaknesses and to set priorities. Another purpose may be to foster appropriate relationships among various parties. The typical entry plan states a purpose and establishes timelines, goals and objectives, activities and outcomes.

An entry plan for a North Carolina superintendent established this stage would enable executive leadership to “prepare for greatness.” For each subgroup, there was a separate purpose. For the news media, the plan stated: “Clearly articulate my goals early so the public, press and education community know what to expect. … Demonstrate seriousness of purpose to transform … into a world-class school district.”

Keeping the big transition issues in mind can accelerate productivity. High-quality entry plans yield these five or similar outcomes/timelines: (1) discover or create a burning imperative by day 30; (2) identify the key metrics or milestones to drive performance by day 45; (3) invest in early wins to build confidence by day 60; (4) identify who needs to be in what roles with the right support by day 90; and (5) determine how to refocus people and practices on your agenda by day 100.

As the new superintendent, you can formulate a private plan for personnel matters. Moving staff members, even those who are the most detrimental or unproductive, is one area that can most hasten your exit. You will encounter more resistance to personnel moves from school board members than any change in curricular programs. Count on the fact that the most lazy and incapable employee has friends on the board.

Final Perspective
My most recent entry plan coincided with a school board election with some candidates vowing to immediately oust me and bring back the popular superintendent who had been bought out a couple of months earlier. I learned enough from my planning to avoid being bought out myself until 23 months into the job with 22 months left on my contract.

More importantly, as my entry plan progressed, we were able to resolve huge financial problems, increase student achievement, raise expectations and temporarily stabilize the system, if not the politics. The next superintendent will have an easier transition.

Human beings are not naturally adept at making transitions. This is one reason we have created ceremonies and rituals to provide proper ways to behave and adjust. Think of how much planning goes into a wedding or a retirement. As educators, we plan transitions for entering kindergarteners and their parents, students rising to middle school, graduations from high school, etc.

Leadership transitions, as well, serve as meaningful events for a school district and community. A well-planned superintendent transition raises the chances of extended tenure, positive accomplishments and a sense of well-being for everyone, including the new superintendent.

Art Stellar has served as a superintendent for 25 years in seven school districts, most recently Burke County, N.C. E-mail: artstellar@yahoo.com