Coaching Rookie Superintendents to Find Success


Who among us has not looked back on our first year as superintendent and wished we had handled some things differently? We uncomfortably remember decisions made in our initial year that certainly affected our entire time in the school district. We fondly remember those decisions that we were lucky enough to make that had a positive effect on our tenure.

Debra HardenDebra Harden

One way to accelerate the new superintendent’s learning and to minimize missteps is to provide an executive coach. The Georgia School Superintendents Association has done that for a decade, and we have learned what works and what doesn’t.

The chief benefit of a coaching relationship is the opportunity for real-time learning, tailored to the needs of beginning superintendents. Each newcomer enters the position with a different set of skills and experiences, and each faces a different set of challenges. Coaching customizes the professional learning.

A second benefit: Beginning superintendents plug into a network of support that includes associations, experts, colleagues and other coaches.

Third, coaches facilitate the shift superintendents must make from site administrator or central-office leader to chief executive, the one individual who sorts out the competing priorities of many to fulfill the education mission of the district. This includes the shift from solving problems to resolving dilemmas, the shift from being tactical to being strategic and the shift from working exclusively with education colleagues to working with a board of education and outsiders.

The program in Georgia has applications for principals and district administrators, too. Based on our 10 years of experience, we share these dos and don’ts about coaching.

What to Do
Pay attention to the coach-coachee match.
While a great deal of coaching occurs over the telephone and through e-mail, face-to-face contact is optimal. Assigning coaches and rookie superintendents within the same region enables professionals to meet in person over lunch or another occasion. Match the beginner with someone who has strengths in areas of the newbie’s recognized weaknesses.

Train the coaches. A formal training program supports the concept of coaching versus mentoring. We define the latter as sharing what to do and how to do it. In the early days of a new superintendent’s tenure, we acknowledge that mentoring occurs. As the school year progresses, coaches learn to place more emphasis on long-term planning, which requires a coaching approach.

The beginning superintendent, not the coach, is responsible for the outcome of each decision. The coach is responsible for ensuring the superintendent thoroughly examines both intended and unintended consequences of decisions. This is accomplished through various coaching skills, especially astute questioning and listening.

Focus on building networks. As the loneliest job in the district, the superintendent needs access to colleagues at the start of a career. Networks address the inevitable isolation and expand the capacity of the superintendent through connections nearby and throughout the state. A coach facilitates awareness of networks.

Create resources for coaches. Coaches are busy superintendents. Creating easy-to-access materials and consistent follow-up skill development allows coaches to grow and expand the capacity building of the beginning superintendents. Coaches need someone to strategize with occasionally, too!

Emphasize coaches as success partners. Coaches focus on strategies for success and the development of their coachees in a positive, proactive and professional manner. Coaching is not remedial, even though a coach approach can be used to work with someone with an area needing improvement.

What to Avoid
Don’t force coaching.
Not everyone wants a coach. Don’t expect it. During the 2010-11 school year, only 75 percent of eligible first-year superintendents in Georgia wanted to work with a coach.

Don’t match previous direct reports. While it appears a positive former working relationship might lend itself to a good match, it frequently does not. The beginning superintendent needs the benefit of developing a history with the coach, not having a history with a coach.

Don’t focus exclusively on skill development for veteran coaches. Provide opportunities before or following state meetings for coaches to get together. These sessions can be effective learning communities and strengthen the coaches’ network.

Debra Harden, a former superintendent, is professional development director for the Georgia School Superintendents Association in Atlanta, Ga. E-mail: Dori Stiles is a consultant with Turning Points in Porterdale, Ga.