Seven Questions of Networking

The answers can be found in one of the better models for superintendents, the Western States Benchmarking Consortium by David Livingston

When it comes to educational leadership networks, there certainly are more than seven important questions. What do leaders mean when they talk about networks and whether leadership networks have the power to transform our profession?

When it comes to educational leadership networks, there certainly are more than seven important questions. What do leaders mean when they talk about networks and whether leadership networks have the power to transform our profession?

Acknowledging that "network" will mean different things in different contexts, let's start with one of the easier networking questions.

Q. How many networks should a superintendent belong to?
Writing in the September 2006 issue of The School Administrator, Stanford University Professor Stephen Davis, a former superintendent, remarked on the turbulence and lack of predictability of the day-to-day rhythms of administrative life — a Truth that deserves the capital letter. So given the complex demands on superintendent time and attention, the surprising answer to this first question is: at least one more.

The algebraic equation looks something like this:

the ideal number of networks for a superintendent = x + 1

(where x is the current number of networks in a superintendent's personal digital assistant)

The simple fact is that when it comes to the superintendency, a single network won't do. Claudia Mansfield Sutton, AASA associate executive director for leadership development and communications, has it right when she writes, "Public school systems must operate efficiently within networks of systems."

This nesting of networks with different purposes offers school district leaders opportunities for comradeship, influence, leverage and professional learning that vary by the scope and scale of the network. AASA commands a powerful national voice. State-level administrative associations alternately guide and react to the realities of legislatures and state departments of education. The superintendent networks within counties or metropolitan areas provide a colleague group of proximity that can personalize the job in ways that the larger networks find hard to do. In addition, it is legitimate to think of our local districts as 14,000 important networks of individuals and schools.

With that said, why x + 1? Because not all networks of educational leaders are created equal, nor should they be. I argue for the importance of superintendents considering membership in one more network, a very intentional and personal one. But before exploring this unique network, we need to be clear what leadership networks are and can be.

Q. What is a network really?
We know what we mean when we use the word network, don't we? It is something close to a connected group of individuals (or organizations) plus the pathways of communication, shared knowledge and interdependence that link them together. Not a definition with much precision, but we are likely to know one when we see one. And there are a number of appropriate stand-ins for network — each with its own nuanced contribution to the wide universe of meanings — words such as alliance, association, confederation, consociation, consortium or fellowship.

Fortunately the literature offers some key supporting details. From Malcolm Gladwell, author of The Tipping Point, comes the remarkable insight that the "logic of the network" means that wealth comes not from hoarding but quite the opposite — power and value come from abundance. The Tipping Point Network, using its "key initiator network strategy," expresses the value of networks in socially responsible investing this way: "[T]hey introduce innovation effectively because they operate on a strategy of generosity." Generosity within our networks is a concept that deserves our close attention.

And a very useful choice of words and their associated ideas comes from Etienne Wenger when he writes about such concepts in his 1998 book, Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning and Identity. For Wenger, what is important is the learning we do when we are active participants in our social communities. In fact, he would go so far as to say it is in this participation that we construct our identity. (If Wenger is correct, then our mothers were justified when they cautioned us about our choices of friends!)

So in the best of circumstances, networks may be thought of as clearly purposeful, complexly interrelated, highly intentional clusters of individuals or organizations. Networks are not in competition with each other, but exhibit the finest form of generous cooperation — which fosters growth and learning, contributes to our identity and, in the end, furthers productive actions and results.

Q. Is there a model for an x + 1 network?
We don't have to speculate about the answer to this question. Eleven years ago three superintendents began a conversation about the benefits of having a small group of superintendent colleagues meet regularly to compare notes and benchmark best practices. Within a year, that germ of an idea had grown into the Western States Benchmarking Consortium, a network of seven medium to large school districts west of the Mississippi River.

Since then, superintendents and other district leaders have met three times a year and from this experience can provide guidance for what an x + 1, personalized network could look like.

• No. 1: Start with a big idea. In fact, Jim Collins' "big hairy audacious goal" wouldn't be too far off the mark. In order for a network to be meaningful enough to sustain itself, the reasons to work together must be powerfully compelling.

Don Phillips, superintendent of the Poway, Calif., Unified School District, has observed, "What has set the (WSBC) consortium apart is the unwavering commitment to increase student achievement across the board."

• No. 2: Keep the group small. Doug Otto, superintendent in Plano, Texas, has it right when he advises that the group be small enough to gather in one room around one table. For WSBC, the ideal number has been seven superintendents and districts.

• No. 3: Picture this as a consortium of districts, not just superintendents. The implications of this are profound. Over the decade of its existence, only one WSBC superintendent from the founding seven remains. As superintendents have retired in the other districts, their successors have been welcomed into the consortium and have, in turn, embraced the organization as one of the most important touchstones of their leadership experience.

• No. 4: Look for network colleagues from districts with comparable characteristics, but not exactly the same challenges. We have found it beneficial to have similarities in district profiles, but differences in local and state circumstances, as well as a variety of strengths and accomplishments. When John Erickson, superintendent in Vancouver, Wash., talks about this issue, he is quick to point out that the consortium is grounded in the respect that superintendents have for each other's challenges — a special kind of empathy that comes from knowing each other and each other's situation well.

• No. 5: When possible, reach outside the local geography. Even to the point of crossing state boundaries. Don Saul, superintendent in Lake Washington, Wash., has observed, "We're very open with each other because we're not all working in the same backyard."

• No. 6: Early in the organizing stage, identify productive, collective work. In fact, our advice would be to pick work that would be difficult, if not impossible, for an individual school district to do alone. And, of course, the work needs to be congruent with the mission of the network.

• No. 7: Use task groups to uncover the background issues and promising directions for the work of the network. In the words of Otto, the superintendents "try to define the horizon or the goal and then work backwards" as they support and monitor the work of school districts' staffs between formal sessions

• No. 8: Show each other work-in-progress as well as exemplary practice. It didn't take long for the WSBC districts to get beyond "show and tell" sessions and learn to dig into the back stories of how a particularly effective practice evolved. Jack Erb, superintendent of the Peoria, Ariz., Unified School District, notes that WSBC gives superintendents an opportunity to "talk straight with each other," a warts-and-all relationship that you can't find just anywhere.

• No. 9: Decide what you, as a networked group, think about important issues and then take a stand. WSBC superintendents have used position papers (for example, on leadership or the reauthorization of IDEA) and Education Week commentary essays as prompts for furthering national conversations about education. These position statements, along with the other work of the consortium, have rippled out to have an impact on legislation in the member-districts' states.

• No. 10: Keep the group's attention focused on student learning. A leadership network simply couldn't choose a more critical yardstick for judging purpose and impact.

Q. What can be the return on investment for membership in a personalized network?
For each of the seven WSBC superintendents, the answer will vary. But all of them would echo the sentiments of Tom Trigg, superintendent of the Blue Valley, Kan., schools, that membership in the consortium provides superintendents with some of the best professional development available. In addition, Trigg notes, "As a new superintendent, the opportunity to collaborate with veteran superintendents, seek their counsel and advice and know that they are available to assist me is invaluable."

Erickson echoes those comments. "There really aren't that many people who do the work we do or who understand the lives we live as superintendents. We have very public roles, subject to lots of scrutiny and criticism, but we also try to carve out time for our families and ourselves," he says. "This consortium provides moments of reflection and solace for each of us."

The participants also benefit by holding each other accountable. Membership can turn to friendship (and has within the WSBC group), and no one wants to let down his or her friends. Being a member of a group that asks hard questions and shares quality knowledge can remove the temptation to be satisfied with the status quo.

In the end, important work is done in ways that, from Jack Erb's perspective, can "accelerate the rate of learning in our districts."

For the WSBC member districts, the most focused attention has been in the areas of college readiness, equity and excellence to close achievement gaps, a reshaping of the bell curve and literacy success for all students. The consortium currently is discussing the key performance indicators superintendents need to keep their eye on if gains in student learning and achievement are to be realized.

Q. What are the barriers to forming and sustaining a self-organizing network?
Frankly, the barriers to creating and sustaining a small, personalized network of superintendents are less about time and money (it takes some of both) and more about individual commitment. Monte Moses, superintendent of the Cherry Creek, Colo., schools, observed, "In the arena of district consortia, the adage is true that you get out what you put in. Attending the meetings and being fully engaged are pivotal elements. If these elements wane, the consortium will struggle."

To overcome the difficulty of follow-up given the geographic distances among school districts, Moses says it has been important for the Western States consortium to have a facilitator to support and monitor the between-meeting action agreements.

But sometimes the most difficult barrier is simply deciding where to start.

Q. Where does one start?
If you are intrigued by the notion of an x + 1 network, this might be a good time to begin a superintendent version of the Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon. Think of a superintendent friend, someone like-minded, in a school district with some similar characteristics and preferably in a different part of the state or country. Talk with that person about forming a personalized network, and then rely on that friend to suggest another superintendent or district to contact. And keep it small.

Be realistic about the time, energy and money that the creation of a new network might require. This realism includes deciding how frequently the group should gather.

Be exceedingly clear about the purposes of the new network and the work that will be done together. And don't try to attack the universe of things that our students and our profession need. One or two things are plenty, not only at the beginning, but throughout the life of the consortium.

Share the hosting responsibilities. The Western States Benchmarking Consortium districts take turns hosting the fall and spring meetings (the mid-year meeting is held in conjunction with AASA's annual conference). This rotation means that a district hosts just once every three and a half years.

At some point, if the new network is taking on a life of its own, your group may benefit from hiring a facilitator to assist in the development of meeting agendas and the facilitation of the meetings themselves. In addition, the facilitator will have time to guide and support the work of the between-session task groups — something that isn't realistic for a busy superintendent to do.

Q. Where can we turn for support?
AASA is a superb place to start. Paul Houston, Joe Cirasuolo and Claudia Mansfield Sutton of AASA have attended various WSBC meetings through the years, and AASA has been instrumental in helping other personalized networks get off the ground.

The Western States Benchmarking Consortium is far from the only x + 1 network around, but you may find our website (www.wsbenchmark.org) to be helpful.

David Livingston is coordinator of the Western States Benchmarking Consortium, 1860 Twin Drive, Estes Park, CO 80517. E-mail: dsliving@qwest.net