My Journey From Superintendent to Consultant

by TERRE DAVIS
A dear friend once told me that, as a superintendent, if you are a mover and shaker and have energy to get things done, then you alienate 10 percent of the population each year. Therefore, you should plan to move on every five years.

In my 12th year as an administrator, including eight years as superintendent in the same rural district in Michigan, I knew it was time to move on to an entirely different community.

It was the experience of seeking my second superintendent position that made me want to become a search consultant upon retirement. Each time I applied for a superintendent position, the process left a lot to be desired. Three times I was used as a token female, which I did not appreciate. In one interview I was asked by a board member, “Tell us about the good ol’ boys club—do you think you belong?” In another search, a committee from a national consulting firm told me that because I was from a rural area, they wouldn’t be promoting me as a candidate in a suburban area. In yet another search, I was asked in public, “How do you manage a husband and two children while doing such an important job as a superintendent?”

Not once in any of the searches did I receive an update from the consultant on my candidacy—other than what he shared with the newspaper. The lack of professionalism on the school board and consultant’s parts in the entire process was appalling. While biting my lip, I kept detailed notes of “do’s” and “don’ts” and then filed them away to await the magic moment when I would put them to use.

A Better Process
After 3½ positive and fulfilling years in a second superintendency in an outstanding suburban district, the magic moment arrived and I knew it was time to fulfill another dream of starting a different career. The search process that I developed (using my experience and the detailed notes I had stored away) was one that would meet a need that would service not only boards but the candidates and the school community as a whole. I also felt that my experience as a superintendent in two disparate communities would lend a great deal of credibility and professionalism to the superintendent search process.

Two years into serving as a search consultant, only the state school boards association and my firm were involved in most of the searches in Michigan. The universities had ceased to be very active and by my fifth year in this new line of work, I was averaging 10 to 12 searches a year.

Some of the unique parts of the search process that I developed stemmed directly from my experience as a superintendent and as a candidate for my second superintendent position. I knew, for instance, that the fit of the superintendent to the district is an absolute must—as the relationship between the superintendent and the board sets the entire tone for the district. (Some superintendent candidates believe the district will mold to them—a sad mistake!) The board needs to understand that it is obligated to seek the best fit for the district and must not bend to individual or group pressures (athletics, band, relatives, advocacy organizations, etc.) to hire a specific person.

Boards often like to place blame—if there is to be any—on the consultant or firm that handled the search. They need to remember that only the board of education does the hiring.

Spice of Variety
I have thoroughly enjoyed the role of being a superintendent and also that of being a superintendent search consultant. Both roles are time-consuming and highly stressful (if a person is totally committed to the job), but in different ways. As a consultant you can choose how busy you want to be—by just applying for the jobs you want to conduct.

Each search is different, based on the nature of the community, the makeup of the board, the mindset of the employees and the reason for the vacancy, so one never knows what might happen. A typical search assignment only lasts about 12 weeks and then you are on to another exciting experience.

In addition, the consultant can make a significant impact on the entire school community. Because you are from out of town, you can see and say things that no one locally dares to say or do—for example, telling a hostile crowd in a community where the superintendent’s firing was controversial that “yesterday ended at midnight and we are here today to make a difference for tomorrow and therefore we are not going to continue to discuss the decision that the board has made.” It proved to be one of the most positive searches I have done, bringing together this very split community.

As far as being an easy job, it is not. You have late hours, lots of travel, tight deadlines, sometimes critical news media to deal with, some difficult board members who do not (or don’t want to) understand their roles and responsibilities, split communities and more, but I have enjoyed most of it. I have learned something new from every search as each school community is unique. I have the personal satisfaction that my involvement as a search consultant and the process I have developed has made a positive difference that ultimately has affected the education of students.

Sad Developments
I have watched the search process change over the last three to five years as more retired superintendents have entered the business. Some have used the process I developed and started their own search firms because they, like me, want to meet a need as they see it. However, it appears that many are entering the field because they think it is an easy and logical way to supplement their retirement income. Others have a hungry ego to feed.

With the heavier competition brought on by the influx of new search consultants, the process seems to have become watered down to the extent that work shortcuts are becoming common in an attempt to minimize costs. The consultants’ stables of candidates and the “Good Ol’ Boys Club” are more alive and well than they have ever been. Sadly, numbers (“How many searches have you done?”) and prominent placements (“Whom have you placed?”) have become more important to the search consultant than how effective is the fit of the finalist to the school community?

Success still comes back to using a complete process that ensures the board has the opportunity to hire the best fit to the school/community and that each candidate has equal opportunity. I have seen my business drop significantly due to boards opting for a less extensive process and lower cost, but I refuse to do a “half-job.”

School boards need to carefully scrutinize proposals from competing search firms, check out references and know they must fulfill their responsibility of hiring the best candidate. The process and the fee is an investment in the school district’s future. You generally get what you pay for in the search field.

Terre Davis is president of TD & Associates, 6818 Old 28th St., S.E., Grand Rapids, MI 49546. E-mail: TerreDavis@aol.com