This is Not the Job I Applied For! When the Board that Hired You Doesn’t Seem to be the One You Actually Serve

Eric G. Mackey
Executive Director,
School Superintendents of Alabama
eric@ssaonline.org

 

Major Points: 

  • Transitioning to the superintendency is often made more difficult as the superintendent becomes of aware of unstated politics, dissention, or inconsistencies by some board members.
  • The interview process is not always a clear indicator of the unique challenges facing the school system.
  • Success in the superintendency requires building quality relationships with all school board members and listening to their concerns, ideas, and aspirations – even when the superintendent disagrees.
  • Though challenges may meet you every morning, spend some time each day doing the work you love.
  • Through it all, be honest with your community; be true to yourself; and lead the way forward. 

 Mackey-150

 Eric G. Mackey

Working with new superintendents across, Alabama one of the greatest tasks we encounter is helping our newer colleagues in “dealing with the school board that hires you...as opposed to the one that interviewed you". School boards are generally at their very best during the search and interview period. They are quite naturally excited about the challenge of choosing a new leader for the school system. Most of the time they are working with search consultants who use proven methodologies to focus their attention on strategic goals, academic progress, and leadership qualities. They take this laser-like focus into the interview process, asking very good questions that often reflect the work of the consultant as much as the curiosity of the particular board member posing the question. Thus, new superintendents often enter their new jobs impressed by the board’s seeming insightfulness, team-oriented focus, and commitment to teaching and learning – just what every superintendent dreams of! 

Unfortunately, in too many cases new superintendents are surprised to find that board members' goals and intentions are not as pure as they were portrayed during the interview process. For instance, interviews often focus on instructional leadership and design, but most new superintendents report to us that they spend less time than expected on these areas. They find that board members may be more interested in local politics, the success of athletic programs, or – in a few unfortunate cases – advancing personal agendas. One superintendent felt like he was given the express duty of assessing the systems’ academic programs, completing honest principal evaluations, and reorganizing personnel based on the results. At the end of the first year when he recommended several progressive changes, he was met with resistance from both board members and the board attorney who felt “he was moving too fast”. In another case the superintendent certainly understood the charge to “get the system’s finances under control,” but when she began to trim spending and institute accountability measures, she quickly discovered how spending had grown out of control to start with: politically protected projects and people. 

In almost every community, schools are the largest recipient of public funds; in many small towns and rural areas they are also the largest employer. By their very nature, they are political environments, and the new superintendent often finds himself navigating politics that he did not expect. There are no simple solutions, but there are some steps that usually help the superintendent navigate through this minefield while sharpening the board’s focus. 

First, realize that you are not the only superintendent facing this challenge. In fact, our experience is that more often than not board members’ more fractious views are masked during the interview and selection period. In Alabama, our association pairs every new superintendent with a veteran certified in executive coaching through Corporate Coach U. With a yearlong induction plan using the cohort model, superintendents build relationships with their newer colleagues as well as with veterans. We encourage them to share their frustrations and their successes. They discover that the frustrations are similar from system to system. Though they ultimately work through their particular situations individually, the cohort is invaluable. Being superintendent can be the loneliest job in a school system – but there is no reason “to go it alone” when colleagues are willing to listen and to advise. At the conclusion of the first year we ask superintendents to complete a reflective summary of their experiences. Most of the reflections indicate that superintendents consider the relationships they develop with colleagues among their most important tools for success.

Secondly, get to know your board. Invest a great deal of time getting to know board members individually and evaluating their style as a team. Not only is each board unique in function, each board member is unique; and, like all people, board members want you to appreciate them as individuals. Even when individuals’ ideas may seem inconsistent with the stated board agenda, it is important to listen to them. Whether it is over a cup of coffee or lunch, at the office or offsite, take time to explore their ideas about the school system including their concerns, aspirations, alliances, and reasons for board service. This takes time, but the investment will pay off for the superintendent as well as the system. As you are coming to understand them as individuals, evaluate their coherence as a group too. Sometimes board members have formed prior alliances through elections or community affiliations; other times they may have personal grudges against one another or against certain system personnel. Understanding the dynamics of board member interactions will help you institute your own goals in the future.

Even though new superintendents have to invest in learning the culture and expectations of the community and school board during the first year, they also need to take charge of the conversation and make clear their intention to be the academic and administrative leader. Bold initiatives undertaken with a solid plan can supersede less visionary personal agendas. After all, people really do want to follow a courageous leader, and most truly want the best schools for their communities. While a written plan may take weeks or months to materialize, identifying your focus must be done quickly. Be visible in the community and make it clear that you are focused on moving the system forward. Sometimes it may seem you are the only community leader doggedly focused on academic aspirations for your students, but most likely the community will take note, lending public credibility to your plans.

Building public credibility and developing relationships are important, especially if the board begins to push away from its stated goals and into the morass of personal agendas. Sometimes it is necessary to remind the board of its professed goals; and sometimes the new superintendent simply must stand his or her ground. In one particularly charged case, a new superintendent had to deal with a board member who had taken it upon himself to conduct a disciplinary investigation at a local school. The school counselor – disagreeing with a principal’s decision – contacted the board member directly and offered evidence to support her point of view. Bypassing the superintendent, the board member took the bait and began an investigation into the appropriateness of the assigned punishment. In this case, the superintendent took the problem head-on, calling the board member and, in a polite but firm tone, reminded the board member of proper segregation of duties and roles within the school system (including board members). It was important that the superintendent not attack the board member’s or the counselor’s intention; furthermore, at that point she did not defend the principal’s decision. Her purpose was to delineate roles and responsibilities. By addressing proper procedure rather than personalities – or even the status of right-or-wrong decision making – she was able to gain control of the situation, support the principal, and preserve the integrity of due process in the system. No superintendent wants direct conflict with board members, but when it becomes necessary it has to be accomplished in a non-threatening and non-emotional way.

Finally, be true to your convictions. Boards may have placed their best foot forward during the interview and selection process; but so did you! One matter is clear: through your resume, vision, personality, charisma and demonstrated skills you convinced the board that you were the right person for the job. Assuming you were true to yourself during the selection process, then just keep being “you”. Superintendents can always refer back to the responses they gave during the interview as evidence of fidelity to their goals and ideas. Unfortunately, superintendent-board relationships are almost always complicated and, at times, delicate. Even during the few weeks spent preparing this article I have assisted another superintendent and board in executing a separation agreement after 20 months on the job. Once again, board members were consistent in their praise for the superintendent as a qualified leader and overall good person; but he was not, in their opinion, “the right fit” for the system. And, once again, the superintendent reported that when he implemented the very plans discussed during the interview and selection process, the board began to rebuff his efforts. Fortunately, not all relationships end this way; in fact, most superintendents are able to maneuver through the obstacles, building strong relationships and support along the way.

Through all of its challenges, leading a school system is still one of the most rewarding experiences an educator can have. Superintendents identify and solve problems; lead both students and fellow educators in their academic growth and development; and guide those “rising stars” to achieve their greatest potential. Unfortunately, this road is also marred by potholes and hurdles. Leaders must see these not as obtacles, but, rather as opportunities. Through their experiences – both positive and negative – they grow and help others to grow. Our state – and, indeed, our nation – is fortunate to have so many good leaders willing to meet the challenge.

Suggested Readings:

The Six Secrets of Change: What the Best Leaders Do to Help Their Organizations Survive and Thrive by Michael Fullan

A Practical Guide to Effective School Board Meetings by Rene S. Townsend, James R. Brown, and Walter L. Buster