The Changing Nature of Superintendent Searches

Type: Article
Topics: District & School Operations, School Administrator Magazine

March 01, 2018

Four prevailing trends identified and detailed by a veteran of the executive search field

BY HANK GMITRO/School Administrator, March 2018

Hank Gmitro, president of Hazard, Young, Attea and Associates, inside an auditorium in the Los Angeles Unified School District, while leading the 2015 search for a new superintendent.
When I first became a candidate in a superintendent search more than three decades ago, I was guided by search consultants who truly led, and in many ways controlled, the entire search process. They were the keepers of the information for the board of education that hired the firm to deliver a new leader for the public schools.

Most boards that used consultants during the last few decades of the 20th century depended on the executive search firms to vet the backgrounds of potential candidates. Whatever paperwork they collected was tightly controlled.

As a candidate, I created my resume and vita. I gathered press clippings and documents illustrating my work and assembled my professional portfolio to be shared with the search consultants and the school board. Board members reviewed what I submitted, talked with professional references and developed a profile of my candidacy to be shared with the full board.

While my candidacy may have been public in the community doing the hiring, it was not known in my home district that I was a candidate somewhere else unless I chose to share it. When I was selected as the new superintendent, the two school boards and I controlled the announcement’s release.

Wholly New World
Those aspects of the superintendent search process could not be more different today. The internet has dramatically overturned the discovery and flow of information about candidates while the political environment has raised public expectations about the transparency boards exercise. The days of a search process for a chief executive of a public body being controlled by a small, select group are long gone.

While confidentiality of candidates remains an important factor, how it is handled during a search has changed significantly.

Through the following four trends, I share some insights into the variables that impact the search process itself and what candidates for a superintendency need to consider as they pursue a job change. These are based primarily on my nearly nine years managing one of the leading executive search firms serving public education.

» No. 1: Community transparency competing with candidates’ need for confidentiality.
While boards of education always have had to make decisions about the level of confidentiality they seek and will accept in the process of searching for a new superintendent, the public’s desire for transparency is adding a new dimension to these questions. Transparency is a driving force in many communities regarding governmental decision making, while confidentiality is a key consideration for candidates as they consider a career move.

The typical search process 20 or 30 years ago involved a community engagement step in the decision-making process. It was not uncommon for a school board to invite two or three finalists to spend a full day in the district, meeting stakeholders and hearing feedback. This step yielded additional insights into the candidate’s ability to interact with the public and gave the finalists a chance to learn close up about the community and the district.

This public process worked well during the time before the instantaneous communication provided by the internet. In today’s environment, a public engagement process during the search means the candidate’s current community is fully aware that a candidate is considering another job.

This public disclosure means the candidates need to be prepared that their job search could negatively affect their reputation in their current communities. Board members, district staff and community members will wonder why their superintendent is considering leaving, and this wonder easily can translate into a loss of confidence and trust in that individual. Candidates who are successful and content in their current roles will often not even consider a new position if public exposure is part of the process. The risk to their current position and success may be too lofty a price to pay to simply consider new career opportunities.

Boards seeking the strongest slate of candidates possible understand the desire for confidentiality on the part of candidates, yet they also face their community’s desire for transparency. Although most board members are elected by the public to make these important decisions on behalf of the community, the growing skepticism of government at all levels and the desire by stakeholder advocacy groups to be heard often means the public demands to know who is being considered. The tension between candidates’ desire for confidentiality and the public’s desire for transparency and input means boards must carefully craft a process that considers these opposing needs and explains the rationale to all involved.

These competing interests sometimes mean that a confidential stakeholder committee is used to help interview the finalists or a carefully crafted and timed community en-gagement process is used. It also may mean that boards opt to be more open to candidates seeking their first superintendency, as these individuals tend to be less concerned about confidentiality during the search process.

» No. 2: The need for deeper, longer and more extensive vetting.
The internet and the continuing expansion of digital record keeping are two factors that impact the time required to conduct background searches on candidates. When financial, criminal and complaint records largely were paper copies maintained in filing cabinets, a person’s long-term history generally became inaccessible after a period of time.

As technology has become pervasive in record keeping, anyone with web access can search a subject quickly because public records and personal history have a higher degree of permanency. This means a candidate’s early background becomes a much more important consideration in the vetting process.

When our firm conducted superintendent searches in the late 1990s, we were dealing with candidates who attended college about 20 years earlier. The public records from that period — newspaper clippings, courts documents, employment records — were likely paper records that could be accessed only through a detailed, controlled and generally confidential process.

For candidates seeking the superintendency today — typically individuals who attended college in ’90s or early ’00s — those same records are digital and easily accessible through either secure electronic searches or, in many cases, through public searches of the internet.

In our earlier searches, a finalist’s record of an unfortunate drunken driving charge during college probably would have been inaccessible to the general public, but for a candidate now, personal problems or mistakes from their college years through the present are generally accessible.

This degree of public access to personal histories over the span of individuals’ adult lives means background searches by executive search firms need to consider a much longer time frame and consider additional areas, such complaints aired about candidates while serving in previous positions.

While this is a consideration for boards during searches, it also is a consideration for candidates. Anyone who applies for a superintendency today must assume that anything done in the past will become public knowledge during the search process. Candidates must be willing to take this risk and be prepared for the consequences of public disclosure.

Many of us have done something embarrassing in the past, presumably a misguided act or decision that we have learned from and have since changed our behavior to avoid a repeat of that mistake. How willing is a community to recognize this learning process and forgive a previous mistake? That becomes a critical question if the mistake is going to factor into a decision about a potential job change years later.

» No. 3: The school board’s image as a significant factor in candidate recruiting.
Search consultants advise hiring boards that candidates are interviewing them as much as they are sizing up the candidates. While this especially has become true as candidate pools have become somewhat smaller, technology makes information about school boards readily accessible to candidates.

In earlier days, the candidate’s knowledge of a board’s tendencies and past behavior was based on the candidate’s interactions during the interview process and perhaps some newspaper coverage. Today’s recorded board meetings, pervasive social media and powerful search engines give candidates access to a whole array of public information about a board collectively and the behavior of its members.

Many school boards now broadcast and/or record their board meetings and post them on websites, and newspaper databases grant easy access to published material over a lengthy period. Internet searches, of course, do not discriminate between verifiable reporting and one person’s critical opinion on a blog.

In this environment, when candidates do their homework about a school district and its governing board, they accumulate a wealth of information to review. Impressions of a board may not be based on what the candidate sees as best behavior during the interview stage but may include what they see as ongoing behavior during board meetings, in blog posts about board members and through long-term reporting by news sources.

The candidates’ access to this volume of information should be an important consideration for board members. The No. 1 question candidates ask search consultants is this: “What is the board like and how do they work with the superintendent?” If candidates watch recordings of board members being disrespectful in their treatment of administra-tors, dismissive to the public or rude in their interactions with each other, they may take pause in their consideration to be a candidate in that district.

Board members need to realize their public behavior and personal beliefs may impact the candidate pool when they are searching for a superintendent. School board members need to remember they are always on stage and their behaviors have consequences.

» No. 4: Boards’ willingness to hire younger and less-experienced candidates. (Retirees are often taboo.)
If one were to look back a decade or two, it would not be uncommon to see superintendents moving from one district to the next for the expanded responsibilities, the community’s larger size and/or its appealing professional challenges. Experience in the role of school system leader was often “king” in the view of hiring school boards. The typical career progression had educators enter the superintendency in a small, supposedly easier-to-manage school district and then move on to more complex or challenging systems.

Today, there’s much greater willingness among board members to consider a wider range of candidate backgrounds when they are seeking the right philosophy and organizational match.

Larger systems have hired deputy superintendents when the board believed the individual was the right person to lead at that time. These boards see first-time superintendents, while still needing to learn much about the role, enthusiastic and committed in a way that registers with them. In considering younger and less-experienced superintendent candidates, board members often see opportunity and potential as great assets for their school systems.

Additionally, first-time superintendents often bring a different type of commitment. They grow professionally in the same manner the system is growing under their leadership. This relationship can translate into a long-term commitment between the superintendent and the board as they nurture a meaningful working relationship.

While experienced superintendents may come with a wealth of knowledge, boards see they also carry baggage from having performed the role in a particular way. While the best superintendents certainly are capable of adapting and adjusting, some boards find that crafting a new relationship on equal footing has its benefits as well.

Another variable in this equation is compensation. Many communities are struggling with school funding, leaving governing bodies even more sensitive to salary issues than ever. Paying a higher salary for an experienced superintendent requires a board to strongly believe that the additional investment is worth it. They also have to persuade their communities that salary decisions have been carefully considered and can be justified.

The changing attitudes about superintendent compensation can best be seen in how superintendents retiring from one state often were viewed as highly desirable candidates by hiring boards in another state. Now, given public attitudes regarding pensions and double dipping, boards of education have become hesitant to even consider a retiring superintendent.

These variables have created an environment in which, at times, younger educators seeking their first superintendent position are more desirable than experienced, seasoned superintendents.