Preparing for Leadership Succession

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

September 01, 2023

Superintendents can play an important role in ensuring continuity, but it takes finesse with the school board to do so
Scott Robison with microphone pointing arm, wearing long sleeve green shirt with black vest and Eagles mascot
Scott Robison, who retired after 17 years as superintendent in Zionsville, Ind., says a smooth transition during the opening three months on the job can set the stage for longer-term relations with the school board. PHOTO BY JANET MANN/ZIONSVILLE COMMUNITY SCHOOLS

A fast-growing suburban school district board was forced to remove its superintendent — and then it hired me. I learned a great deal while picking up the pieces of that abrupt succession. My predecessor’s unplanned ouster offered a career opportunity, and the aftermath seeded my desire to leave the place on a better footing following my tenure.

Superintendents and school boards must face the fact that one day the district’s top leader will leave, by choice or by force.

The inherent turbulence of the superintendency often combines with overspilling obligations and local politics to thwart prudent leadership succession as a common practice. Thus, succession planning is less common in school districts than in private-sector entities, meaning many departing superintendents miss this key facet of leadership opportunity, influence and legacy. As a result, their successors can be robbed of cultural connective tissue essential to early success when new to the role.

An Obligatory Duty

Succession planning is an obligation of sitting superintendents because there can be no sustained positive impact from any leader’s tenure if his or her departure is marked by uncertainty and disarray. Most servant leaders have an affinity for legacy. Negative legacy, not so much.

Experiences with abrupt superintendent departures are as varied as the idiosyncratic nature of communities. However, preparing well for succession can effectively mitigate the ill effects of poor transitions in CEO leadership. These include employee departures, loss of community trust, student transfers to other schools, exacerbation of poor union relations and election challenges for school board members.

Smooth transitions can extend the so-called honeymoon period for the incoming leader. Given the heightened political complexity of the superintendency in recent years, any extension of grace to one’s successor is the right thing to do.

Management literature explores the benefits and risks associated with both internal and external candidates for leadership in the private sector. The transfer of such analyses so often based solely on metrics of shareholders’ experience is murky at best when applied to the nuances of school district leadership. Like AASA, the International Journal of Education Leadership Preparation (an annual product of the International Council of Professors of Educational Leadership) has published on the topic of leadership succession, and succession planning tools are available in management and other professional literature that can be useful for boards of education.

I was an external candidate in 2006, but my predecessor’s ouster called for a substantial departure from the culture he espoused. Superintendents who have assembled teams and fostered a culture of student growth worthy of being sustained must set the table for succession when possible. Doing so requires selection and growth of internal leaders while educating the board about nuances of the superintendent role and the implications of superintendent selection strategies.

This succession plan is the last measure of a superintendent’s leadership service to the board and the community. Superintendent stewardship is something most governing boards welcome and appreciate.

Our district’s transition following my nearly 17-year tenure as superintendent involved a perfect internal candidate for sustaining positive culture who had been strategically elevated and prepared to succeed me in the role. Imperative to our smooth succession was being intentional and always diplomatic, while asserting superintendent expertise in explaining how my planned departure could (and should) seed future successes. This included strategic placement of information on the likely pool of external candidates, the quality of internal candidates and the impact of positive and negative succession events on the lives of students, staff and community.

In the vast majority of cases, a district’s governing body is the final arbiter in naming a superintendent successor. Superintendents would be wise to foster mutual respect and collaboration when educating the board on succession nuances about which the district CEO knows best. Think of it as shading slightly into the same lane where board members occasionally veer when they tell the superintendent which coach or principal to hire. Then proceed cautiously. A skilled superintendent’s finesse must align stars properly toward succession planning.

Sustaining Positive Culture
Scott Robison smiling with sunglasses standing next to Rebecca Coffman, wearing sunglasses
Scott Robison and Rebecca Coffman attend a football game at Zionsville Community High School in Indiana. PHOTO BY JANET MANN/ZIONSVILLE COMMUNITY SCHOOLS

The school district was experiencing shock when I arrived as the new superintendent in 2006. Fast and forced succession put every certainty in question and decimated employees’ sense of directionality.

Committing to leaving the place better than when I arrived meant a constant stream of communications that boiled our mission statement down to just two words — student growth — and the incessant foreshadowing of the desired future, no matter what challenge arose. These bedrock principles guided rebirth and growth of organizational culture that began on day one of my service and served our succession plan perfectly when my segment of the leadership relay ended.

Evidence of a learning organization’s cultural positivity occurs over time wherever there are competent school leaders who can foster collegial relationships. In our case, succession preparation linked perfectly with desirable performance outcomes to sustain a worthy culture through change.

Lead Duck or Lame Duck

As superintendent, I communicated with the board weekly or more often as necessary. I offered a purposeful mix of the day-to-day realities and the foundational theories underpinning our organization’s success in promoting student growth. As I entered year 15 of my tenure, I increased the attention to superintendent succession. I burnished the deserving reputations of lead deputies knowing that other districts would seek them out via recruitment. I shared that Indiana superintendent selection pools were becoming composed of candidates less and less experienced in central-office and board experience but that we could avoid candidates lacking experience when choosing the next leader.

This sharing always acknowledged the board’s singular authority to hire my successor. Fast on the heels of this sincere deference, I shared reminders of the messy 2006 leadership transition. I warned of poor succession processes leading to a leadership vacuum and decline in stability. The succession preparation temperature was still low, but more than a year before the need to announce my departure, I was working to shape a desired future for our organization.

Soon, board members met with the internal candidate I recommended, a talented assistant superintendent instrumental to our district’s navigation of the pandemic and rapid enrollment growth. Her intellect, outstanding work, proven integrity and strong relationships with campus leaders, teachers and parents were compelling. In subsequent meetings and discussions with board members about her vision for our schools, she did not disappoint.

Board affinity for the idea of an internal successor continued to gel in March 2022 just before peak season for superintendent vacancies and recruitment statewide. District counsel assisted in the legal process to name her as “successor superintendent” by June, well in advance of November’s contentious majority board election. This timing increased potential for a protracted lame duck period for me and risked making the board’s action a sensational election issue. However, the board’s first action in which Rebecca Coffman was named to succeed me as superintendent was immediately hailed by internal and external stakeholders as the perfect decision.

The succession decision was further sealed off as campaign fodder through strategic communications highlighting the board’s most important statutory role: that of hiring and/or firing a superintendent. In the end, I chose the timing of the vacancy to be filled, and the board made the hiring decision impeccably. When tested in an election cycle filled with well-monied board-takeover candidates, the board’s prudent process, timing and selection landed well with voters who ensured a student-centered servant governing body for the foreseeable future.

Our tradition of robust districtwide storytelling continued to showcase the many good works of my successor, the regular presence of student success and the various ways in which the leadership baton was being prepared for secure passage.

We were off and sprinting toward my finish line and to my successor’s positive launch.

Context Specific
Rebecca Coffman talking and smiling, gesturing with hands and wearing gray dress
Rebecca Coffman was positioned to take over the reins from retiring superintendent Scott Robison in Zionsville, Ind., during the year prior to his departure. PHOTO BY JANET MANN/ZIONSVILLE COMMUNITY SCHOOLS

Every superintendency has multiple, simultaneous plates spinning. However, it is always the right time to educate others about navigating forward through change. This is the essence of superintendent leadership. My school district’s succession chronology can illustrate one of many preparation journeys toward positive leadership succession. Getting started is key.

As superintendents know, the nuance and complexity of this job requires a special fit — a unicorn skill set and dispositional profile. The superintendent employment pool is unique, too, as are the conditions for catching a transformative superintendent’s special light in a bottle for release at just the right moment.

Schools are characteristically human organizations existing at their core for direct service to youth by elders in the community. Throughout two superintendencies, my development of board member relationships and lead team culture relied upon themes from Phillip Schlechty’s Creating Great Schools: Six Critical Systems at the Heart of Educational Innovation. By design, this consistent effort laid the foundation for the growth of positive culture. When it came my time to leave, common cause to protect the path of continuous improvement in the mission of student growth was manifest.

On our community’s journey, consistent positioning of leader talent and strategic communications met good fortune through astute board leadership to a smooth succession. Nearly a year into my successor’s tenure, the district has not missed a beat, which most importantly means that learners have not either.

Scott Robison, who retired after 17 years as superintendent of the Zionsville Community Schools in Zionsville, Ind., is a leadership consultant.


Scott E. Robison

Retired superintendent

Zionsville, Ind.