I got a call earlier this week from a friend of mine. He recently retired from his assistant superintendent position and had begun his transition into life in the private business world. I was excited to see his name show up on my iPhone’s display, but I did not expect what he had to share after I answered his call. Life will sometimes throw us a curveball, and this one was no exception. My friend was calling to let me know he has been tabbed to be the interim superintendent in a district near his home. He starts the job Friday!! As he said, he doesn’t even have time to wrap his brain around the new job. Again, sometimes life throws us a curveball, but this was much more like a giant U-Turn.
Letting this sink in, I listened to my friend talk about the demographics of the district, location, number of schools, etc. I could hear the excitement in his voice mixed with the stark realization that he’d be in a new job in less than 48 hours. He then asked me for some support on an entry plan. Knowing that I’d done the transition to superintendent before, he wanted to know how I would approach this sudden and exciting opportunity. After congratulating him, I asked for a couple of hours to collect my thoughts and put together a rough outline of how I would look at the upcoming challenge he faced. I called him back later in the day and shared my thoughts. It was such a great conversation…truth is, I LOVE what I do now, and supporting leaders is such a huge part of it.
Reflecting on those two conversations this morning, I find myself seeing value in sharing the plan. I know so many of my tribe of leaders are new in their role and/or new to school leadership. So, if one thing in that plan can be of benefit to my fellow travelers of the Road to Awesome, let’s share it out.
The Great Listening Tour: (catchy, right?!?)
Keep in mind that this is for an entering superintendent, yes so much of this is directly cross-walked into the role of the building principal. I broke this plan into 7 key areas of focus areas, with the primary work being about listening rather than acting in the first several months on the job. So often we think that being the leader means coming in, putting our stamp on the job, and seizing control. The opposite is actually the most effective way to lead. Be an active listener, someone focused on learning rather than imparting your knowledge in the situation. So, here we go with the 7 elements of a strong entry plan.
- Fiscal responsibility – meet with director of finance to learn financial systems, general fund health, grant dependency and effectiveness (meaning success in obtaining grant funding), strengths and concerns with fiscal health, fiscal goals (both of the board and of the finance department – yes they don’t always align). Get a strong handle on the long-term spending plans around major capital spending (bus purchases, physical plant issues: ie boilers and a/c systems, and and building expansion work). As a superintendent (and to a similar extent for principals) the fiscal health of the district is paramount to your success, or lack thereof. Typically, academic performance is not what will create rocky and choppy waters, but poor fiscal performance will nearly guarantee them.
- Operations – meet with all operational directors (physical plant, transportation, food service, etc) to learn about the strengths and concerns they have surrounding the ‘status quo’. What needs might they see, both short and long term? What plans are already in place with capital spending in their areas? What needs might they have for personnel and equipment? Do they, as operational directors, feel empowered to do their work, to lead in their space? Do they feel valued, trusted, seen and heard?
- Personnel – your HR director will be a big individual for you in this role. Meet with them and learn everything you can about current strengths and deficits from a personnel perspective. You will also have heard the personnel portion from each operational director as well. What challenges do you have from an organizational culture perspective? What might be some personnel challenges you’ll be faced with soon, long term? You will repeat this process with your building level leaders/leadership teams. Learning about the culture of every site will be so very important.
- Teaching and Learning – yes, we finally get to the purpose of schools, teaching and learning. Connect with your curriculum director (might be an assistant superintendent or two, depending on structure) and discover all you can about the current state of curricular resources, mapping of curriculum, adoption of curriculum processes, and any/all initiatives put in place by your predecessor. Your director (and building level leaders) can tell you so much about the strengths and gaps that inevitably exist in the teaching and learning process in the district. Resist the urge for a super deep data dive here. Don’t get lost in the weeds in the first month or so. There will be plenty of time for this very soon.
- Technology – yes, this should be included in the operational directors section. However, technology is such a huge element in the operation of a school district that I put it separate. What is the process for purchasing new technology? Is there a rotation or is it simply the squeaky wheel process? What is the current state of the infrastructure; will it need to be expanded, can it be expanded? Where is the district in terms of the device safety for both adults and students in the district?
- Community – get out and listen, be intentional about scheduling meetings with the sheriff and/or chief of police, mayor and city council members, clergy, hospital CEO, PTO presidents, etc. They will tell you everything that is out on the streets, so the unofficial story of your schools. Get involved and get to know as many of them as possible. Show up to the football game and maybe even ‘lean on the fence’ (everywhere I’ve been there is a fence that men stand against to watch the game, so go lean on the fence)
- Your Secretary – I added this as part of my conversation with my friend. The relationship with your secretary (principal or superintendent) is absolutely critical. They will be your first line of defense, often will be your sounding board, will share the pulse of the staff, directors, and even the community. Build this trusting relationship from the beginning and empower the secretary to be as important as they really are.
My next advice (I realize this is turning into a rather long post, so I will be quick) was to plan for the listening tour to continue with student groups. Be present in the buildings and have both formal and informal conversations with students and student groups to learn more about their needs, the culture of the district (and of each school). Schedule a workshop with the board focusing on learning their goals. This is important here: the board must have goals for the district but also for the board itself. Part of your work as a superintendent is to help support and guide your board toward their goals. A board without goals can become a board that gets lost in the weeds. Keep them focused. Finally, plan for a ‘state of the district’ report for January (keep in mind, my friend starts this new job TOMORROW). If he had started in July, I would have suggested the state of the district be shared in November.
Entry plans can often become quite cumbersome and overwhelming. The truth is this: if you come in with a plan to make changes, you will probably set yourself up for failure. If you come into the new role with the primary objective being to LISTEN, you are going to have a much better chance to succeed both in the short and long term. If I can help, you need a sounding board, etc – give me a shout.
Have a #RoadToAwesome week
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