What to Know About the Desperate Search by School Boards for Experienced Leadership Emerging From a Dark Period

Another day, another RFP for superintendent search consultants. All search firms can attest there has never been a busier year than 2022.

And those of us in the executive search field who are retired superintendents have never been busier consoling and advising our sitting superintendent colleagues. The pandemic put countless superintendents in no-win situations as they were caught in the middle of endless and often bitter debates among stakeholders regarding re-entry, remote and hybrid teaching, learning loss, rising mental health challenges, truancy, grading, athletics and other extracurriculars. As a result, some superintendents opted for early retirement, while others sought greener educational pastures. Others were pushed out by angry board coalitions, unions or parent groups.

The number of superintendent vacancies soared, and while initially good for search firm business, it became more difficult to fulfill boards’ No. 1 request: Find an experienced sitting superintendent with no adverse publicity! Sure, and we will untie the Gordian Knot and solve the Riemann Hypothesis while we’re at it!

We found that sitting superintendents who had successfully navigated the pandemic challenges were not eager to move. Even higher compensation and ideal locations were not worth the risks of relocating. Moreover, school boards are more eager to reward these superintendents with additional incentives for staying put. In fact, one superintendent finalist returning from an out-of-town interview was met at the airport by his board president with a highly lucrative multiyear offer to remain in the district.

Competitive Advice

It is a far different story for those still-successful superintendents who are seeking to move but have sustained some adverse attention in their local news coverage or on social media. They now are competing with hungry deputy, associate and assistant superintendents who remained out of the harsh pandemic spotlight but now aspire to top district posts. Many excellent sitting superintendents are finishing behind these aspiring candidates. However, some succeed because they share these seven commonalities.

Nail the why. School boards seek leaders who want to serve their students, staff and communities. They deeply believe their district is special and unique and want leaders who feel the same way. The cover letter, resume and interview must share a highly compelling “why” the candidate wants the job and what excites him or her about this opportunity.

The excitement factor is significant and often the most challenging for sitting superintendents to communicate. Boards quickly spot candidates who are applying because they want to leave a district and who are applying because they can’t wait to work in their district.

Also, being highly selective in one’s job search reinforces the why. One of our best selling points is telling a school board this is the only district to which the superintendent is applying. It has proven to be a key pathway to the finals.

Media management. We all know the best defense is a good offense, and candidates must come prepared with a succinct explanation of what happened while handling a publicized matter and how they responded with students’ best interests at heart. It is essential not to show the slightest defensiveness or bitterness and that you have already put it behind you to focus on serving others in your new post.

Also, because board members are skittish about hiring someone with adverse media coverage, candidates need to acknowledge that fact and how they will help them manage any criticism and develop trusting, transparent relationships with uneasy constituents and critics.

Servant mindset. To paraphrase an old adage, “If you have to tell someone you are a servant leader, you probably aren’t.” Boards are desperate for sitting superintendents with a fierce desire to serve their stakeholders. Cover letters, resumes and interviews must reflect how eager the new leader is to contribute to the academic, social and emotional well-being of every child, teacher and family. The candidate should relate a specific example or two of how he or she has done so.

A recent application letter read, “I offer my servant and transformational leadership style to your learning community.” While well-qualified, he did not even get an interview. We coached him to replace the jargon with examples and anecdotes that demonstrate these qualities.

Student centeredness. Most board members seek election to serve children. Unfortunately, most sitting superintendents often have been too far away from students for too long, and aside from citing test score numbers, seldom share any connection with students in their cover letters or interviews. Boards want to know what candidates have done to make a difference to kids — especially the historically underrepresented — and how they connect to kids.

A superintendent our firm recently placed was interviewed by a panel of stakeholders that included one student representative. When it was his turn to ask the panel a closing question or two, the first question he asked was to the student: “How’s the district mission and vision thing working for you and your classmates?” He got the job!

Thorough preparation. Prior to writing the application, candidates must watch board meetings in the district(s) to which they are applying, immerse themselves in the website and scour Google news for the district’s highlights and lowlights. Their cover letter should reflect they have watched meetings, value the accomplishments, understand the challenges, share their core beliefs, aspire to the same goals and can tackle their specific problems.

Humble, hungry, smart. A board we recently served noted these were the three qualities sought. While we all like to think we are humble — how often have we heard the hollow cliche, “I am honored and humbled” — to be honest, we are not known for our humility. However, successful candidates share genuine stories that demonstrate authentic humility through giving others credit, owning mistakes and learning from them and taking responsibility for others’ failures.

How you make them feel. Maya Angelou said, “People will forget what you said … but people will never forget how you made them feel.” Through actions and inflections — not just words — candidates have to make board members feel comfortable with them and connected to them. This happens when the sitting superintendent enjoys the interview, is relaxed, exudes positivity and is a pleasant presence.

We find sitting superintendents are more concerned with what they are saying than how they say it, and this past year we saw three overtalk themselves out of a job. It is imperative to open interviews with a smile, eye contact and welcoming body language with each individual member to make the board feel confident that you will be a great teammate. To this point, a successful superintendent recently landed a new job over both an internal candidate and more qualified superintendent competitor with a winning smile and a positive presence. The board members told us they felt great about him and how he had even united them through the interview.

At the interview’s end, the board must feel they know the candidate and vice versa. So when the board inevitably asks if the interviewee has any questions, there is only one thing to do and it is not to ask a question, especially one that asks each board member to respond. We advise every candidate just to thank them for their time, let them know how much they enjoyed the interview and use the last minute to make a closing case for why they are the right fit and leave with a handshake and smile for each individual.

Cover Photo: Unsplash

About HYA

HYA provides comprehensive and customizable consulting for district leaders and school boards.

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