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Thursday / December 14

10 Mindset Shifts for the Aspiring Superintendent

As the traditional school year draws to a close so does the superintendent hiring season. Most superintendent searches take place from late November to the end of June. While the opportunities for becoming a superintendent are there, many aspiring candidates find only frustration and disappointment. By the end of June, they reluctantly return to their current job, unhappy and wondering what went wrong.

I know that for many candidates, this disappointment is often due to errors in approach and delivery. Frequently, capable candidates are overlooked, or even rejected by search consultants and school boards for reasons readily remedied. Here are ten crucial quick tips to address (or avoid) to help aspiring superintendents reach their professional goals.

  1. “I’m great at what I do and deserve to be the superintendent.” 

You have to earn your new position by demonstrating to search consultants, search committees, and the school board that you have the requisite skillsets and leadership skills to provide the leadership the school board is seeking. If you can’t make your case, you don’t get the interview or job no matter how good you are in your current job, as there are any number of people out there who are as good as you are.

  1. “All districts are the same; I don’t need to prepare for interviews.”

School boards have considerable expertise when it comes to knowing their school district’s strengths, weaknesses and issues. They fully expect you to do your research and be familiar with their district. If you don’t, you lose, as again, other candidates will have done their homework.

  1. “My skill sets will get me the job—I don’t have to worry about my appearance.”

Superintendents are the face of the district. Boards expect you to look the part. Friday casual is OK on Fridays when you are superintendent, but until then dress appropriately for the importance of the position. You should be the most dressed up person in the interview room.

  1. “Nobody pays attention to applications these days; my references are what counts. Nobody pays attention to references these days; my application is what counts.”

Search consultants and school boards care about reference letters and All are read very carefully, line by line in many cases. Both applications and references should demonstrate your suitability and match for your new position: spelling and grammar do count! And so does timeliness—nobody cares about the opinion of your elementary principal from 2001.

  1. “There’s no need to practice; I know how to interview (even though I last interviewed eight years ago).”

Interviewing is a skill set like all the others needed for success as a superintendent candidate. This is especially true, even for sitting superintendents, if you haven’t interviewed for a new position in years. Practice answering likely interview questions out loud in front of a mirror or record yourself if need be. Just because you’ve sat in on a zillion interviews when hiring others, doesn’t mean you’re a good interviewee yourself.

  1. “Superintendent jobs are all the same regardless of the district’s size.”

While there are similarities between a 200 student K-8 superintendent/principal position and a 9000 student K-12 position, common sense tells you that there are huge differences between them. The skill sets needed for a much bigger district take time to learn and master; your competition will have mastered them. Set your goals realistically, after an honest assessment of your readiness for the big time positions. You look silly, arrogant or unprofessional applying for a position which clearly is beyond your experience and preparation.

  1. “Superintendent Search consultants are there to support me—they are my friend and mentor.”

Search consultants are hired by and work for the Board, not you. Our job is to screen in the most highly qualified and screen out those not appropriate or ready for the position. Search consultants are not impressed by the needy; we are impressed by confidence, maturity and interpersonal skills.

  1. “No need to be up to speed on technology [instruction, negotiations, budget, communications]; I can always hire somebody to take care of this.”

The superintendent position is unlike any other high level management position (private sector included). A superintendent must be expert in some things but also masterful in countless others. It’s not enough to be a strong instructional leader if you have limited experience in budget, negotiations, technology, and communications. Likewise, strong fiscal and negotiation skills are great, but you must also be instructional leader. Superintendents are renaissance leaders; you must be knowledgeable and skilled in a broad array of important leadership skill areas.

  1. “School boards want somebody who can lead; personality doesn’t matter much.

Here’s the thing: school boards want to hire a highly skilled proven leader, but they also want to hire somebody they like, enjoy being with and can envision interacting well with all district stakeholders. This is called “fit,” the person who meets the Board’s leadership and interpersonal needs, the leader they look forward to spending time with. Personality counts—be certain to demonstrate all aspects of who you are to the search consultants and the board.

  1. “If I don’t get the one job I want, I’m not going to go for another one.”

Landing a superintendent position isn’t all that easy. You have to be the right person in the right place at the right time. Many outstanding candidates are unsuccessful in their first few tries, but then find the right “fit” and go on to a successful superintendent experience. If you are good at what you do, and still want to be a superintendent, then “Go for it!”

Serving as superintendent is a great privilege and challenge. Like anything else worth doing, it takes preparation and hard work. If you didn’t succeed this search season, keep at it.

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Written by

Bill Levinson is a superintendent with over thirty years of experience. He co-authored, with Mary Frances Callan, Achieving Success for New and Aspiring Superintendents: A Practical Guide (Corwin) for experienced principals and district office administrators who want to become superintendents. The authors are committed to the belief that the more knowledgeable an administrator is about the superintendent position before seeking the position the more likely they will obtain a position and be successful in their first, most challenging year. The book is also popular with experienced superintendents looking for renewal and career guidance.

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