Changing of the Guard
A Short Guide to Leadership Transition
This article is even better when paired with the companion discussion guide.
From curriculum changes to new technology to crisis management, schools are in constant flux. But there’s no shift as potentially impactful as saying goodbye to one leader and welcoming a new one. According to data from education consulting firm EAB, more than one-third of experienced superintendents (those with six or more years of tenure) are planning to retire in the next two to three years. That means over 2,000 school districts will soon be experiencing leadership transitions—and that doesn’t even include districts whose superintendents are simply relocating or changing fields altogether.
With this impending mass exodus of school leaders—and the subsequent influx of new ones—now is a perfect time to consider how a superintendent transition can strengthen your school brand and set your students up for future success.
The key word here is “transition.” In Managing Transitions: Making The Most Of Change, author and consultant William Bridges points out the difference between change and transition. “Change is the external event or situation that takes place,” he writes. Conversely, he defines “transition” as the inner psychological process people go through as they internalize change. “Change is the WHAT. Transition is the HOW,” he adds. “Change will only be successful if leaders and organizations address the transition that people experience during change.”
Change may be the law of life, but it can be understandably scary for a community that has put its trust in one leader for a long period of time. When it comes to change in leadership, it is paramount that every stakeholder in the district knows they are being heard. Guiding your community through leadership transition will earn your district the trust, support, and advocacy vital for a thriving school system. Ultimately, it’s about setting your district up for future success—whether you’re getting ready to leave or you’re just about to take the helm.
Peaceful Irrelevance: Leaving a District
Whether you’re moving on to a new opportunity or simply retiring, leaving a school system is a big event—not just for you, but for your entire community. You’ll want to communicate your exit transparently and put your successor and staff on a path toward success.
Manage stakeholder emotions.
It’s important to go into leadership transition with both an open mind and a sense of grace. From families to teachers to bus drivers, everyone has felt the emotional brunt of COVID-19, so easing your community through a potentially emotional transition is vital. “Between the pandemic and current politics, it’s a scary time to be in education,” says Molly Schwarzhoff, executive vice president of leadership search firm Ray & Associates. “People are fatigued and overwhelmed,” she adds, “and I think when you bring in a new leader, people are going to get passionate about it.”
Showing grace and understanding is a great way to uplift and support the students and families you’ve been serving. “This is such a human business,” says Michael Collins, former school board member and president of Ray & Associates. “We’re not talking about products—we’re talking about kids and serving the whole child.”
Rebecca Tennille, co-founder of JPJ Consulting, has a background in journalism and political campaigning. With that comes a breadth of experience helping communities deal with leadership change. “Transitions can be triggering, and they can be exciting,” she says. “They can be a little sad and a little tricky, so grace is going to be important.” As you’re planning your exit, talk to your staff. Talk to the families sending their kids to your schools. Make sure everyone knows that the district will continue to care about their children as it evolves under new leadership.
Keep a healthy distance.
Leaving any job takes an emotional toll, but transitioning out of a superintendency comes with its own set of personal and professional land mines. You’re not only leaving a position where you’ve built long-term trust with your team; you’re also leaving a community that you’ve listened to, learned from, and loved.
“Transition involves loss, so you have to work through a process to mentally understand where you’ve been and where you’ll be,” says Dr. Howard Carlson, who served as superintendent of Arizona’s Wickenburg USD #9 for 11 years. “And it requires time,” he adds. “To better serve their districts as they’re leaving, superintendents need to understand the emotional component.”
“We’re all going to leave a position at one time or another,” says Dr. Frank Davidson, who led Arizona’s Casa Grande Elementary School District for 20 years. “A big part of successfully making the transition into retirement or into another district is managing your emotions.”
Both retired superintendents offer advice on how to strike a healthy balance between helpfulness and irrelevance—knowing when it’s appropriate to help out and when it’s time to step back. “There’s no guide for this,” Carlson says. “In the worst cases, an outgoing superintendent will continue to try to be involved behind the scenes—talking to board members and others in the district. I think this is ultimately about a loss of relevance and how a person deals with that loss.”
Part of dealing with this loss of relevance is knowing the appropriate distance to keep from your district and its new leader. Your willingness to accept change also has a huge impact on the school community you’re leaving. “They’re used to looking to you for advice and for your thoughts,” Carlson says. “So you need to go through a process where people start to separate you from the district and understand that there is going to be a new normal for them.”
Change is inevitable, so modeling your acceptance of that change can help ease your community through the transition to a new leader. “Have the humility to recognize that a successor is going to come in and bring change,” says Davidson. “In many cases, that’s just what the district needs. Don’t stand in the way of that.”
Passing the Torch
When retired superintendents Carlson and Davidson set out to research the superintendency, they focused on one question: To what extent do successor superintendents see their predecessors as helpful? Their findings were published in the Winter 2021 issue of AASA’s Journal of Scholarship and Practice. “We invited superintendents from four states to respond to a survey,” Davidson explains. “One of our principal findings was that most successor superintendents don’t find their predecessors particularly helpful.”
Their survey found that retiring superintendents were most helpful, while those who had been asked to resign or whose contracts hadn’t been renewed were, predictably, least helpful. “One in five of our respondents rated their predecessors as zero, meaning they weren’t helpful at all,” Davidson says.
But should outgoing superintendents be responsible for helping their successors? Carlson thinks so. “It’s a tremendous disruption to a district when you don’t have a smooth transition,” he says. “The position impacts the whole community. If it doesn’t go well, it can cause a number of different problems. A smooth transition clearly accelerates a successor’s ability to be effective.”
Not only does helping your replacement benefit their future work and the district as a whole, but it also builds on and enhances the progress you’ve made. “It can help to ensure that successful initiatives are continued and that there’s ongoing support for the new leader,” Davidson tells us. “It can also mean that you’re creating space and permission for your successor to bring in their own new ideas and initiatives—and that’s essential.”
Maybe the most significant way to support your successor is to help establish a district transition team to ease their entrance into the role. “It’s important for departing superintendents to create a team of stakeholders representing the whole district,” Davidson says. You aren’t just helping the new superintendent start off strong; you’re helping the entire district move forward. “This can also help the board understand what key issues and challenges they need to be prepared to address in the coming years,” he adds.
A Smooth (Strategic) Transition
If you’re on the other side of the coin—just entering a new school district as superintendent—it’s hard to resist putting your own stamp on things right away. But nearly every person we talked to about leadership transitions shared a similar warning: Don’t start changing things as soon as you take over.
It all goes back to change versus transition. Change happens to us; transition happens with us. You need all the trust and support you can get from your new families, students, staff, and teachers, so think twice before throwing out all the systems they’re comfortable with too quickly. You’ll need their buy-in to fully realize your vision for the district, and sometimes that means setting your ego aside and working with your stakeholders to strategically shift from old ways to new ones.
Libby Roof, chief communications officer for Richland School District Two in South Carolina, highlights the importance of working with your predecessor and respecting their impact on the district. “I do think it’s important to have discussions with the prior superintendent,” she says. “Recognizing that the school district has a legacy gives you a place to build from and discover where your voice and vision fit into that legacy. Then you can take the district in its next direction.”
Roof’s district took quite a unique—and effective—approach to their last leadership transition. Their plan required intense collaboration between the outgoing and incoming leaders.“They wanted a transition year,” Roof tells us. “So Dr. Debbie Hamm planned to retire at the end of the 2016-17 school year and announced that then-assistant superintendent Dr. Baron Davis was now the superintendent-elect.” Davis would spend that next year transitioning into Hamm’s role as she transitioned into retirement.
“Basically, for the first third of the school year, Davis shadowed Dr. Hamm as she was making all the decisions,” Roof explains. “Then, over the next third of the year, they made decisions together.” During the last third of their transition year, Hamm took a back seat and let Davis make the calls, providing guidance and support when he needed it. “It made my job really easy,” Roof adds. “There was no confusion because we were communicating it out to our employees and families. If there was an event, Dr. Hamm would speak first and then introduce Dr. Davis. We always made sure the transition was explained explicitly and directly. It helped that they were both so committed to working together for a smooth and seamless transition.”
Sudden Impact: Entering a New District
Starting a new job can be overwhelming for anyone, but when the position involves running one of the largest employers and service providers in a community, the stakes are a bit higher. Whether you’re starting your first superintendency or moving into a new district, you can’t just hope things will run smoothly. You need a plan, and you need to communicate it with care.
Build purposeful relationships.
It’s been said time and time again, but it always bears repeating: Before you can effectively lead any school district, you must get to know your community of stakeholders. “You have to understand what is going on in the district before you move forward,” Carlson tells us. “Be purposeful in determining who you’re going to meet with and how you’re going to gather information. I always suggest having a list of community leaders and others in the district.”
While we know the “listening tour” has become almost cliche among CEOs and school leaders alike, there’s a good reason it always comes up. “To get the pulse of the community, listen to as many stakeholders as possible,” says Davidson. Communicating your intentions and vision for the district requires first having a deep understanding of your different audiences. “When we talk about listening tours, people tend to just think about the public,’’ says Collins. “They don’t always think about doing that internally.”
Many of your closest stakeholders work in your school buildings, so get to know them and the community at large. Keeping everyone’s concerns and hopes for the district in mind won’t just make you a stronger leader; it’ll communicate to everyone that you’re there for the right reasons.
“Some people are going to get passionate about their kids, so I’m always big on boards and superintendents almost over-communicating,” says Schwarzhoff. “They want to know who is going to be leading their teachers. And those teachers need to know who you are, too. If you don’t have teacher buy-in, you’re in big trouble.”
The more you tell your new stakeholders about yourself, the better. After all, you’re asking them to trust you with their children and their careers, so being as personal as possible right out of the gate helps your community build confidence in you as a leader. Most districts post a bio of their superintendent online, which is a great opportunity to show stakeholders who you really are. “I encourage superintendents to have family dynamics in their bios,” Schwarzhoff says. “Do you have kids? How old are they? What do you and your spouse like to do in your free time? People are always craving to be in the know.”
After you’ve decided what you want to say to your new community, it’s time to consider where you need to be saying it. All the best-laid plans in the world won’t mean much if your stakeholders aren’t receiving your message. So be sure you’re working with your communications team and taking advantage of every avenue your district has for messaging.
“Whether it’s an app or an old-school email list, you want to hit different channels,” Tennille advises. “No matter how much we think we’re communicating, there’s always somebody out there who isn’t checking their email or reading the newspaper.” Your community wants to hear from you, especially when they’re going through change, so don’t be afraid to reach out in as many ways as possible.
Goodbyes and Hellos
Saying goodbye is complicated. But if you’re retiring or moving on, having an open mind and a transparent exit strategy will benefit not just you, but all those you’ve worked so hard to serve. Leaving the right way can set your district and its new superintendent up for success—and solidify your legacy as an effective leader.
For those of you taking on new superintendencies, try to see the transition from the district’s point of view. New leadership is an excellent opportunity to bring a community together and reinforce a school system’s strengths and vision. As you work with your predecessor and transition team to assume your new role, keep those you’re serving top of mind and heart. This will help you start your new journey on the highest note possible, pointing your community toward progress and growth.
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