Developing A District Succession Plan
As the job of leading a district becomes ever more complex, and with many school systems facing large numbers of retirements, succession planning is becoming ever more important. Proactive succession planning for key leadership positions minimizes the costs, upheaval, instability and disruption of long-term district goals and initiatives due to leadership turnover. In the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, administrators have developed a leadership pipeline and succession plan that are helping the eighteenth-largest school system in the country achieve long-term success. In this web seminar, the superintendent of Charlotte-Mecklenburg discussed the keys to developing an effective district succession plan, how to identify the leadership needs of your district and how to help potential leaders develop.
In our district, we believe that the key lever of reform—with the goals of improved student achievement and the elimination of the achievement gap in our 168 schools—is talent, or human capital. We think about leadership development both at the school level and at the district office.
What does succession planning mean to us? It’s about the continuity of key leadership positions and making sure that we’re not just retaining people, which is what most often comes to mind when you refer to succession planning. It’s also about developing the intellectual capital, as well as providing opportunities to recruit people to the district with the knowledge that there are individual opportunities for advancement and that we have intentional pathways developed for pursuing those opportunities.
We tried to think about succession planning in terms of what our goal was, and that was to be prepared when we have leadership turnover. Certainly we want to minimize leadership turnover, but we know it will happen. We wanted to respond to the limited talent pool we had, particularly in some key district office positions, as well as at the school level in terms of principal leadership.
We knew we had an aging workforce and a large percentage of leaders with 20 to 30 years of experience. So 10 years ago, we knew we needed to start preparing for what would be a fairly large bubble of retirements hitting the district over the last 2 to 3 years. We had some critical gaps in the district, particularly in what we call “linchpin” positions. Those linchpin positions most often were singleton positions, where there was not more than one person with that job title. If a person left, we were not as well-equipped or prepared as we should have been to handle that departure.
We knew we needed a better way to identify and develop our talent and also to build our recruitment processes, which, 10 years ago, were very limited. Succession planning is a part of our strategic plan, and the development of a succession plan for key positions in the district is a specific tactic in that plan.
Now we have a dedicated team with a senior manager who leads our entire recruitment effort across all divisions and departments, as well as at the schoolhouse. We also are very proud of the data management systems that we’ve put in place to track evaluations, as well as our HR processes. We have also spent most of our time on talent identification, which is part of our succession plan.
We’ve created talent pools for our assistant principals and principals. We’ve also developed a forced ranking leadership exercise that we refresh every two years. We make talent development a part of our discussions at our cabinet, at our executive staff level, as well as a part of our departmental meetings. We’ve also developed leadership competencies that cut across positions in our district. Moreover, we have certain competencies that are unique to specific leadership positions.
We’ve spent time thinking about executive leadership and making sure we’re developing our cabinet and executive level leadership, as well as making sure every employee has an individualized leadership growth plan. And then we have performance management, our mid-year and year-end evaluations. We have measurable performance goals, as well as professional goals. We’ve also developed a pathway for our teachers, who can see a pathway for remaining as a teacher, or pathways for becoming a literacy, math or science coach, or being a facilitator, where their primary role would be supporting teachers in the classroom with side-by-side coaching or supporting instructional planning PLC’s for those teachers.
Another option for our teachers would be to move into the assistant principal/principal pathway, or to pursue a district office position.
Essentially, what we try to do every couple of years is ask every senior manager to “force rank” the members of their team, which means they have to distribute an equal number of team members in each of the four quartiles of leadership potential. We ask them to think about four categories. Category A is “ready now for executive level leadership.” Category B is “ready now for a more challenging senior management experience and/or shows potential for executive staff in the future.” Category C is “shows potential for more challenging senior management experience.” And Category D is “no evidence of readiness for a more challenging senior management experience.”
The idea of the forced ranking is to be able to see who our top quartile performers are, and then we develop a plan to create opportunities for these folks to step in as an emergency substitute in certain positions if needed. We look at that top quartile within a team to see if there’s a person ready to step in as an interim in a position that suddenly becomes open.
It can also be a very helpful tool at the building level, where a principal does a forced ranking of teachers and then matches that to scores on an evaluation instrument, as well as the impact that particular teacher is having on student achievement. Some of our best work has been done in the principal pipeline. We were one of six districts in the country that received a Wallace Foundation Grant specifically to look at developing a pipeline of school leaders, both for the assistant principal and the principal position.
In our principal pipeline, first we think about what the leadership standards are for that particular division, department or school, making sure that the job descriptions, the training, how we hire and the professional development are aligned to leader standards. We realized our alignment was not as tight as we might have hoped.
We want to think about high-quality training, and that for us includes the recruitment, our preservice experiences, the selection hiring process related to our talent pool, how we evaluate and support individuals once they are in the role, and then how we align all of those four components into a coherent and highly effective system.
We had a complete void in the district when it came to principal induction, as well as assistant principal induction. We started thinking about how we were inducting people to the role that would ensure that they were successful, stayed in the position and developed their skills. In the case of assistant principals, we were doing a better job of preparing the assistant principals to step into the principal role by offering a two-year induction process.
As part of our induction process, the first two years are spent on instructional leadership and time management. Our first-year principals are assigned to a professional learning community of other first-year principals with a sitting principal as a coach. They spend two years in that professional learning community. In their third year they participate in a leadership institute at Queens University Business School, where they learn about leadership and how to be a change leader. In their fourth year they participate in The Innovation Institute, which encourages them to take skills learned about leading change and think about pushing the boundaries of the box that we so often see our principals putting themselves in. We also have a Capstone Experience where they begin to see their role not only leading at the school level, but also impacting the broader district while they remain a building-level principal.
We’ve done an analysis of our principal induction. We’ve had two cohorts of principals complete the entire five-year experience, and the results are exciting. By the end of year three, our induction program participants had a higher evaluation on all standards than folks who had not participated in principal induction. By year five, both of the cohorts were effective, with no statistical difference between their performance on all the standards. Over the five years, the comparison groups showed slow, steady yearly improvement while the induction group made larger gains each year. We had a set of experienced principals who didn’t have the benefit of going through the induction, and what we saw was that our principals who were supported in the induction process emerged as principals of the year in year three, four and five. We also attribute that to a more rigorous selection process.