You are here


Power to Lead

Seasoned administrators share strategies for identifying and encouraging potential leaders.

At Jefferson County Public School District in Louisville, Ken., administrator staff meetings can at times evolve into a superintendent's covert operation. Stephen Daeschner admits that he'll get "a little bit sneaky" if there seem to be too many uniform opinions around the room about an instructional strategy, organization of a building or another decision.

"I will take an opposing point of view just to see how convinced people are of their stances," he says. "Everyone understands eventually that they can argue with the superintendent." In the end, the right decision comes out. And his colleagues have learned the importance of considering a situation from all angles.

"It's the art of getting people to ask good questions," says Diane Ricciardi, the district's director of administrator recruitment and development, in response to what she has just discovered about her boss' discussion technique.

Daeschner is honing his own leadership skills as part of a network of superintendents involved in the Wallace-Reader's Digest Funds' Leadership for Educational Achievement in Districts initiative. First-year LEAD grants awarded to Jefferson County and 11 other districts aim to improve student learning by reforming leadership practices.

Leadership's role in school reform is of extraordinary interest now, says Mary Lee Fitzgerald, director of education programs at Wallace Funds. The attention was born from the general lack of quality candidates for principalship and superintendency positions, new instructional requirements of education leaders and overall lack of value placed on administrative positions, she says.

Through formal programs and informal relationship building, district leaders are identifying those with the greatest potential. Realizing that small doses of encouragement make a lasting impression, these forward-looking leaders are also taking action to ensure administrators will be ready to take on the challenges of life at the top.

Environment of Nurture

The traditional lock-step school district structure grants promotions mainly by years of service. "Those places simply don't encourage growth and movement [or] creation of talent at an early point in the career," says Eric Smith, superintendent of Anne Arundel County Schools in Annapolis, Md.

Smith remembers several employees getting multiple promotions during his six years at the helm of Charlotte-Mecklenburg (N.C.) Schools. Districts conducive to leadership have professional development supports in place.

Employees in these districts often see their superintendent as a model leader. "You've got to walk the leadership walk and talk the leadership talk," says Larry Leverett, superintendent of Plainfield (N.J.) Public Schools. To him, this means demonstrating integrity and trying to be the leader others wish to become.

Leadership-oriented superintendents believe that strong district support for building-level administrators, especially those green to the administrative playing field, is crucial. "Principals today really need to know the business," Smith says. New principals will make mistakes, adds Thomas Fowler-Finn, who heads Fort Wayne (Ind.) Community Schools.

Fort Wayne's LEAD grant funds a five-tier administrator academy system offering support for teachers exploring the idea of administration, teachers who have made the decision to become principals, first-year principals, principals beyond that first year, and "master" principals. New principals are linked with experienced principals who "take them under their wing a little bit," Fowler-Finn says.

Community School District 10 in Bronx, N.Y., is using LEAD money to expand its principal coach model, which this year has 12 coaches working with a few principals each. Coaches help in goal setting, and the partners become "critical friends to one another," says Superintendent Irma Zardoya.

"In order to support principals, we needed to capitalize on the expertise of principals themselves instead of relying on the central office," she adds. Zardoya and her executive team meet with two coaches weekly to discuss progress, and all coaches meet monthly for dinner.

Administrators attending school themselves can benefit from extra personal support. Diane Rutledge, superintendent of Springfield (Ill.) Public School District 186, meets informally with a group of women principals and assistant principals pursuing their doctorates. Over coffee, they chat about time management and other issues.

Mentoring takes place within the central office, too. Through Harvard's Urban Superintendents Program, Leverett has mentored three interns for six months each. A commitment to providing psychological and social support starts with mentoring skills training for the superintendent. With support from other mentors and Harvard professors who know both parties, any problems that arise can be discussed.

For instance, the program requires that interns write "second-guess memos" about the leader's decisions. "Superintendents have strong egos and really do not like to be second-guessed by anyone, let alone the intern," Leverett says. One memo about his work questioned his "laser-like focus on teaching and learning." Leverett's formal training allowed him to step back, reflect on the situation and calmly offer the intern feedback. "You just can't get pissed off!" he says.

Leadership Leaps

Encouraging current administrators to continue developing their skills, superintendents agree, is a big part of their role. Smith says this means "carving out time to be in places where that kind of encouragement can occur," such as at staff development activities.

In cabinet meetings at Sacramento City Unified School District, Superintendent Jim Sweeney says there's not much "talk about nuts and bolts" anymore." Instead he uses the meetings as professional development time, often with books providing a starting point. The group recently discussed Good to Great by Jim Collins, which covers the leadership of "greatness."

Informally, Sweeney attempts to "tell everybody everything." Explaining the what and the why of a decision is the best way to prepare administrators for higher roles. "People really like that. I think it honors them. [And] when people have a deeper understanding of all these things, they're going to be more effective," he says.

Making administrators aware of specific areas in which they might improve can bring them closer to the next career step. Rutledge says she has "dealt with some folks who are very curt with the public." Besides not taking time to listen, they make decisions without all the facts. She reminds them of the need for effective communication. In addition, Rutledge encourages principals with central office aspirations to join district-wide committees to gain awareness of big-picture issues.

Lincoln (Neb.) Public Schools recently sent 50 of its principals and central office administrators to a Wallace Funds training program with four other districts. Superintendent Philip Schoo says the training helped them with their current jobs and covered skills they'll need to take on greater responsibility.

Meanwhile, principals in Jefferson County go through mock interviews and other simulation exercises as part of their training in data analysis, dealing with special interest groups, policymaking and other areas.

Importance of Identification

While principals are on the front lines in schools, superintendents believe they, too, must play a role in identifying and encouraging teachers with administrative potential. "A lot of it is creating a school system that keeps [its] eyes open for future talent, then providing opportunities for these people to be engaged and involved," Smith says.

Because many principals and APs in Zardoya's Bronx district have left within three years, she's made it a priority to develop leadership through the ranks. For Rutledge, this means interacting with Springfield's teachers union and meeting with department chairs within schools. She might ask union leaders to provide leadership opportunities for a particular teacher. In addition, teachers might be asked to spend some time helping out in the central office. Smith encourages teachers to join district planning councils and committees, as well.

"One of the things I do is visit all the schools in the district," says Schoo. "A lot of superintendents do that, but I have a regular schedule, and I get to every school in the district, in the mornings before school starts." Besides walking the building and talking to faculty, he'll get the principal's perspective on who the great teachers are.

Sweeney makes a point to teach the first class in a local program for aspiring administrators, explaining that they're welcome to meet with him individually to discuss their careers. Last semester, about half of them did just that.

Daeschner says he doesn't usually identify teachers directly. "But every once in a while I have a principal call me and say, 'I have a great candidate [who] could use your encouragement.' " Then he might help the teacher explore available "what's next" options.

Fitzgerald from Wallace Funds says that even a short conversation with the superintendent can make a big difference in a teacher's life. "Usually someone moves up when someone taps [him or her] on the shoulder and says, 'You know what? You're going to be a principal in two years.' "

Each candidate in Jefferson County's program for aspiring administrators becomes an administrator for a day. "They go through actual 'in boxes' with problems" involving race issues and other sensitive matters, Ricciardi says. People even role play as angry parents. Teachers use feedback from the exercise to write a growth plan and do some work in their own buildings.

Continuing the Upward Search

The next step for superintendents is to notice their best principals. Daeschner starts with those who focus on power and money; these "people ... get weeded out real quick. ... You've got to have passion and compassion."

Schoo adds, "The people who make exceptional leaders are people who aren't satisfied. ... They have high expectations."

Participants in Fort Wayne's master principal academy have closed the achievement gap, demonstrated abilities to move an organization forward and overcome other challenges, Fowler-Finn says. His deputy superintendent, who's enrolled in the Broad Center for Superintendents, is there because she is respected within the district, sensible, focused on children's needs and able to delegate, he explains. She also understands the strategic plan and that a "job is not done until you see, feel and touch it in the field."

Besides interpersonal skills, Zardoya looks for organized administrators who can take a program from its conceptual stages through implementation with precision.

Schoo helps those with superintendency aspirations to get a clear picture of how the job differs from other administrative roles. Would they be comfortable working with the school board? Being held accountable for everything, from declaring snow days to having their salaries published, superintendents must be able to endure scrutiny.

Because of these and other realities of the job, getting people to want the superintendency is tough. "Often as they get closer to the fire they say, 'I don't ever want to do that!' " Smith says. "Those who have made the transition have probably found the job is not as daunting as they originally thought."

That's why Schoo also communicates the positives about his job. The position allows him to have a great impact, although indirectly, on the learning of children. "When I hear from somebody, 'Oh, God, you've got the worst job in the community,' I don't let that comment pass without saying, 'No, I like what I do,' " he explains. "Do I love everything about the job? No. But when I look at the total, I do."

Reaching the Top

Schoo tries to approach aspiring superintendents in a way "that they don't see it as [an] effort to get rid of them." He acknowledges, however, that they may choose to pursue top positions elsewhere. "It's hard to lose them," Fowler-Finn says of the few who have left Fort Wayne in recent years to become superintendents.

Some superintendents have mixed feelings about encouraging people who may replace them one day. But the best leaders are eager to identify successors. "You want to be able to leave your district in good hands," Rutledge says.

Sweeney's team has shifted away from wanting results at year's end and toward the long-term perspective. "If you come in and you do something good and you leave and it falls apart or drops down a level, it's not a good sign of leadership," he says. "The minute you think 10 or 15 years out, you begin to think differently about your organization. ... You think about being great, and you think about the people."

Melissa Ezarik,, is features editor.