5 Tips to Lead Strategically as a New Superintendent

By: Anne Spear, PhD

As school districts face multiple crises, new superintendents must step in as strategic leaders. Maximize the first 100 days with these tips.

The past school year was challenging for all K–12 educators, including superintendents. While we’ve heard a lot about teacher burnout and resignations, turnover goes beyond the classroom: After all, up to 25% of superintendents were poised to leave their jobs at the end of the 2021–2022 school year. This churn reflects the grueling demands of leading in times of crisis. As captains of a district’s ship, superintendents have spent the last two years navigating tumultuous waters with an overworked crew. As new superintendents come aboard, they must not only orient themselves quickly, but also revive the crew and act as strategic leaders to steer the ship back on course.  

In the long shadow of the pandemic, the status quo at every school district has been disrupted. New superintendents face an enormous learning curve as they guide districts through sustained learning loss, staff shortages, fraying board relations, a wide range of community perspectives, and outdated strategic plans. Building on insights from Hanover’s New Superintendent Transition Toolkit, here are five tips to help new superintendents plan for success and rise above the shifting tides. 

Maximize Your Superintendent Listening Tour in a New School Community

A superintendent’s job is to bring together the school community under a common district vision and mission. As strategic leaders, one of their most important duties is to thoughtfully consider and address the diverse needs of many stakeholders, including the school board, staff, students, and families. Being strategic about how you engage a new community in the first 100 days as superintendent will help you start off on the right foot. Here are some tips as you begin in a new role: 

  •  Be open to listening and learning, rather than outlining your future vision when you first arrive. 
  • Think carefully about what questions you ask and how you ask them. We get the information we ask for, so if you are not asking the “right” questions, you may miss valuable information about your community groups. 
  • During listening tours, reflect on which voices are making themselves heard, which ones should be prioritized, and which ones might be missing. 
 Build a collaborative relationship with your board from day one. Download Hanover’s research brief on Effective Superintendent and School Board Collaboration.
 

Use School District Data to Widen Your Lens

Another aspect of learning about a new school community is collecting and analyzing district data. Quantitative data combined with survey findings and town hall feedback provide a full picture of a district’s performance, trends, and strategic direction. When evaluating data, here are some things to keep in mind: 

  •  Once you have drawn key insights from the quantitative and qualitative data, be sure to communicate about them so stakeholders have the same understanding of the district’s current state as you. 
  • Formulate a research-based protocol so your district systematically and consistently collects useful data points and stakeholder perspectives. This will allow your district to make sustained progress on its goals. 
Encourage administrators, teachers, and staff to develop a data mindset and become more comfortable with data analysis by following the steps in the Data Literacy Checklist

See Yourself as the School District’s Strategic Thinker

After familiarizing yourself with the community’s needs and data, the next step is to ensure they align with the stated vision and mission of the district. Particularly during challenging times, superintendents must be strategic thinkers who are able to triangulate community voices and district data to understand the current state of the district. This assessment allows them to begin to take ownership of the vision and mission while avoiding distractions or missteps. Just as a captain sets the ship’s course, so must a superintendent lead the district on a path toward their vision. 

  • Make a distinction between strategic thinking and strategic planning. Thinking strategically allows leaders to critically review and adjust goals on an on-going basis (short-term goals) within traditional five-year strategic plans (which cover long-term goals). 
  • Use strategic short-term goals to guide the community toward new compass points and be transparent about these goals with all stakeholders. 
Read our research brief, Best Practices in District Leadership Strategic Thinking, to help guide your district’s strategic conversations.

Be Prepared to Lead the District During a Crisis and After

At the onset of a crisis, the captain’s job is to stay focused on the horizon and keep the ship moving toward safety. The passengers can panic, the crew can feel tired or frustrated, but the captain must maintain a resilient mindset and stay focused on keeping the ship afloat and on course. 

In the first two years of the COVID-19 pandemic, most superintendents were challenged by the tough decisions they suddenly faced. Understandably, many were stressed, overwhelmed, and perhaps unprepared for the extent of changes it would trigger. 

Now that we’re largely past the initial or acute crisis of COVID, we’re starting to enter a recovery stage, which comes with a whole new set of challenges for district leaders. In fact, reckoning with the aftermath of a crisis is often harder than withstanding the initial crisis itself. This year, we’re able to see more of the damage left in the pandemic’s wake, and that means we must begin repairing what’s been impaired or harmed. Yet, how many leaders have training in realigning strategic plans in post-crisis environments? To remain resilient, superintendents need tools to rebuild and adjust to a new landscape. Here are some ways to prepare for the work ahead:  

  • Conduct a strategic plan review to understand how the current plan aligns with the district’s current state 
  • Engage in self-reflection to assess your readiness to take on new challenges. Are there any leadership skills you would like to improve or develop? Do you have a method for assessing your current leadership skills? What skills will you need for developing strong collaborative relationships with your community?  
  • Be honest with others about the district’s need for repair. It’s ok to acknowledge that the ship needs maintenance to get back on course. Every district in the country faces a similar scenario, so these challenges should not be seen as unique to your community or your leadership. 
 Get advice on successful entry planning from other superintendents. Download Hanover’s webinar on Maximizing the First 100 Days: Incoming Superintendent Support

Absorb the District’s Mission, Vision, and Values Before You Change Anything

Strategic planning is the best way to move districts forward, but many superintendents will join districts this fall that already have established plans in place. In the first 100 days, it’s critical for incoming superintendents to learn and understand the district’s current mission, vision, and values — and existing strategic plan — even if you’ve already got big ideas for how to improve upon them. Remember:

  • Focus your first 100 days on listening and learning from as many stakeholders as possible. Try to uncover whether the values you hear and see in action are aligned with the “official” written ones. If there are differences, that gives you a starting point for asking deeper questions or building a roadmap moving forward.  
  • If a new strategic plan is called for, don’t begin developing it until after your first 100 days. Allow some time to learn what might truly be needed and effective in this time and in this place. 

 This school year, incoming superintendents face both immense opportunities and challenges. Make a choice to enter a new position as a leader of change who also respects the work, culture, and perspectives that precede them. Knowing when to be a collaborator and when to be a captain will make for much smoother sailing. 

 — Anne Spear, PhD, Senior Advisor, Strategic Planning, K–12 Education, Hanover Research 

Get more resources and guidance to help newly hired leaders make the most of their first 100 days. Download the New Superintendent Transition Toolkit.

New superintendents must act as strategic leaders who can lead in times of crisis

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