While the role of superintendent is critically important to the success of any school district, the importance of the senior leadership team cannot be understated. A strong senior leadership team can work collaboratively to ensure that strategic plans are more than just documents on a shelf and that the organization runs with operational excellence. Despite the critical role they play, there is limited research about how effective school senior leadership teams operate and how they are built. Some reflections for district leaders looking to put emphasis on this area:
- Superintendents should look to hire strong, diverse leaders rather than the “amen chorus.” While many leaders like to say they value highly effective leaders around them, they seek to hire individuals who think and act as they do. They view meetings as audiences and do not react well to pushback. Effective superintendents relish hiring strong leaders into key roles and not only desire, but create opportunities, for cabinet members to bring different perspectives, ideas and differences of opinion. This is best accomplished by hiring senior staff with a diversity of experience, background and skill sets.
- Create norms, core values and practices as a team. This is especially true when the team is new or adjusting to recently hired leaders. These concepts establish norms for the team, and should be written down and revisited often. Effective superintendents will ask for feedback if they are honoring these ideas and not just giving them lip service. While these practices will all be different based on context and settings, they should all be built around establishing trust and honesty within the team. That means that senior leaders will hold themselves and their colleagues highly accountable; the superintendent should hold themselves to the highest standards on the team.
- Do not give senior leader’s responsibility without authority and autonomy. Highly effective leaders have a passion for making positive change and accomplishing important work on behalf of staff and students. If their work is stymied by a micromanaging superintendent a negative culture begins to creep into the team. Senior leaders should be trusted to exercise good judgment, check in as needed and know when to ask for help and support. If a member of the team is struggling, then the superintendent should deal with that individual and not restrict the work of the entire team.
- Follow the basic rule of “public praise and private admonishment.” As direct reports to the superintendent, it’s important for all employees to know that the senior leadership team is trusted and respected. If cabinet members operate in a culture that lacks respect and where mistakes are made public to have the superintendent avoid blame, then they will respond by being risk adverse. This does not help further the critical work of the district. Superintendents should make sure their good work is acknowledged at board meetings and with staff; and, when there are issues, address concerns with that particular leader. This is especially true when it comes to senior staff and board members who are more aware of particular roles and responsibilities of senior staff. Superintendents who take credit for the good work of his or her cabinet but then quickly throw them under the bus when trustees ask questions do not understand the concept of being the one employee of the board.
Superintendents need strong teams and quality teams need leadership and support from their CEO. When these synergies occur, it proports great things for a school district.