Superintendent succession plans foster leadership, continuity, and quality

March 01, 2017

On every new K-12 superintendent’s first day, part of that person’s job should be to start looking for the next superintendent. School boards and administration leaders are usually so relieved to have a new superintendent in place, the idea of succession planning isn’t on anyone’s mind. But it should be.

Establishing a pipeline for top talent in your district is an important advantage, even if a new superintendent won’t be needed for many years. Sports teams call it “bench strength.” It means you have people who are not only qualified to step in for a starter, they make the whole team better by staying engaged, prepared, and loyal.

Succession plans: Not just for emergencies

A word about terminology: “succession plan” can mean many things, and your district may already have something in place that uses the term. It may not, however, be a true succession plan. For example, none of the following is a true succession plan:

  • An emergency plan: Somewhere in your district’s disaster preparedness plan, is there a bullet point that identifies who, specifically, would take over as interim superintendent should the current superintendent be unavailable suddenly? That’s good. But it’s not a succession plan.
  • An organizational chart: Even if your organizational structure includes a clear second-in-command to the superintendent — and even if that person is clearly a good choice as a successor — that’s not a strong bench. Assistant or deputy superintendents frequently move on to become superintendents in other districts. You need more qualified candidates in the pipeline.
  • A hand-picked successor: It’s not unusual for superintendents to groom specific people to replace them. Sometimes the grooming process is in the open and sometimes it’s behind the scenes. Certainly, this arrangement has worked just fine. But as with the second-in-command scenario, it leaves too much to chance.


4 first steps to creating a real succession plan

To create a true succession plan in your district, get started with these steps:

  1.  Document the plan
    District administrators and board members will need to research succession plans, and document how they want your district’s plan to work. This way, you’ll have the board’s buy-in and understanding of the plan up front.
  2. Name a champion
    Superintendents generally shouldn’t run the nuts and bolts of the succession plan. For one thing, superintendents are usually too busy. Also, in some situations, the board may consider it a conflict of interest. The board itself probably shouldn’t try to administer the plan either, because of the potentially rapid board turnover.
    The district’s HR leader may be a good choice to run the succession plan day-to-day. That person can champion the program, interview candidates, organize training, manage the pipeline, and report directly to the board on the plan’s progress.
  3. Conduct hands-on cross-training
    The people in your succession program will certainly all have busy schedules, but training is crucial. Your program should require candidates to spend a little time in different schools, sitting in on meetings with the full board or individual members, parent and community groups, etc.
    Candidates should work with district CFOs, CTOs, facilities supervisors, and other key personnel to see directly the challenges faced in those areas.
    Cross-training opportunities may be difficult to arrange, but they’re important. They demonstrate your commitment to the mentoring process, which may earn more loyalty from those in the program. Also, some additional perspective can only help candidates do their jobs better and work more effectively with your existing leadership.
  4. Follow-through with candidates and the board regularly
    Succession plan participants should get regular feedback on their progress, and they should understand clearly what’s expected of them. Asking for their feedback on what they’ve learned should yield valuable insight regarding your district operations.
    The program’s champion should also be updating the board regularly on the progress. Consider doing this more than just once per year during annual strategic planning. Keep the program’s value on your board’s radar, so they understand why the candidates are using some of their valuable time to participate. The other key reason for regular follow-through is to review whether elements of your written plan need to be changed. If something’s not working, the plan needs to change promptly, so it stays relevant and effective.

Preparing your next superintendent now means that this person will be ready to build upon your current superintendent’s successes, rather than spending months or years getting up to speed.

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[Jim Thorpe]
[Jim Thorpe]