Now I Am One!

“What do I do first?” a rookie superintendent asks his sage adviser by ROBERT L. REEVES AND EILEEN HAAG
Barry Moore was fidgeting, waiting for the phone to ring. This was the day the school board president in the Sunrise Valley School District was to announce the board’s choice for a superintendent.

Then the phone rang and all of a sudden he thought maybe he really didn’t want to know.

“Dr. Moore, it’s THE CALL,” his secretary said.

“This is it,” he thought, taking a deep breath.

“ Barry,” said the board chair, “I’m calling to congratulate you on your selection as the new superintendent of Sunrise Valley. The vote for you was unanimous.”

Barry was so excited he could hardly talk. Somehow he managed to acknowledge the news, assuring the chairman he’d do his best to justify the board’s confidence.

After hanging up, he slowly absorbed what had just happened. He gathered his thoughts and said to himself, “Now I am one!”

The euphoria didn’t last long. As reality set in, he realized he had been so focused on getting the job he hadn’t spent much time thinking about how he would do the job. “Now what do I do?” he asked himself.

He remembered his doctoral professor’s offer to help his students. He quickly looked up his number on the card scanner.

“This is Bob Johnson.”

“Hi, it’s Barry Moore, and I really need some help.”

Johnson, a professor of educational leadership, remembered Moore as a good student. It must have been about five years ago.

Johnson’s curiosity was aroused. “So what kind of trouble are you in?”

“Big trouble,” Barry said, “but good trouble. You’re talking to the new superintendent of Sunrise Valley, so now I am one.”

“Congratulations!” Johnson said. But his former student quickly interrupted him.

“That’s the good news. The bad news is I start in six weeks. I want to survive at least this first year. Can you help me?”

“ I guess all you learned from me went in one ear and out the other,” Johnson teased. But he knew exactly how Moore was feeling.

“Not everything,” Barry said, joining in the lighthearted exchange. “Now I‘m the boss and supposed to know all the answers.”

Johnson laughed out loud. “You know, Barry, you sound just like Robert Redford in the movie, ‘The Candidate.’ After all the struggle and compromise of winning an election campaign, he turns to his campaign manager and asks, ‘What do we do now?’”

“We need to find some time so you can fill me in about the district. How about if we meet for coffee at the Denny’s near my office around 4 p.m. on Tuesday?”

“Sounds good. See you then.” Barry confirmed.

Velocity of Change
After Johnson put down the phone his mind began racing, thinking about the challenges ahead for the excited new superintendent. I believe I can shorten the transition time. The first year is always fraught with opportunities to err.
One thing Johnson had learned, sometimes painfully during his own days in school district administration, is that during a change process you can’t move faster than your people and the community.

Johnson outlined what should be covered in the first meeting.

What was the board looking for? What were his predecessor’s weaknesses?

Do you know the territory? Like the opening song in “The Music Man,” you gotta know the territory.

Setting goals, channeling change and surviving the first 12 months. Clearly defining Barry’s personal goals. He’ll survive by being flexible. Things will happen he can’t even dream of now.

The First Meeting
Barry arrived at Denny’s 10 minutes early and found Dr. Bob going through some notes; there were two cups of coffee on the table.

“I ordered your coffee since there’s no time to waste,” Johnson said with a welcoming smile. And the conversation began.

“Let’s start with what you know. What do you think the board was looking for when they picked you? Tell me what happened to your predecessor?” Johnson began in rapid-fire fashion.

“Apparently after giving him a great evaluation in January the board on a 4-1 vote fired him in March.”

“Sounds like you’ve got a pretty unpredictable board. We’ll get to that, but for now let’s talk about the weaknesses that caused the board to fire him. It’s important to know because boards almost always hire to counter the perceived weaknesses of the predecessor. Sometimes they forget that a new superintendent should have well-rounded skills--not skills just for short-term crisis needs. We’ll devise a strategy to get the board to look forward rather than backward, and that’s what you should do, too.”

“Let’s talk more about that at our next meeting. You are going to stay with me through this, aren’t you?” Barry asked, feeling so much better to have someone to talk with.

“Sure, I’ll do the coaching and you do the heavy lifting because I’ve been there and done that. Now, I’m happy to say, it’s your turn.”

“Let’s change the focus,” Johnson said. “What are the challenges as you see them?”

“There is the issue of the divided board, as it seems to be split on whether the curriculum should be the tried-and-true approaches supported by the new state assessment program or whether the district leadership can be open to new ideas.

“I’d like to do more than prepare kids to get good SAT scores and into college,” Barry continued. “What really matters is what kids ought to know to be effective when they leave high school and college. I believe in all students learning, whatever it takes. I have to convince both camps on the board that both of them are right.”

“Next I worry about labor negotiations,” Barry said. “The teachers’ union has my commitment to come to the table and negotiate. They don’t trust the current management representatives.”

Basic Survival
The professor let some quiet interrupt their conversation and then said softly, “I learned a long time ago there is no one best answer to any of the challenges you’re going to face. You have to read each situation and adapt as necessary. There are ways to get to win-win negotiations. That will take time and commitment from you, the board and the union. This kind of change is usually slow and time consuming, but it can be done.”

Johnson raised his voice and increased its intensity, signaling what he was about to say would be important. “But it always helps to stop and organize what you know. Let’s do some backward thinking. Where do you want to be at the end of this first year? We need to begin our planning around year-end goals, taking into account where we are today and planning with the end in mind.”

“The first thing,” Barry responded, “is that I want the board to recognize that I’ve done a good job in the first year so they want to keep me around for at least three more.”

“Basic survival is a good place to start,” Dr. Bob agreed.

“Speaking of survival,” Barry said, “I don’t think I told you that after I was introduced at the board meeting, a newspaper reporter stuck a microphone at me and asked what my vision for the district is?”

“What did you say?” Dr. Bob asked, seeming anxious.

“I didn’t really say much specific as I was caught off guard. Never did I dream this would happen. I wasn’t prepared. I talked about improving the schools and being part of the community, I think. I haven’t seen the paper yet. You know I really didn’t have a specific vision. I worked so hard to get the job I never really looked ahead. I think I could answer that question a lot better now.”

Basic Tenets
Looking at his watch, Dr. Bob shook his head. “Let’s review some basic tenets for any new superintendent:

1. Identify your predecessor’s weaknesses and strengths;
2. Define your own vision based on your own strengths;
3. Be prepared to articulate your vision;
4. Know your territory and what is expected of you;
5. Organize what you know;
6. Set goals;
7. Do backward thinking;
8. Decide how to get to your goals from where you are now; and
9. Keep the main thing the main thing--student learning.

“We know the No. 1 thing that followers want in a leader is someone they can trust or who is worthy of their trust. Remember in the ‘game of trust’ the leader must ante up first. Tell people who you are. Be honest, and you’ll figure things out as you go,” Dr. Bob said as reassuringly as he could.

“We’ve started on some really good work here,” he added. “The most important thing is for you to crystallize your vision. I like your focus on student learning. Effective student learning is why you are in this business and the main reason you got the job.”

They agreed to meet in two weeks to do more planning.

As they left the diner, the two shook hands. Barry now is one, and Dr. Bob was there to help.

Bob Reeves, who retired after 26 years as superintendent of the Poway Unified Schools in San Diego, is president and CEO of Reeves Consulting Group, 12659 Senda Acantilada, San Diego, CA 92128. E-mail: rreeves@san.rr.com. Eileen Haag is a communication consultant based in southern California.