Onboarding a New Superintendent
Onboarding a new superintendent is both exciting and a whirlwind of meetings and deadlines. These do’s and don’ts will help you formulate a strong working relationship with your new leader and cement your value as an integral part of the decision-making team. A successful onboarding process will set your leader up for success and smooth their road (and yours) along the way.
Before Your New Superintendent Starts
Your work begins before the new leader steps foot in the office. Consider starting with Jim Lukaszewski’s classic novel Why Should the Boss Listen to You?: The Seven Disciplines of the Trusted Strategic Advisor. Your role as a communications professional is to act as a bridge between your leader and stakeholders, ensuring that information is shared.
You are a magnifying glass, an interpreter, media liaison, storyteller and so much more. If you’re not already prepared to act as a strategic advisor, now is the time to prep for that role.
“When a new superintendent is named, it’s important to begin building a relationship immediately,” shares Toya Stewart Downey, Executive Director of Strategic Communications, Equity and Inclusion for Robbinsdale Area Schools. “I contacted Superintendent Engstrom even before he began working in Robbinsdale Area Schools to welcome him and pose a few questions to him – what size t-shirt he wore, what books he was reading and to find out more about when he was moving to the Twin Cities. It helped us get to know him, order branded logo-wear for him and plan for ways to help him connect to the community.”
- Develop a one-page overview of how your work supports the school system’s strategic work. Use a simple organizational approach that will be easy for your new leader to understand at a glance.
- Make a list of people you believe will be instrumental in the new leader’s success. Think beyond the usual suspects of principals, directors and the mayor. Who are the influencers who will help integrate her/him into the community?
The First 30 Days:
Look, Listen, Learn
A new superintendent’s first 30 days should be spent with the school community listening and learning. It can be tempting, especially for a school system in need, for a superintendent to jump directly into the deep end. Instead, the first 30 days need to be spent gathering feedback and exploring the culture—this is the time for listening, not speaking.
This holds true even for an internal promotion with someone that has already been involved with the school system— now is the time for community engagement in their new role.
Take a look at this fun video produced by White Bear Lake Area Schools, introducing an internal hire to the broader community—and immediately making him memorable. Kudos to Marisa Vette, APR, Director of Communications, who prioritized bringing humor into the situation and ensuring their new hire felt approachable and friendly to all.
As a communications professional, you can support a new superintendent by positioning yourself as their ally. Attend meetings with the new superintendent as they meet with stakeholder groups. Take pictures and video! This footage is invaluable in helping to tell your new superintendent’s story to your community.
Example: Robbinsdale Area Schools and Captivate Media partnered to develop a welcome video to introduce incoming Superintendent David Engstrom to their district community. This video presents the superintendent as someone who serves the community. It shows his dedication to students and highlights him as a person, a parent, and a community servant. Think welcoming, friendly, supportive—and ready to listen.
The video was a success, says Stewart Downey. “The video of him riding around the community was very well-received. For months afterward, people approached him to say hello or welcome him simply because they saw the video.”
- Position yourself as an ally to the superintendent.
- Help the superintendent develop consistent, straightforward questions to bring to the community.
- Attend meetings and stakeholder groups with the superintendent, so you can take notes and prompt follow-ups and thank yous.
- Keep kids front and center—they’re the why to everything you do. Be sure that student voice is included during these information-gathering sessions.
- Tell the story of the new superintendent as someone there to support the community.
- Focus on why initiatives failed in the past. A new leader is a fresh start, and things that were roadblocks in the past may no longer be a problem. You will have valuable insights, but be careful to focus on the objective issues – gaps in trust or understanding, leaders with conflicting priorities – not personalities or gossip.
Develop Your Leadership Identity
Whether you’re a big comms department or single-handedly running the show, there are things you can achieve and things you can’t. Don’t let the excitement of a new leader wrap you into overcommitting. Be clear in how you can help support the success of the new superintendent and the school system as a whole.
Stewart Downey offers this advice to anyone onboarding a new superintendent: “We think it’s important to put a portfolio together of the work you’ve done for the district and schools to share with new leaders. It helps them realize the depth and breadth of the communications department. And acquaint them with the district. It’s also important to help them discover ways to engage with the new community, whether it’s through social media or crafting columns to share with staff and families.“
- Have a conversation about your role. Has the superintendent worked with a communications pro/team in the past? How does the superintendent view the role of communications in the success of the district?
- Make clear your departmental goals and abilities. The new superintendent needs to know what you can accomplish and what you’ll need extra resources to complete.
- Agree that you’re in this together. Disagreements will happen in private. In public, you’ll support the superintendent with staff and community.
- Learn the strengths and weaknesses of your new leader. Are they energized by community engagement or exhausted by it? Do they excel in front of the television camera or shy away?
- Help your superintendent build their calendar for effective communication, which may include regular meetings with department heads or staff, newsletter columns to families, emails to staff, scheduled reviews of policy, crisis protocols and communications, and more. In addition, help them protect their time. Effective leaders cannot spend all their time in meetings and responding to emails. Encourage time-blocking for focus time and specific tasks. And at all costs—avoid scheduling back-to-back meetings. Leaders need time to think, process what they have learned, and linger for informal conversations between appointments.
The First 60 Days:
Analyze, Plan, Report
Once your whirlwind tour of introductory listening sessions completes, the new superintendent should have a great sense of student, community, staff and Board expectations. Now is the time for setting and sharing goals and, most importantly, timelines. You can help the superintendent develop language that explains her or his core values and educational philosophies and how these values align with your schools.
Analyze the feedback you’ve gathered together, develop a communications plan to summarize and present the information to stakeholders, and shape goals aligned to the school system’s strategic plan.
In 100-Day Leaders, authors Douglas Reeves and Robert Eaker warn against “fragmentation”— spreading out focus across so many goals that ultimately many do not come to fruition.
“Fragmentation, not focus, is the norm in the 21st century. Our research suggests, however, that focus—the prioritization of no more than six initiatives for any school or system—is strongly related to gains in student learning. Unfortunately, focus is elusive. Fragmentation does not occur due to malice on anyone’s part; it stems from noble motives. Have lots of high-poverty students? Here’s a new program! Have lots of English learners? Here’s another new program! Have lots of special education students? Here’s another new initiative! But however noble the motivations, fragmentation is associated with significantly lower levels of student learning.
For some communications professionals, you may feel like you’re at the end of the line for new initiatives. It’s important to be in the decision-making meetings, so you can report on the successes of programs and share the school district’s good work from the beginning. If your new superintendent isn’t used to working with an involved comms team, now is the time to foster a strong working relationship and ensure that you have a seat at the table.
Example: At the 6o-day mark, Osseo Area Schools Superintendent Cory McIntyre shared that the overall theme of his meetings with staff and the community was inclusion. Building on that work led the District to set and achieve several goals, which led to receiving recognition from the Special Olympics Minnesota for their work in bringing special education and general education students together for inclusive learning opportunities through their Unified Schools program.
- Develop positive, hopeful language. Even if your district has been in turmoil (or an outright tailspin). Now is the time to amp up optimism. Showcase the great things going on in your school system.
- Disperse information widely! Be sure not to leave out any stakeholder groups when sharing information (including students, too!)
- Consider sharing this information with district residents who have no connection to the school system. If your funding is through bond votes, this is a great time to reach out and make a connection with taxpayers.
- Look backward. Whether your community lost trust with a former leader or has trouble letting go of a beloved captain of the ship, this is the time to focus on your new superintendent. Focus on the future, and your community will come along with you. Honor the past, focus on the future.
The First 90 Days:
Build, Implement, Measure
All the work you’ve done to this point is fantastic but ultimately forgettable without results. Now is the time to share your short-term wins and the new practices you’ve built to ensure continued success.
Reeves and Eaker highlight trust as the most important thing you’ve built. “Staff will forgive leaders for their mistakes in data analysis, communication, charisma, and myriad other leadership requirements as long as staff trust them. But if leaders lose credibility, it doesn’t matter how competent they are in other fields … Credible leaders do what they say they will do. Therefore, within the first one hundred days of taking a leadership role, we recommend a rhythm of ‘promises made, promises kept’ for every meeting.”
Example: Superintendent Ben Barton prioritized identifying strengths and gaps when he became the new Princeton Public Schools Superintendent in 2018. Barton identified his short-term goals as building team culture and developing more personalized student experiences. He likened himself to a conductor, believing that “everyone needs to be playing together in order to make beautiful music.” In under four years, Barton has achieved many short-term goals and continues to share progress toward his long-term improvements: including redesigning personalized instruction for students.
- Get creative! How can you tell engaging stories? Show the impact of the work on students. Share your wins with local news media. Start collecting information now for your “one-year later” article.
- Forget to share progress and outcomes with your community. It can be frustrating for staff and the community to share feedback and then…crickets. If you ask your community for information and opinions, they deserve to see follow-up work. Schedule milestone deadlines on your internal calendar to keep track of your messaging and timelines.
- Lose steam! When the onboarding process is complete, and the real heavy lift begins, don’t let communications taper off. Building public trust requires consistent, honest communications.
School leaders are motivated by noble goals such as impacting the lives of children and improving public education, but lasting change often takes upward of 7 years—and the average superintendency tenure is less than that. A hire-and-hope-for-the-best strategy positions everyone in an awkward space, waiting for excellence to happen. However, a 100-day investment into building a strong culture will lay the groundwork for superintendents to be effective within their first years and you can foster excellence by establishing a practical cadence of communication from the beginning. An effective leader begins with effective onboarding.
Published on: March 28, 2022