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Sunday, February 16, 2014

Off the Rack vs. Tailor Made

Two questions have shadowed me during my four years at Green Island. They have been posed by associates and friends familiar with my career.

1. Why did you decide to apply for and accept the position as superintendent of Green Island instead of applying for opportunities available at larger districts offering far more money and prestige?

2. Why are you still at Green Island instead of moving on and moving up?

My answer to both questions remains the same. It's all about the fit between my professional interests and goals and the community's general values and beliefs. That answer was recently reinforced in an example I will share later in this post. First, let's examine that term, "fit."

If you need a suit and you're in a hurry or want to save money, then purchasing a suit off the rack at a store is generally much cheaper than having one altered by a seamstress and a great deal cheaper than having one created by a tailor. But, in the end, the quality and value is determined by how well the suit fits and how long it lasts.

Some people are flexible in their perceptions on the fit and don't mind if it's a little tight at the waist or maybe a bit too long at the sleeve. They can accept the minor imperfections because they traded the quality for the lesser cost. So what if it's a little uncomfortable. Maybe it won't last a long time because of the lack of quality of the cloth. But, the cost was attractive and it saved time.

School districts have to engage in a similar decision of "fit" whenever they hire a superintendent. In the end, the ideal candidate is one who is aligned with the culture of the system and the dominant values and beliefs of the district. When either side, the Board of Education or the superintendent, compromise on the measurements by accepting the "a little too tight or a bit too long" accommodations the resulting discomfort can be awkward and expensive.

A number of years ago, I served as a principal in a large school district. While I felt successful with my efforts and contributions to the school, I labored in relative obscurity for five years among the thirty-two other elementary principals in a system that seemed to emphasize a "good enough" mentality rather than investing in pursuing excellence, developing opportunities or accepting the risks of innovation. Doing the "right thing" in that district was unappreciated and considered distracting and disrupting. Mediocrity was a greater priority than any meritocracy. The cost of reaching the district's potential was too expensive in terms of energy, effort, time, and money.

However, the district hired a new superintendent shortly after I was asked to serve as the principal of the lowest performing school in the entire system - an impoverished, high minority low socio-economic inner city junior high school. The new superintendent espoused the vision, values, and beliefs that collectively promoted the conditions that were likely to leverage success at the junior high school. He cleared the path for success for those who were willing to endeavor to pursue their potential as leaders. Soon after he arrived he hired a dynamic, compassionate and intelligent assistant superintendent for instruction. Together they formed a strong advocacy for the previously underserved. In addition, he hired a talented director of middle school instruction as the district began transitioning from traditional junior high school to middle schools that were more learner oriented and developmentally accommodating.

To make a long story shorter, because of that nexus of powerfully positive and constructive leadership at the central office, the school's achievement levels took off that year as it became unfettered of the over-regulation of the district's previous central office leadership and unburdened by the system's history of benign neglect of low SES schools regarding resource allocation. The school won newly created district-wide attendance awards for improvement, cut discipline referrals and suspensions by 75%, surpassed two other junior high schools on performance benchmarks, virtually eliminated vandalism, greatly reduced staff turnover, and experienced the highest results on surveys administered to parents/learners/staff at each school in the district.

Shortly after that year, the superintendent was pushed out by the Board and representatives of those groups that had long benefitted by the same status quo that he had disrupted with his vision of success for all, social justice, commitment to excellence, and equitable distribution of resources. His interest in changing the environment and direction of the school system clashed with powerful foes of who felt threatened politically and socially by the possible effects of closing the achievement gap among schools and learners across the district.

The assistant superintendent of instruction left the district less than a year later, then the middle school director, then me after I became dispirited by the district's retreat to its former condition. All of us departed the system within two years of the time that superintendent had arrived. I left with an expanded knowledge base and skill set, enhanced by learning from these extraordinary leaders.

The district moved ahead, discarded most of the initiatives the superintendent had stimulated and returned to the academic and social climate it had been accustomed to - as if the superintendent had never existed. Order was restored and equilibrium (at it was perceived for those in power) was returned.

Here's the punch-line of the story.

That assistant superintendent of instruction later became a leader of several different large districts and was selected as the United States Superintendent of the Year by the national superintendents association. That's a remarkable honor given that each of the fifty states picks the most effective superintendent to represent them in a process in which the fifty best are eventually reduced to four finalists for the nation-wide award. The winner is viewed as the best superintendent from thousands of district leaders across the country. There have only been 27 honorees, one for each year since the awards inception in 1987. Including the three finalists who were not ultimately identified as the winner, that means there have been 27 winners and 81 finalists over the years. A total of 108 distinguished superintendents.

If that's not enough to make the point where "beauty is in the eyes of the beholder," the superintendent who was pushed out by the district became one of the four finalists for the same Superintendent of the Year title not long ago on the basis of his outstanding level of leadership.

Imagine that? What are the odds that two people working in the same district would later become considered among the very best in their role from a pool of thousands of superintendents in America? What are the odds that that district, one that was fortunate enough to have the services of two such exceptional leaders, would discourage their efforts to promote success and encourage them to leave?

Fit is essential. Charles Garfield, author of one of my favorite books (Peak Performers) supplied this sage advice - "Make sure as you climb up the ladder that it's leaning up against the right wall."

I have my ladder resting against the right wall.

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