A Regional Network Catapults New Leaders
BY SUZETTE LOVELY/School Administrator, March 2020

A cadre of female leaders from the Oceanside Unified School District in San Diego County, Calif., composed a tour de force at the Women in Education Leadership Institute last September at California State University San Marcos.
A few months after retiring from the superintendency, I delivered a keynote address at the Women in Leadership Forum, co-sponsored by AASA and the Association of California School Administrators, in Southern California. This was a two-day conference for female education leaders from across the region.

While I found the breakout sessions to be insightful, attendees clearly left the event hungry for something more. I walked away thinking, “What else can we do to help female leaders fortify the strategies, finesse and connections they need to navigate their careers?”

During my own professional journey over 34 years working in three school systems, I had many female role models and mentors. But what made the biggest difference was having sponsors — both men and women who advocated for me with higher-ups and positioned me to shine. While mentorships can be valuable, sponsorships actually catapult women into leadership positions.

We needed to find a way to champion the work of women educators aspiring to higher levels of leadership. Establishing broad networks and personal contacts was crucial to these efforts.

Infusing Confidence
Recognizing the wellspring of female superintendents (and potential sponsors) in San Diego County, Calif., I approached Brenda Hall, director of the Southern California Professional Development Federation, about her organization’s interest in launching a more legacy-building collaborative.

Now three years later, the Women in Education Leadership network has grown to 320 participants from 42 school districts and colleges across Southern California. Dedicated to personal development and practical application, WEL brings together female leaders at all stages of their career to learn and grow together through a five-day institute or three-day symposium.

The network’s mission is to create the time and space for women leaders to convene for learning, connection and inspiration and empower participants with confidence. 

We recognize women have a valuable perspective and differing skillset than men. For this reason, added layers of communication, problem-solving and relationship-building techniques must be brought to the table. Through cohorts, engagement occurs over longer periods (versus one-and-done activities) and creates bonds among women who otherwise would not connect.

Wide-ranging topics include leading with presence, how to “girl up” school life and speed mentoring. In one popular session, Marilou Ryder, a former superintendent, shares smart strategies to build job-seeking skills and to encourage participants to consider positions that lie ahead — even if they’re not planning to leave their current role.

Consider how this played out for one unwitting attendee a few days after she attended Ryder’s session. Here’s what she wrote to the institute’s organizers:

“I wanted to share my personal experience that hopefully will inspire you and validate what you do.

“After the WEL weekend, I went on Edjoin. There was a principal position closing the following day. Having been inspired to put myself out there and get rid of my ‘inner critique,’ I applied. I proceeded to prepare my 90-second first interview response with just enough examples (as you taught me).

“When I was called in for the first interview, the person walking me to the panel was someone I had met at WEL!! From this 1st round to the 4th round, I was able to tap into not only my personal experience, but also things I got out of the conference to help answer the questions.

“After the 4th round, the Superintendent was amazed at how great a fit I am for [the district]. While I still have my inner critique … it was your work that gave me the courage to take the next step. I thank God for putting you ladies in my life!”

A Deep Pool
Such stories affirm how this type of professional development fills a void. What’s especially remarkable about the network is the deep pool of superintendents and other outstanding administrators eager to pay it forward. Presenters give freely of their time and become role models, sponsors and, in some cases, colleagues and supervisors to participants.

The Women in Education Leadership network is a tipping point in our quest to build a global community of female leaders united around common concerns women face as they move through their careers. The learning and social capital is worth its weight in gold.

SUZETTE LOVELY, a retired superintendent, is an education consultant in San Clemente, Calif., and author of Ready for Anything: Four Touchstones for Future-focused Learning. Twitter: @SuzetteLovely