What Candidates Look for in a Board
A national search executive outlines the characteristics to consider when in the midst of a career move in the superintendency
BY HANK GMITRO/School Administrator, March 2018

From start to finish, it usually takes four to five months and involves considerable stakeholder input, vetting of candidates and interviews by board members. Districts usually conduct community forums, hold focus group meetings and use stakeholder surveys to gather information about desired characteristics in their next superintendent.

School district personnel and search consultants vet candidates against those criteria to generate a slate for fuller consideration. Board members spend hours reading applications, interviewing candidates, conducting reference calls and discussing the pros and cons of candidates to determine the best fit.

That’s the demand side of the equation. What about the supply side?

Defining Traits
What is it that candidates seek in a board of education when they are looking to make a move and take on a new superintendency? No process exists for defining the characteristics that superintendent candidates seek in the board with which they may be working. There is no profile for candidates about the board conducting the search. There is no scorecard on the board’s effectiveness.

The qualities and characteristics of a board that are important to candidates will certainly vary, but based on the experience of dozens of searches and discussions with hundreds of candidates, a few common qualities have emerged.

Two Misconceptions
First, we ought to dispel a couple of typical misconceptions about what superintendents want in a relationship with a board.

First and foremost, many educators and lay people assume a superintendent wants a board that agrees with their recommendations and votes unanimously in support. While superintendents want to be in alignment with their boards, they fully understand that the board’s purpose is to consider various perspectives and to reflect the community’s desires.

They understand governance means differences of opinions, built-in tensions and difficult decisions. The conflict surrounding decision making is simply part of the process. One of the critical issues for superintendents (discussed below) is how a board handles conflict.

A second frequent misconception is that the board’s job is to set policy and the superintendent’s job is to manage the school district — a division of responsibilities whose distinct borders should never be crossed. Knowledgeable superintendents and effective boards know that the division is much more fluid with constant navigation by both sides to maintain a healthy working relationship. Superintendent candidates who understand this dynamic tension realize they can’t control this relationship, but they do want to be able to work with the board to set boundaries.

Board Professionalism
Probably the foremost characteristic that candidates want to observe in a prospective board is professionalism. This trait gets back to the issue of how the board handles decision making, conflicts and differences of opinion. Potential candidates seek out boards with the ability to openly and honestly discuss issues, debate the pros and cons, decide after thorough deliberation and then support the board’s decision.

Superintendent candidates know full well that differences of opinion exist. What’s critical is to find evidence of a board’s handling of those differences. Does the board break down into factions and let emotions rule, or does the board act in a professional and thoughtful manner to make decisions and then stand behind them?

The fallout of not acting in a professional manner was illustrated in a recent search where board members divided deeply over handling confidentiality in the search. The board voted 4–3 to maintain a confidential search process, meaning the names of final candidates would not be released.

Several months later and just days prior to the board’s initial interviews, two board members sent a letter to the editor of the local newspaper stating they did not support the decision to keep the search confidential. Once the letter appeared, all of the slated candidates considered withdrawing out of fear that those board members would breach confidentiality.

Candidates for a superintendency pay close attention to the behavior of boards and individual board members during the search process. When a school board is in strife or board members act as rogue agents, candidates take great pause as they question whether they can effectively work with that board.

Philosophy Alignment
A second significant variable for candidates is whether they believe they are philosophically aligned with the board and the direction desired for the schools. While beliefs and views may vary, superintendent candidates need to be aligned with the board on philosophy and direction to be effective.

Search consultants often advise board members that they should realize the candidates are sizing them up as the board is interviewing them. One key variable for a candidate is whether his or her philosophy and beliefs about organizational health and performance align with the board’s. It is not uncommon to see candidates withdraw from a search after the initial interview with the board because they do not see a good fit with that board.

Better this decision be made early in the process before a board selects a candidate who ends up not being a good match. Boards must be clear in their expectations for leadership style and organizational management as they speak to candidates during the interview process to avoid problematic relationships down the line.

Saying No
Successful school districts have clearly defined strategic directions that are understood throughout the organization. One of the biggest challenges for school boards given the wide array of their responsibilities, the divergent opinions and expectations of their stakeholders, and the multitude of issues that arise during the school year, is to stay focused on the district’s strategic directions and say “no” to issues that detract from the vision and mission.

Superintendent candidates aspire to work for a board that has the discipline to define the district’s direction, align resources to support that direction, monitor the results in achieving their priorities and stave off pressures and often well-intended pursuits that are not aligned with the strategic initiatives of the district.

Some highly successful superintendents have left the superintendency because they felt the political pressures to be responsive to special interests, and advocacy groups (often championed by board members) were making it impossible to stay focused on the district’s core mission. While the board said they wanted the superintendent to implement the strategic plan with fidelity, the superintendents found board members were bringing forth issues and initiatives that were diluting or redirecting the efforts. They felt progress on the critical initiatives was impossible when board members primarily championed individual causes.

A Growth Commitment
Even given a common philosophy, alignment around strategic directions and a commitment to professionalism, superintendent candidates are keenly interested in knowing that boards are willing and able to work on defining the working relationship between the board and the superintendent and their role as a governance body.

Two reasons lie behind this desire. First and foremost, as mentioned previously, the division between the superintendent’s responsibilities and the board’s responsibilities is not a distinct line in the sand. This fluid division of labor needs to be constantly monitored and discussed to ensure its vitality and mutual commitment. The division of responsibilities may also be situational and in need of discussion given the problems or issues being addressed.

Secondly, board members change on a periodic and a regular basis. In most states, board elections happen every two to four years, meaning the board that hired the superintendent may quickly evolve. Even the change of one board member means the working relationship and ground rules between the superintendent and board need to be discussed and redefined. For the superintendent to believe he or she can make a long-term commitment to a school district, the superintendent needs to feel the board has a culture of professional growth in their governance role and a commitment to a process of defining the ground rules for their ongoing relationship.

Examples abound of superintendents saying “The board that hired me is no longer the board with whom I am working.” Without the ability to revisit professionalism, strategic directions and their working relationship, the trust that exists between the superintendent and the board can quickly evaporate and the relationship might deteriorate.

This disconnect can lead to the school board deciding this is not the superintendent it needs or wants or the superintendent coming to the conclusion that he or she no longer is a good match with that board. It is not uncommon for these relationships to change within a couple of years if the board does not have the tools or the desire to work on this relationship.

Behavior Observed
While the process candidates use to assess the characteristics of the board may be varied and informal, it still plays a critical role in a candidate’s decision about applying for a given position or accepting a job offer.

Board members should always remember that their “public” and “behind the scenes” behaviors are being considered and evaluated by candidates. Those behaviors and char-acteristics may make the difference in whether a board is able to hire the right candidate for their district.

HANK GMITRO is president and chief search associate of Hazard, Young, Attea and Associates in Schaumburg, Ill. Twitter: @ecragroup