Job Hopping Losing Its Stigma?
Some boards are more willing to tolerate short superintendent terms, though search heads say it depends on the situation
BY PAUL RIEDE/School Administrator, March 2018

Art Stellar (right), who spent 25 years as a superintendent, discussing school bonds with Kevin McIntyre, superintendent in Milford, Mass.
Art Stellar freely admits it: He sought out his first superintendency, in rural Mercer County, W.Va., as a stepping stone in his career plan.

“My goal when I first started out was to be superintendent of a large urban area,” he says. “There are two ways you get to be superintendent of a large urban area. One is you work in a large urban area and you work your way up, which can take forever. Or you’re a superintendent in a smaller district and then you move to be superintendent in an urban area.”

At the time, Stellar was an assistant superintendent in tony Shaker Heights, Ohio. A search consultant advised him he needed a low-income district on his resume, so he found one. He says he was open with board members in Mercer County, telling them he planned to stay for five years. But two years later, a headhunter found him, and he took the top job in Oklahoma City.

On paper, Stellar — now vice president of the National Education Foundation in McLean, Va. — fits the mold of a classic job-hopper. Over his 25-year career as a superintendent, he led seven different school districts. It was a great run, he says. He learned something at every stop and believes he improved each district he served.

Nonetheless, he agrees with the prevailing view of board members and superintendent searchers that in most cases a longer superintendent tenure makes a district healthier.

Greater Understanding
The possibility that an ambitious, career-minded candidate will come into a school district, stay a few years and move on to a more lucrative and prestigious post always has been a concern for school boards, and that stigma remains. But with superintendent turnover numbers remaining stubbornly high, some search consultants say boards have become more willing to consider candidates who have a brief stop or two on their resumes.

“It’s very, very circumstantial,” says Bill Dean, a consultant for the Omaha-based McPherson and Jacobson search firm who led three districts in a 20-year career as a superintendent. “It used to be that if you were moving every two or three years that wasn’t really good. There is right now probably a little more understanding — not necessarily acceptance, but acceptance if they’re the right person.”

Stephanie Hyder, chair of the National Affiliation of Superintendent Searchers and director of executive search services for the Oklahoma School Boards Association, says school boards are rightly suspicious of applicants with a history of short tenures. But it’s not necessarily a deal-breaker.

“If they see someone who has three or fewer years somewhere, they’re going to want to stay away from him,” she says. “But sometimes they don’t have a choice if that ends up being absolutely the best candidate in the pool.”

The latter scenario is a common one, particularly in urban districts. A 2014 survey by the Council of Great City Schools found that the average tenure of urban superintendents was just 3.2 years — up from 2.8 years in 2003 but down from 3.6 in 2010. AASA has found that across all districts, average tenure is closer to five to six years.

Corporate Turbulence
Job hopping has become even more pronounced in the corporate world, and in many cases, less of a stigma. Priscilla Claman, president of Boston-based Career Strategies Inc., a career coaching and management firm, says briefer tenures are a result of both deregulation and the recession during the past decade. At a time when companies have become products to be bought and sold on the open market and entire divisions can be jettisoned or outsourced, she says, employees must stay a step ahead simply to survive.

“It forces almost everybody who doesn’t totally have their head in the sand to take a different approach to their career,” she says. “You absolutely have to move or you’ll be fired by somebody buying your company or your company buying another company.”

Stefanie Smith, who leads Stratex Consulting in New York City, says online recruiting and social media in general have had a major role in shortening executive tenures. When someone lands a new job, the move is posted for all to see, and the employee hits the radar of other recruiters.

“I’ve had several examples where clients were recruited soon after they started a new job,” Smith says. “That’s completely counter to what would happen in the past.”

One thing that is similar between the corporate and education worlds is the need for job-hopping applicants to clearly communicate the reasons for their move. “You need to be able to really explain the context and consider the optics of what you’re doing,” Smith says. “You have to be able to explain your logic.”

Magic Bullets
Even so, job-hopping superintendent candidates often have a higher bar than their corporate counterparts.

Both Hyder, whose searchers group includes more than 100 superintendent search consultants and more than 40 school boards associations across the country, and Hank Gmitro, president and chief search associate for Hazard, Young, Attea & Associates of suburban Chicago, say there is good reason for school boards to be skeptical of frequent movers. In fact, Gmitro, who was superintendent of a school district west of Chicago for 13 years, says he thinks boards are more skeptical about job hoppers than they used to be.

During the height of the reform movement when No Child Left Behind was pushing schools to meet highly ambitious student performance goals, some districts were looking for a superstar who could get quick results, he says.

“Sometimes boards very explicitly hired a change agent, wanted somebody to come in and shake up the system,” he says. “They realized the person who did that would only be there two or three years and they would rebuild after that.”

In most cases, though, there was no magic bullet.

“The reality is that closing achievement gaps is long, hard work that doesn’t happen overnight,” Gmitro says. “The kinds of things that people are looking for are not going to happen in a two- or three-year tenure of a superintendent.”

Stellar, whose last year as a superintendent was 2011, sees school boards becoming “kind of disillusioned that there’s gonna be a superman who comes in, or a superwoman, who changes everything.”

Meanwhile, more school boards are aware of research along the lines of Robert Marzano and Timothy Waters’ 2006 finding of a correlation between longer superintendent tenures and higher student achievement, and they’re looking for stable, long-term leadership.

“They would love someone to come in for 20 years if they could find someone,” Hyder says. “My father was a superintendent and he was there for 20 years. But I think that generation of administrators is becoming few and far between.”

Toxic Environments
Hyder says there are two main reasons for a superintendent to move on: Either he or she is ambitious or the composition of the school board changes, with the board-CEO relationship suffering as a result.

“If you hire someone with specific things in mind and then the board changes and they have other things on their mind, you find out pretty quickly that it’s not a good match,” she says.

Dean, of the McPherson and Jacobson search firm, says he has seen more divisiveness in communities over the past several years, and that can lead to increased intensity — and turnover — on school boards.

“I don’t remember the frequency and intensity to a lot of community debate that we see today,” he says. “There’s been lots written and (lots of)research about the lack of civility, and I think a lack of civility is something we have today that we didn’t have 50 years ago, 25 years ago.”

Sometimes a candidate can sense the toxic atmosphere on a board early enough to steer clear of the job. Stellar says he once walked out of a job interview because a board member was being obnoxious.

“I thought, ‘If this guy is going to act like this when I’m still a candidate, what is he going to be like when I get the job?’”

The shortest stay in Stellar’s career, in Cobb County, Ga., was the result of a dramatic change in the school board that occurred just two weeks after he was appointed. Counter to predictions, a new majority was elected that wanted to pick its own superintendent. He began negotiating his departure shortly after he arrived in town.

His advice to school boards who want a leader to stay for the long term is characteristically pointed. “If you just want to hire people for a longer period of time, that’s kind of easy to accomplish,” he says. “Stop firing people.”

The Right Match
Hyder says her school boards association in Oklahoma is focusing on lengthening superintendent tenure. She says the effort has increased the average tenure of superintendents recruited by her group to almost five years, compared to 3.6 years for the state as a whole.

A key element of her association’s search process is spending a lot of time understanding the board and the community, identifying exactly what they are looking for in a leader and finding the best possible match. The better the match, the better the leader and, in most cases, the longer the tenure.

Dean also puts a premium on length of tenure. When McPherson and Jacobson is hired by a board to conduct a wide pursuit of capable candidates, the firm provides a guar-antee that it will do a repeat search, for expenses, if an individual it recommends leaves the district within the first two years. The search team monitors the district for the first year, checking in every month or so to see how things are going. The team may visit after the first three or four months to help clarify the goals and expectations of both the board and the superintendent.

The firm trumpets its outcome data showing that 74 percent of the leaders McPherson and Jacobson landed are still in their jobs after five years, 51 percent remain after 10 years and 41 percent are still there after 15 years.

Staying Real
Stellar, for his part, suggests school boards offer incentives to incoming superintendents to increase the prospects of a long tenure. Those might include a four- or five-year contract, rather than the standard three, or sizable bonuses at the 5- and 10-year anniversaries.

Moreover, he says, school boards need to be realistic about what they are looking for and what they are likely to get in a superintendent search.

“Boards ideally will want a superintendent who has 20 years of experience as a superintendent, who is 35 years old and who wants to work in that district for 12 to 15 years,” he says. “Well, you can’t have all those things.”
PAUL RIEDE is a freelance education writer in Syracuse, N.Y.