How schools manage leadership change

Building trust and respect leads to smooth transitions

Over a span of two years, Warren Township Schools in Warren, New Jersey, first hired a new superintendent and then replaced the principal at Warren Middle School. Both came from other districts.

While Matt Mingle is the K8 district’s third superintendent in roughly seven years, George Villar succeeded a principal who retired after 23 years on the job.

Not everyone welcomes change, especially when it involves leadership. No one likes to be kept in the dark about new district policies or how their role and responsibilities might change—or wonder whether they’ll get along with the new boss.

Managing leadership transitions isn’t a one-and-done event. It’s actually an organizational process with many moving parts, such as mentoring new leaders and engaging new employees throughout recruitment and onboarding.

The overall goal is to build trust, respect and support for new leaders so the district can move forward successfully.

Engage, report and listen

The first step for Mingle in recruiting a middle school principal was gathering input from teachers, student focus groups and the PTO. He asked about the school’s positive features, what skills the job demanded, and what areas needed improvement.

That information was compiled into a report and emailed to middle school teachers and the district’s board of education. The interview committee, which included two teachers, used the report to develop interview questions.

After selecting Villar, the district introduced him to the public at a school board meeting where Mingle read a brief statement about how the new principal met the job criteria. Mingle also emailed the statement to middle school staff, and sent a similar press release to parents and the local paper.

“It was a way for us to frame his introduction into the community” Mingle says. “We wanted to know what the community was looking for, and everyone saw him as having those same characteristics.”

In the following weeks, Villar also met with middle school teachers at an informal breakfast, parents at a PTO meeting, and other school leaders at planning meetings who briefed him on critical issues.

“He knew what the challenges were that had to be tackled right away” says Mingle, adding that Villar met with key community leaders over the next six months. “This entire process gave him more confidence.”

Mingle himself also schedules regular, 90-minute meetings with key players in the community. Even if only a handful of people attend, it’s important for him, as a new leader, to listen to their concerns.

Mingle recalls the evening the school board appointed him as superintendent. Administrators, teacher representatives and PTO presidents from each of its five schools—as well as the mayor and police chief—came to welcome and support him.

“There was a feeling of, ‘You’re joining our community and we’re all here to work together,'” says Mingle.

Ongoing effort

Over the past five years, the Mequon-Thiensville School District in Mequon, Wisconsin, has experienced five administrative changes, says Sarah Zelazoski, executive director of human capital at the district. In that time, the district hired a new principal and assistant principal, and filled three district-level positions.

Zelazoski and the district’s superintendent regularly updated employees by email about the selection process. To protect sensitive candidate information, they shared only highlights, such as who serves on the interview committee, how many candidates were interviewed, and evaluation criteria, she says.

New administrators participate in an in-house leadership-training program that cover the processes for identifying goals, analyzing problems and making decisions. Zelazoski also assigns them an external mentor for approximately one year; this is someone outside the district who can lend fresh insight.

New principals, for instance, may be mentored by a retired principal or a principal from a comparable school district.

As demonstrated by these school districts, managing change at the leadership level is a long, complex process. By investing time upfront, you can make a smooth transition out of what is often perceived as a challenging, sometimes painful, experience.

Carol Patton is a Las Vegas-based writer who specializes in human resources issues.

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