Succession Planning for School Leaders

By Ryan Sherman, Lynne R. Wells, and Charles S. Dedrick

All school districts will eventually have to face a change in leadership, but few are doing anything to prepare for it. Nationally, 85 percent of superintendents believe there is an inadequate supply of educational leaders needed to fill anticipated superintendent jobs that will be coming open because of looming retirements.

We each recently have completed doctoral dissertations on school-based succession planning initiatives. Our findings led us to conclude that few succession models existed. Our research indicated that 80 percent of superintendents said there were no programs in their districts to identify individuals aspiring to the superintendency.

One issue facing those interested in succession planning is identifying an effective process. Considerable disagreement exists over what the process should involve. Simply put, succession planning should not be a system of preparing one person in an organization to become the next leader. Instead, it should be more about preparing the entire organization for an eventual change in leadership, similar to the way succession is carried out in the private sector. It is not about one person in one job. It should be a systemic process that creates opportunities for upward mobility for all members of an organization and that guarantees internal candidates for the school board to choose from if it so desires. The process involves as much preparation for the organization as it does for an individual to assume an administrative position.

As researchers, we have found the best way to think about administrator succession planning is in terms of organizational need, not simply in having a person in reserve. A solid succession plan begins with an assessment of the current and future needs of the organization. It involves identifying who has the requisite skills to be developed to meet those needs. This not only prepares future leaders but also prepares the organization. 

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