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Next Man (or Woman) Up

A couple years ago I discovered that one of our administrators was being courted by a nearby district for an open position.

The neighboring district was three times our size, and the position would include increased responsibility and greater compensation. Despite being a promotion for the employee, my initial reaction was frustration.

“Those jerks!” I thought to myself upon realizing a nearby district was recruiting one of our top employees. “Who do they think they are?”

My frustration also focused on our employee. “What, are we not good enough for him?” I complained. “Besides, how are we going to find a suitable replacement in June?”

However, I quickly realized that I was being selfish. Rather than focus on our organization, I was stressing over the actions of another school district. And rather than do what was best for our employee, I was worried about the additional work that would fall on my shoulders.

As leaders, it is our responsibility to help employees reach their full potential. Rather than feel threatened or betrayed when we discover they are ready to move on, our role is to help staff take their next professional step.

As leaders, our job is to create more leaders.


In Multipliers, Liz Wiseman says, “The best leaders encourage people to grow and leave. And when people leave, they celebrate their departures and shout their success to everyone.”

Consider your current school district:

Does your district encourage professional growth?

Or, does your district hinder leadership potential?

Unfortunately, many school leaders feel cheated when they realize an employee is leaving for another district. Rather than encourage taking the next professional step – or reflect on what they could have done to make the individual feel more valued – these leaders immediately shun the employee: "Well they obviously weren't committed to our school," they tell others.

In the story I shared above, the employee would move from a director position into an assistant superintendent role. Accompanying the promotion would be a 40 percent salary increase. Would you turn down a 40 percent salary increase?

But say the employee makes a lateral move. Instead of moving up the leadership chain, what if the employee accepts a similar position in a new school district? These are situations when leaders must self-reflect. Rather than get mad at the person for leaving or blame another district, bosses reflect on their treatment of the individual:

Have I offered support, or have I ignored requests for help?

Have I provided autonomy, or have I micromanaged their work?

Have I invested time, or have I been too busy for the employee?

Ironically, more employees leave jobs as a result of the relationship with their boss than they do their level of salary.


Many district leaders threaten “You’ve signed a contract, you can’t leave!” when employees consider bolting for another job late in the hiring season. The truth is - at least here in Iowa - employees have until June 30th to get out of their contract without facing licensure repercussions.

This idea of districts intentionally sabotaging leadership growth does not always pertain to external movement. Sadly, many districts are guilty of stifling internal leadership potential.

One common example is when districts prevent their best assistant principals from moving into head principal roles. In many districts, up-and-coming assistant principals serve under mediocre head principals. Rather than move the AP into a head principal role elsewhere in the district or - heaven forbid - remove the mediocre principal, district leaders keep gifted assistant principals in supporting roles for far too long.

Publicly, district leaders will say, “Oh, they’re just not ready for a head role,” while privately they think, “If we move them into a new position, their (current) school will fall apart!” Rather than promote internal candidates, districts tell promising assistant principals, “Your time will come” while keeping them in the same role year after year.

While some gifted leaders will ignore the politics and wait patiently for their turn, others will grow tired of being underestimated and leave the district. Quite often, these people turn disrespect into the motivation needed to have highly successful careers.

When you find out who got the job you applied for.


What else should be considered with leadership development? Consider these five ideas:

Hire for Talent: Some leaders refuse to hire uber-talented individuals. Afraid they will leave after a couple years, they pass on the gifted candidate and choose the safer fit. This thinking is misguided. Leaders should always hire the most qualified candidate and offer opportunities for growth and autonomy. In many instances, school leaders simply want to work in a district where they feel trusted and valued.

They Might Take My Job: Egotistic leaders sometimes worry that understudies are so good in their roles they could eventually find themselves without a job. Rarely - if ever - does this scenario actually unfold in education. Not only are districts notorious for not moving underperforming leaders, if a go-getter lights a fire under a complacent leader ... is this really a bad thing?

Next Man (or Woman) Up: The fate of the district leader depends on the effectiveness of the school leaders they employ. Therefore, the best superintendents have a constant shortlist of individuals - both internal and external - they can contact when leadership opportunities arise. Rather than sit back and wait for candidates to apply, cunning district leaders treat leadership openings like gold and aggressively recruit potential replacements.

Promote from Within: In Good to Great, Jim Collins reminds us, “Visionary companies have shown, time and again, that they do not need to hire top management from the outside in order to get change and fresh ideas.” How often have you seen school districts hire flashy outsiders … only to see those individuals leave in a few short years? Oftentimes, internal candidates possess limitless potential and simply need the right opportunity to shine.

Focus on Skills: Promoting an internal candidate can be a leap of faith. Oftentimes, colleagues struggle to imagine teachers in administrative roles. Rather than worry about “lack of experience,” decision-makers should consider character traits. Does this person work hard and follow through on commitments? Does this person have the respect of staff and build relationships with students? Quite often, the evidence is there. You just need to know where to look.


To no one's surprise, our administrator accepted the promotion in the nearby district.

Rather than get upset about the situation, I felt at peace knowing this individual was fulfilling his potential by having a greater impact in a larger district. Furthermore, I was confident that our district's reputation would allow us to recruit an effective leader to fill the position.


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