The 4 Stages of Filling Big Shoes The 4 Stages of Filling Big Shoes

The 4 Stages of Filling Big Shoes

by Advancing K12 Staff
Advancing K12 Staff Advancing K12 Staff Edtech Thought Leaders
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Educational leaders are kind of a big deal. They have the power to inspire large workforces, improve local economies, and mold the educational experience of entire generations. With enough time, the very best of them often become legends in the communities they serve.
But what happens when they leave? How can the next person be expected to follow in the footsteps of all that greatness? When every move you make is weighed and measured against your predecessor, do you even stand a chance?
Big shoes are hard to fill, but there is hope. Get off on the right “foot” with these four strategies.  

1) Acknowledge the legacy

New leaders might be tempted to try a clean slate approach by simply ignoring the past and forging forward with their new organizational identities. This is a logical strategy when inheriting a train wreck, not when stepping into a positive, successful environment. It won’t take more than a smidgen of situational awareness to ascertain the difference. You will already be under a microscope for the early part of your tenure—any flashes of hubris will sour the opinions of those whose support you will eventually need.
It is possible to put your own stamp on district culture without ignoring what’s already been built. Use phrases like “You’ve accomplished so much already—here’s how we can build on that,” or “I know I’m stepping into a great situation, and I hope you will help me carry this momentum forward.”

2) Exude stability

The end of an era can also be a time of great uncertainty. Many of your stakeholders will have known no other environment than the one you’re inheriting, and fear of change is one of the hardest fires for any leader to put out. Experienced leaders know how important it is to allay those fears right away, even if it means pushing agendas back a few months. Without the hearts and minds of your team, even the smallest change will be a major ordeal later.    
Mass exodus is not the ideal way to launch the next phase of one’s career, which is why it’s important for leaders to understand who the true influencers are in their schools or districts. People may nod their heads when you say “Everything’s gonna be alright,” but most will be turning to familiar faces for reassurance. Spend your early days figuring out who those people are and recruit them as champions for your vision. Then, set them on a mission to ease tensions, clear up misconceptions, and nip any resentment or pushback in the bud.

3) Define your vision

What are your values? How do you define success for your stakeholders? How will the new culture differ from the old? These are just some of the many questions people will be asking when you assume your new role. Effective leaders know better than to sit back and react—a change this big calls for clear, frequent, and proactive communication. When you leave questions unanswered, you’re inviting people to fill in the answers—and that rarely goes well.
The first few months offer a great opportunity to control your message from the start with a clearly defined, widely communicated vision for the future. This vision doesn’t have to (and, in the early going, probably shouldn’t) differ all that much from your predecessor’s. It is possible to grab the torch without rewriting the entire playbook. If you have the benefit of an all-staff meeting before the school year, there’s no better place to lay the foundation.
The second part of this strategy relies on your ability to take the time to explain “why.” Nobody likes change for its own sake—you’ll get more people on board if they understand where you’re coming from.  Internal communications, video updates, public-facing blogs, and a strong social media presence are all ideal mediums for accentuating and clarifying your vision over time.

4) Forge your own identity

There’s a difference between respecting a legacy and living in its shadow. When things start to settle down and people start falling back into their normal routines, it’s time to start thinking about the value you can bring to the school or district. You were hired for a reason, and it wasn’t just to keep the status quo alive. Once you’ve earned the trust of your stakeholders, it’s time to put your skills and experience to good use.
At the district level, it’s not uncommon for the early months of a new superintendent’s tenure to include a review of existing technology. This is an important step, but not necessarily a desirable first impression. There is value in doing your due diligence and identifying both the available functionality and knowledge gaps with what the district already owns. Redundant purchases are an all-too-frequent source of budget waste.
Do your best to avoid surprises with a combination of approachability and transparency. This means communicating all major decisions internally before making them public. It’s a simple step, but it can turn skeptics into advocates with very little effort.

Big shoes were meant to be filled

If you’ve been through this before, you know this will likely be the most important 12-month stretch of your entire tenure, regardless of whose shoes you’re stepping into. Patience, confidence, and self-awareness will be the three most important traits for you in year one. You’re bound to encounter resistance somewhere along the way, and how you handle it might just end up laying the foundation for how you’ll be remembered. 
There’s no better challenge for a great leader than a bar set high. By supporting and adding to the legacy of those who came before, you have an opportunity to take something great and make it extraordinary. Why not work on leaving even bigger shoes for the next person to fill?


Follow-up resource: Where does your culture stand?

Awareness doesn't just happen, it's something you have to work toward. Take the temperature of your school or district with this free, comprehensive School Culture Survey.

Advancing K12 Staff Advancing K12 Staff Edtech Thought Leaders
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