Leadership forecasting: the development and selection of school leaders starts with the end in mind by considering future vacancies, both known and unknown

Leadership forecasting: the development and selection of school leaders starts with the end in mind by considering future vacancies, both known and unknown

Suzette Lovely

“We just are not inundated with great applicants out there. The typical school district isn’t going to be able to pull in some wonderful savior.”–From the Voice of a Superintendent, Public Agenda, 2001

If you advertise, they won’t necessarily come. And if they do come, you may have to “settle and take what [you] get,” according to six in 10 superintendents across the United States (Public Agenda, 2001). Who am I talking about? Why, school principals, of course.

By now, the educational community is all too familiar with the perfect storm that is converging to create a national shortage of principals:

* Fifty-four percent of U.S. principals are over age 50;

* Workload and insurmountable expectations are discouraging teachers from pursuing careers in administration; and

* Principals, on average, leave after five years because they’re ill prepared for the job.

With fewer candidates to fill openings, students will bear the brunt of the leadership deficit unless the pipeline is shored up.

A look at the applicant pool

What does the applicant pool actually look like nowadays? In 2002-03, the state of Washington summoned 34 retired principals back to work to fill in as districts desperately sought new prospects (AWSP, 2003). Although California produces 2,000 to 3,500 freshly licensed administrators each year, only 38 percent assume leadership positions in the state’s schools (Orozco & Oliver, 2001). The majority either remains in the classroom or changes careers entirely.

Nearly half of New York City’s 1,100 public schools are managed by principals with less than three years experience (Archer, 2002). Although women now comprise 35 percent of the nation’s principals, up from 2 percent in 1988, there has only been a 3 percent increase in the number of minority principals since 1999 (Fenwick & Pierce, 2001). Making matters worse, 73 percent of the nation’s school districts have no program in place to prepare or support aspiring principals.

Preparing tomorrow’s principals today

My own employer, the rapidly growing Capistrano Unified School District, has hired 28 new principals since 1999. To attract top-notch people, the superintendent and board have designed an administrative development plan that consists of a grow-your-own career ladder, a two-tiered credentialing partnership with Chapman University and a systematic induction program for newcomers.

For example, all first- and second-year principals receive formal coaching and mentoring. Capistrano has found that the investment up front pays dividends in the end since a principal’s inaugural year is a strong predictor of future success. Central office administrators coordinate the sharing of resources–both human and material–to ensure good habits are developed from the get-go.

Regardless of the depth or complexity of the leadership void in your organization, doing nothing is no longer an option. Leadership forecasting–or succession planning as it’s called in the private sector–is a realistic solution. Preparing tomorrow’s principals today guarantees uninterrupted learning for students, aligns recruitment systems with leadership renewal, engages the superintendent and senior managers in a thorough examination of existing talent, and prevents premature promotions (Hagberg, 2002). After all, who wants to work in a leaderless school?

Start with the end in mind

Leadership forecasting is the proactive development and selection of school administrators. The process starts with the end in mind by considering future vacancies, both known and unknown. A viable pool of candidates is waiting in the wings to tackle the principalship and other gateway positions as openings occur. Since it’s impossible to predict every vacancy in advance, forecasting ensures continuity of leadership where it counts the most–inside the principal’s office.

In the traditional approach of replacement planning, districts react to openings by filling them with outsiders and/or insiders who aren’t necessarily prepared or ready for a promotion. Replacement systems perpetuate the status quo and can lead to performance issues, excessive turnover, unfilled vacancies over longer stretches of time and higher recruitment costs.

Leadership forecasting, on the other hand, is an economical and efficient way to sidestep the experience gap being caused by the retirements on the horizon. When principals leave the game, a seamless transition ensues as the relief pitcher moves from the bullpen to the mound.

Filling your succession pool

A coordinated response to the principal shortage requires districts to harvest home-grown talent. Therefore, a mechanism must be established to identify teacher leaders for entry-level assignments. Prospects should demonstrate competency in areas such as instructional knowledge, organization, communication, problem solving and work ethic.

Existing principals have to take personal responsibility for bringing new recruits into the fold. Teaching Assistant Principal (TAP) or Teacher on Special Assignment (TOSA) programs are excellent launch pads for assembling your succession pool.

The next step in forecasting is to assess the “promotability” of current assistant principals and other co-administrators. Several companies provide services to help employers gain insight into a candidate’s leadership potential, management style, emotional intelligence and cognitive skills.

One such resource is the Gallup Organization. By studying top performers in hundreds of professions, including the principalship, Gallup has found that exemplary principals think, talk and act differently than their counterparts (Gallup, 2003). To this end, Gallup markets an instrument known as the Principal Perceiver, which provides a window into a candidate’s attitudes and beliefs about working through teachers to leverage learning.

If it’s not feasible to rely on an assessment center or Internet service to measure promotability, internally designed protocols are quite acceptable. The idea is to start the screening process before openings actually occur by inviting qualified applicants to participate in preliminary interviews or related exercises.

During pre-screening activities, consider candidates’ understanding of the principal’s role in raising achievement through questions that explore the value they place on their own learning. This might be done by asking an interviewee to share a book he has read recently on educational leadership and explain an action taken as a result of reading this book. Or find out how she sees the NCLB Act affecting her responsibilities as a principal. Aside from the oral interview, applicants can be given an exit question to measure on-demand writing skills.

Professional portfolios are another excellent screening tool. Portfolios document how applicants support student growth in their current assignment. Evidence of action-research, teacher evaluations and the applicant’s use of data to improve instruction is compiled. A diverse panel of administrators then reviews the portfolio to determine the candidate’s proclivity toward the principalship.

During the entire pre-selection period, it’s important to concentrate on the whole person, not just individual competencies. The more comprehensive the process, the more likely a district is to hire a quality principal who has the perspective and relational savvy to inspire others.

Dollars and Sense of replacement systems

Most school districts underestimate the ramifications of hiring people who aren’t the right fit or ready for the challenge of a principalship. The collective cost of poor hiring decisions can be devastating. When someone is prematurely promoted or lacks the skills to be principal, fallout is widespread and leads to a number of climate inhibitors (Gallup, 2003), including: lower productivity and morale among staff, unhappy parents, a tarnished school reputation, political or legal mistakes that warrant repair by others, and additional stress and work for supervisors trying to fix problems.

Although such factors are difficult to attach a dollar value to, they are no less significant than when compared to encumbrances on a budget report. Districts that take the time to analyze and improve their selection efforts will be shocked to discover the savings realized through leadership forecasting. Even if your organization only hires one new principal a year, the return on investment can be substantial.

Financial toll of replacing principals

Data from a 2003 recruitment in Capistrano Unified show the financial toll of replacing a single high school principal. On average, expenses are cut in half through a leadership forecasting approach as opposed to replacement planning ($7,150 vs. $15,200). Although the costs will vary from district to district, most have room for improvement. Employers who take the time to examine their hiring practices are in the strongest position to achieve better results.

As educational institutions strive to remain competitive, finding tomorrow’s leaders today is essential for survival. Leadership forecasting demands forward thinking, customized planning and an orientation toward the future. To establish a cadre of talent, the district instruction division should own the plan, while the human resource department helps guide it.

Average yearly progress, high school exit exams and school safety mean little without a principal. If we believe we were put on this earth to make a difference in the lives of children, what better way to fulfill this legacy than by finding leaders to take over when we’re gone?


Archer, J. (May 29, 2002). “Novice Principals Put Huge Strain on NYC Schools.” Education Week, 21(38).

Association of Washington School Principals (AWSA). (June 2003). Information from lindat@awsp.org.

Bernthal, P. (December 2002). “Calculating Return on Investment for Selection.” Development Dimensions International. Available: www.ddiworld.com/research/publications.asp.

Fenwick, L. & Pierce, M. (March 2001). “The Principal Shortage: Crisis or Opportunity?” Principal, 80 (4). NAESP: Alexandria, VA.

The Gallup Organization. (January 2003). “Talent-Based Hiring.” Available: www.gallup.com/management/ SPI.asp.

Hagberg Consulting Group. (November 2002). “Succession Planning.” Available: http://w3.hcgnet.com/succesion_replacement.html.

Lovely, S (2004). Staffing the Principalship: Finding, Coaching and Mentoring School Leaders. ASCD: Alexandria, VA.

Orozco, L. & Oliver, R. (July 1, 2001). “A Lack of Principals.” Los Angeles Times; Section B-17.

Public Agenda Report. (2001). “Trying to Stay Ahead of the Game: Superintendents and Principals Talk about School Leadership.” New York. Available: www.publicagenda.org/ specials/leadership/leadership.htm.

Suzette Lovely is the chief personnel officer in the Capistrano Unified School District Her book, “Staffing the Principalship: Finding, Coaching and Mentoring School Leaders,” was published by ASCD earlier this year

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