The Highlands Company Blog

Is There a “Successful” School Superintendent Profile?

Imagine combing through job opportunities and coming across the following posting:


CEO of an organization ranging from 30 – 157,000 employees, with 300-159,000 primary customers and 3,250 – 789,500 secondary customers. No eligible customer may be turned away, and your success will be measured by non-negotiable, state and federal-generated standards of success of your customers. You will have highly regulated personnel policies governing the securing and retaining of employees, and you must effectively advise and guide an elected board of directors, whose members represent varying constituencies. The CEO is appointed by the board of directors. You will be under the constant scrutiny of the entire community and must represent your organization in the media.

Would you apply?


School superintendents are the CEO’s of the school districts in which they work. They are hired by the local Board of Education, an elected group, and are ultimately responsible for all of the children and employees of that system. Most superintendents work closest with district office staff and school principals. They are heavily regulated by federal, state and local laws and standards. They are the spokespersons to the community and media, counsel to the BOE, and are ultimately accountable for all school-related matters.

Superintendents are CEO’s of what is often the largest employer in the community. In many cases they also oversee the community’s largest public transportation system, food service enterprise, and budget. Locally, their primary stakeholders are the children, the parents, the teachers, the community and the BOE – each with extremely diverse needs. For example:

Children – are in school to learn, regardless of language, ability, disability, interest or level of motivation.

Parents – place their children’s education in the hands of the school system and have their own issues around language, abilities, interests and motivation.

Teachers – are hired to be in the classroom to ensure students learn while adhering to federal and state mandates/regulations and have little control over class size and composition, etc.

Community – supports education through taxes regardless of whether or not they have children in the system. Community interest is often heightened due to tax issues (e.g., millage rates, bond referenda) with one group wanting a high return on their investment (through student achievement), another group wanting exemption from taxes and yet another group wanting control over how resources are used.

BOE – members usually feel obligated to represent their constituents. They often have diverse reasons for being on the board, and they make employment decisions about the superintendent.


Work environments vary widely for school superintendents in the state of Georgia. There are significant differences in the size of systems, geographic proximity to outside resources, demographics of student and community population, rules of governance for the BOE, and constitution of applicant pool for hiring teachers and school administrators. The various combinations of these characteristics result in a seemingly unlimited variety of work environments.

At the extremes are the rural systems serving 300 or fewer K-12 students and the jumbo (urban) systems serving 158,000 or more students. Suburban systems are just one type of system in the middle. The opportunities and challenges associated with each set of work environment conditions vary widely and change continuously.


As part of the GSSA Executive Coach Program, 71 veteran school superintendents have taken the HAB over the past decade. (See article in January 2011 Highlands Forum for more about the Coaching program.) Admittedly, these 71 do not represent a standardized sampling of all school superintendents in the state of Georgia. However, they do represent superintendents across a wide range of sizes and types of school systems who have been successful in their jobs. After reviewing 10+ years of profiles, we wondered if a single pattern emerged as “the” profile for a successful school superintendent. The short answer is “No.”

To determine whether or not a single HAB profile emerged for a successful Georgia school superintendent, we first looked at the frequency with which these 71 superintendents scored in the low, mid and high range on all dimensions of personal style, driving abilities, and learning channels. The first thing we found is tremendous variability among the profiles. In fact, there were low, mid and high scores on every single dimension and no two profiles looked the same.

That said, we found the majority of these superintendents are generalists (more than half) and relatively few are specialists (14%). Almost half (49%) are extroverted and the others are just as likely to score in the mid-range or as introverts. This suggests the “average” superintendent has a people influencing personal style. No clear majority emerged for the timeframe orientation (34% immediate, 37% intermediate, and 29% long range).

More superintendents solve problems experientially (47% are low in classification, 44% are low in concept organization, although we must remember the same people might not be both) than diagnostically, analytically or consultatively. They tend to have flexibility between brainstorming and focusing (52% are in the mid-range of IP). And, the vast majority do not have natural spatial abilities (64% are low in spatial relations theory, 57% are low in spatial relations visualization).

We were especially interested in reviewing superintendents’ learning channels. With a good deal of consistency, the majority of these school superintendents are strong in number memory (66% high) and low in design memory (62% low). Few (20%) scored in the high range for verbal memory with almost one third scoring high in tonal memory (30%) and rhythm memory (34%).


We compared the 71 veteran superintendents to a group of 120 aspiring superintendents tested during the same 10-year time period. Aspiring superintendents participated in GSSA’s Superintendent Professional Development Program, a two-year leadership program for administrators who work in the district office or as school principals. They took the HAB as part of their SPDP experience.

Using t-tests, we compared the difference between the means of the two groups on each dimension. There was only one statistically significant difference between the average scores of the successful and aspiring superintendents – design memory. Aspiring superintendent scored significantly higher.


The HAB database is an amalgamation of everyone who has taken the HAB since 2003 and contains results for over 18,000 test takers. Because test takers are self-selected, the database does not claim to be representative of the general population. It is updated continuously. No attempt has been made to differentiate ability profiles by occupation. At the time of this analysis, the database contained roughly 55% males and 45% females. Approximately 24% were between ages 15-21 years, 16% between the ages of 22-30 years, 22% between 31-39 years, 33% between 40-55 years, and 5% 56+ years. Most are college bound or college graduates. For ease of description, we refer to that database as the HAB norms.

To give us another point of reference, we compared our results to the HAB norms. Using Chi-square tests, we examined the frequency distributions of each group (veteran/aspiring) compared to the HAB “norms” (how many individuals’ scores fell into the low, mid and high ranges). The results indicate that the distribution of scores for both veteran and aspiring superintendents is not that different from the Highlands “norms” on most dimensions.

The dimensions where both veteran and aspiring superintendents are significantly different from the HAB norms are Specialist-Generalist (significantly more Generalists), Idea Productivity (significantly fewer in the low range) and Spatial Relations Visualization (significantly more in the low range).

For veteran superintendents, additional significant differences from the HAB norms include Spatial Relations Theory (significantly more in the low range), Design Memory (significantly more in the low range) and Number Memory (significantly more in the high range). Aspiring superintendents differed from the HAB norms on Timeframe Orientations (significantly more in the long range) and Rhythm Memory (significantly more in the mid-range).


It is not surprising that no clear pattern emerges as THE successful school superintendent profile – if only it were that easy! Even suggesting that a single profile could be used as the basis to predict a school superintendent’s success is as outlandish as selecting a single profile to predict the success of a lawyer, computer analyst, veterinarian, baseball player, business manager, etc. While general patterns certainly emerge, individual success is ultimately based on more than natural abilities.

Each school district also has a unique set of needs that include geographic location, size, population demographics and budget. In addition, there are political considerations, current needs of the school system and BOE priorities. And if that’s not enough, there are always considerations related to the previous superintendent’s departure. So, why use an abilities assessment with current or aspiring superintendents?


Whether we’re working with veteran or aspiring superintendents, one key ingredient for success is self-awareness. Like other CEOs, successful veteran superintendents know they cannot do the job alone; they must surround themselves with people whose talents are different than their own. And this may be the most difficult concept for aspiring superintendents to absorb since their career advancement has often been based on their success in specialty areas (e.g., curriculum) or leadership spheres (e.g., principal of a school).

The value of these groups taking the HAB and attending a group feedback session is not only what they learn about themselves; it is in what they learn about others. All HAB test takers leave equipped with an objective language to describe talents, a tool to identify blind spots and a method to assess fit with job responsibilities. For veteran superintendents, fit is often related to how responsibilities are delegated. For aspiring superintendents fit is often related to assessing potential job opportunities. Either way, self-knowledge and knowledge of others is essential for success of the contemporary leader in public education.

The Georgia School Superintendents Association (GSSA) serves 180 school districts as the chief advocate for Georgia’s public school students. GSSA provides leadership and representation on public education issues at the state and national levels and provides professional development opportunities to school superintendents (CEOs of school systems). For the past 11 years, Highlands affiliate Dori Stiles, Ph.D. has partnered with GSSA’s Debra Harden, Ed.D. to provide workshops throughout their 2-year Superintendents Professional Development Program for aspiring superintendents, their District Office Professional Development Program for the district office leadership that supports the superintendent, and their Executive Coaching Program. A key tool she uses is the Highlands Ability Battery, Leadership report, and her Personal Leadership workshop.

This third article focuses on the HAB profiles of successful and aspiring school superintendents.