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The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.
By Susan Paddock
February 23, 2016
A 2014 Brookings Institution study found that,
“Superintendents account for a very small fraction (0.3 percent) of student differences in achievement. This effect, while statistically significant, is smaller than that associated with any other major component of the education system including student characteristics, teachers, schools and districts.”
In more general public management terms, this translates as the CEO having almost no effect on the outcomes of the organization. This is a discouraging finding for those who believe in the importance of executive leadership in organizational success. A closer examination, however, suggests that superintendents do make a difference – but primarily in their selection, supervision and leadership of school principals.
The Education Commission of the States (ECS) identified 12 key responsibilities, four of those were:
At least a third of the responsibilities of a superintendent focus on school level leadership, the principal. The ECS study also identified the establishment and support of school-level leadership (principals) as one of two core superintendent responsibilities.
The school-level leadership that superintendents appoint—principals–makes a difference. Over 20 years of research concludes that strong administrative leadership is a key component of schools with high student achievement. The principal’s leadership traits and behaviors are related positively to student achievement, attitudes and social behavior.
A 2011 Wharton study reiterates this perspective, emphasizing the importance of the middle manager. The study found that middle managers “may have a greater impact on company performance than almost any other part of the organization.” This is because of their key roles in project management and in fostering “innovative and creative environments.”
The study cites research that shows that CEOs, like school superintendents, have limited impact—less than 5 percent of the variation in organizational performance. In large, established organizations,
“The top managers, at least, account for relatively little of why some companies perform better than others….It’s amazing that the effect of middle managers on a project is not only larger than the creative people, but larger than the rest of the organization.”
The Wharton study, like studies of school districts and other organizations, emphasizes the importance in filling middle levels of management with leaders and rewarding them for the achievement of organizational outcomes.
Middle managers supervise employees and surveys show that the most important reason people stay in or leave their jobs is their manager. A survey by Randstand found that more than eight out of 10 employees believed that their relationship with their direct supervisor had a big impact on how happy they were with their job. The employee-supervisor relationship is more important than salary or the opportunity for advancement.
By their behaviors, middle managers establish or reinforce the corporate climate and shared values, which encourage ethical behavior and promote individual effectiveness. They use a variety of power approaches, including that of the expert and the referent. An effective middle manager serves as both a part of a team and a coach, assisting in employees’ problem-solving and allocating scarce resources realistically.
The bottom line for public managers: while executive leadership is important, middle managers make a difference in terms of employee output and organizational outcomes. While chief executives work with elected and appointed boards in establishing organization directions and building community support, middle managers translate those policy initiatives to employees and citizens. This is as true for the small town as it is for the large federal bureaucracy. State, local and federal agencies in the news in the past two years have suffered from ineffective, inappropriate or even unethical management by middle managers.
Especially during an election season, we tend to focus our attention on leaders at the top of organizations. In the end, our organizations would be better served if we spent more time recruiting and selecting effective and creative middle managers, and providing them with the support—including applicable performance reviews—to allow them to be the linchpins in achieving expected and desired outcomes.
Author: Susan Paddock is a University of Wisconsin-Madison emeritus professor who lives and works in Las Vegas, Nevada. She is the former director of Certified Public Manager programs in Arizona and Wisconsin; has published in the areas of leadership, organizational development and human resources; and is an active student and researcher on what works in current or emerging organizational settings. Email [email protected]