Beth Slette, Alumni Leading Our Community
Superintendent, West Fargo Public Schools
Elementary Education, 1991
“The best leaders expect the best from people, embrace their strengths, and leverage them to continuously improve the system rather than focus on their weaknesses.”
What experience or what person at MSUM had the greatest influence in impacting your career path?
Having the opportunity to get into the classroom and learn from teachers in the field during my fourth-year pre-professional experience was my most impactful moment. Student teaching prepared me for the next steps.
What professional experience has had the greatest influence in shaping you as a leader?
It is very hard to pick just one! My first leadership experience was serving as an assistant principal at Cheney Middle School (CMS). Principal Rob Kaspari taught me the basics of leading a building; he made me responsible for various portfolios but was always there to answer questions and provide guidance. During my time at CMS, Superintendent Dr. Chuck Cheney taught me so much about how to be observant, listen, and how to run a productive meeting. Finally, Superintendent Dr. David Flowers taught me how to think systemically and strategically. While I was assistant superintendent, I observed how he was able to bring people to consensus in a way that was respectful of all participants.
What are the most important characteristics of a great leader?
First, great leaders are trustworthy. They tell the truth, do what they say they are going to do, and they admit and own their mistakes. Great leaders are excellent communicators. They are present; they look people in the eye, listen carefully, and ask clarifying questions. The best leaders expect the best from people, embrace their strengths, and leverage them to continuously improve the system rather than focus on their weaknesses. Often, we have the right people on the bus, but they aren’t always in the right seats.
There’s a lot of talking about leaders being vulnerable and/or transparent. Do you think it’s important? How do you show vulnerability as a leader?
The ability to be transparent and show vulnerability are critical aspects of leadership, but many leaders are afraid to show these traits. Vulnerability actually comes naturally to me, and I might be transparent to a fault. I never want to be perceived as hiding, brushing things under the rug, or avoiding tough questions. I believe you should say it like it is and move on.
What is the biggest challenge facing leaders today?
Social media usage and mental health concerns are two factors that oftentimes inhibit our ability to teach and students to learn. Social media requires kids to be “on” 24/7. There is no escape, and the constant information, good or bad, is exhausting. Untreated anxiety and depression are very big challenges for some students. Families don’t always have access to resources, and even if families have the resources, finding support can be difficult. There is still a stigma with mental health; many don’t understand that depression and anxiety are not something kids can “snap out of,” and intervention is often necessary. Getting support for students in the schools would be helpful for families that do not currently have access to the help they need.
What’s one mistake you see leaders making frequently?
Many leaders try to avoid controversy, when embracing it is the only way to solve problems. If you don’t ask the tough questions, you are not going to get to the good solutions. Also, some leaders think they need to have all the answers and they don’t let others on the team help solve the problems, which is not helpful to the organization.
What do you enjoy most about being a leader in our community?
I get my energy from meeting other leaders in our community and from talking to parents, staff, and students. I love people and appreciate the support we get as a school system. I truly believe collaboration with our stakeholders will raise the bar for all schools in our region and state. Everyone I meet motivates me to be a leader in innovative educational strategies for our students.
As a leader, what is the most important thing you do every day?
Relationships are key for building strong foundations for our work, and it makes our jobs so much more enjoyable, as well as easier in times of crisis. Unfortunately, the higher up you go in education, the fewer students you see and talk to. As superintendent, my days are filled with meetings, which I actually really enjoy, but I have found that I need to be connected at the building level. Making a concerted effort to connect every day with students, staff, and parents should be a goal of every educational leader; I know it is one of mine.
What advice would you give someone striving to advance to a leadership role within their organization?
Start now. Today. Don’t think, “when I get my dream job, I will do this or that.” Dress for the job you want, not the one you have. When you make a mistake, don’t wait to be asked about it. March right in to your boss and tell him/her you made a mistake, but always tell him or her how you are going to fix it. Tell the truth even if it makes you look bad. Everything you do prior to getting the job you want is actually just as important as the technical interview. It is easier for people to forget actions than how you made them feel.