When Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz decided to step down, the juggernaut company’s board didn’t have to look far for its next leader. The successor, Kevin Johnson, wasn’t just already serving as the company’s No. 2 — Schultz’s office was literally connected to Johnson’s, the better to pass on lessons and foster continuity.

When success is non-negotiable — in business, in sports, in the military — succession planning is understood as critical. Yet for top leadership positions in education, perhaps the most vital engine of our nation’s economic strength, succession is generally haphazard. With such high stakes for the leaders responsible for the education of hundreds of thousands of children, can’t we do better?

The answer is a resounding yes. And an effort piloted at Chiefs for Change, working to prepare more than a dozen up-and-coming educators for state and district leadership roles, has lessons for people who care about leadership inside and outside education.

Our effort was born of worries over the state of leadership preparation in education. Nationally, few pathways exist to help identify and prepare excellent candidates — and to bring desperately needed diversity into executive roles.

While more than half of U.S. students are children of color, people of color make up just 6 percent of district superintendents and 12 percent of state commissioners.

State and district superintendents have enormous influence over what America’s 50 million public school students learn, how schools function, and how they attract, support, and keep strong teachers and principals. The impact on whether our children go on to live productive, happy lives, and how they contribute to the economy, is similarly huge. Our failure to prepare people thoughtfully and systematically for those roles is crazy.

That’s why we created our Future Chiefs program, which identifies promising leaders and enables them to learn from some of the nation’s most effective and boldest-thinking sitting chiefs — bringing them together as a group and providing them with hands-on learning experiences. What’s more, 75 percent of our Future Chiefs are leaders of color, and more than half are women.

The striking fact is that leadership in systems where kids of color and low-income, immigrant, and special-needs students have been served poorly is an act of courageous change and will-building.

Helping nascent leaders learn to use their voice to explain and advocate for that kind of change isn’t any less essential than training in budget planning. It’s all part of getting ready for one of the hardest, and most important, jobs in America. And that’s a task we as a country need to learn to do far better.

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