Managing through change

Source: Image provided by Melbourne Grammar School

A Conversation with Malcolm Leigh-Smith: Appointed by our Gig Executive Team as Interim Director of Human Resources, Melbourne Grammar School

When departing Headmaster of Melbourne Grammar School, Mr Roy Kelley, approached Fisher Leadership to secure a high performing Human Resources Director to lead the function for a 13-month period, the Gig Executive team stepped in to assist in the appointment of a high calibre, fast-turn-around solution that has clearly brought immense value. Have you ever wondered how a senior leader steps into an interim role? There is much to be learned from these change-ready leaders who come in and take the reins with ease. Take a moment to hear from Malcolm Leigh-Smith on his recent experience.

Q. Malcolm you were engaged as an interim for a number of reasons, firstly because the HR Director was leaving within a fortnight, and also because Roy Kelley felt he should defer the permanent appointment until the incoming Headmaster could determine the selection of such a pivotal position. 

Malcolm Leigh-Smith:
A. Roy was quite open that he felt that it was important that the new Headmaster, who we did not know at that stage was going to be Mr Philip Grutzner, may want to review the role or the way it functioned. So an interim engagement made sense. It also helped to set the parameters of my role and I was quite clear on what the brief was and what my role was going to be in the balance of my time with Roy. 

Q. As an HR leader do you see the benefits of this approach? 

Malcolm Leigh-Smith: 
A. Yes. I do, given that the HR Director was leaving and there was not time for Melbourne Grammar School to go through a full recruitment process before the announcement of the new Headmaster. Considering that circumstance, I think it was a very sound and respectful decision and was a practical solution.

Getting up to Speed as a Gig Executive

Q. Because of your experience in a similar environment, being Geelong Grammar, did you feel that you could get up to speed very quickly?

Malcolm Leigh-Smith: 
A. Yes. I understood the requirements of the role having spent 15 years working as an HR Director or HR consultant in education. I had a clear sense of the complex way schools function within the independent sector, particularly schools the size of Geelong Grammar and Melbourne Grammar, which are very similar in many ways, each with more than 150 years of history.

I knew what the role would entail, the environment and the broader sector. However, every school is different so of course there were learnings. The unique culture, the key team members as well as the HR management functions and systems gave me an opportunity to bring fresh eyes to the situation and enjoy a learning curve of my own – I quite enjoy this component of interim work.

Additionally, the operations and decision-making processes understandably vary from school to school. Although, you can have very similar policies and arrangements around terms and conditions of employment, how they are managed and how decisions are made can vary considerably. 

I think the other thing that I wanted to get up to speed with very quickly was really trying to get an appreciation of what were the key priorities to work on. It was a case of putting short-term priorities into a long-term context, to determine which decisions needed to be made immediately and which needed a greater time and energy investment due to possible implications.

The first six months gives you a fair bit of time to ask the right questions and you begin to get an appreciation of the landscape in relation to the key priorities – what’s working well and what you wouldn’t want to change – and identify the areas for improvement.

From that perspective, it was a huge learning curve in terms of understanding Melbourne Grammar School, as you’d expect with any new environment. I think it would be extremely challenging for any person without a human resources background in an education setting to walk into that sort of environment and be able to continue to provide the level of service that the previous and very competent HR Director was delivering. I had no doubt that my knowledge and my background in schools is what allowed me to understand the role and environment, especially within that timeframe

Q. Would you agree that is the difference between interims and consultants – you are hands-on and therefore must have that background and understanding?

Malcolm Leigh-Smith
A. Yes, particularly in terms of education. Another benefit was that the people that I was working with, and the broader staff, didn’t have to explain to me how teaching and the various and complex operational function work, timetables, terms and conditions of employment, the industrial environment, all of those are critical aspects. 

So, it was more about, tell me what’s going on at the moment? What are the key priorities for you? What are the things that are working or what’s not working and where do you need some support and some assistance? And them knowing that I would comprehend their challenges. That was the only way I could really hit the ground running.

The Interim Difference


Q. Being an interim position, did you approach it differently? 

Malcolm Leigh-Smith: 
A. I think so. I knew I was going in for what was initially a 13-month appointment. I wanted to know everything intimately – the business and the people, because that is just the way I operate. So, I had to be really clear in my mind about what I was coming in to deliver. I was going to have to really focus on the key people priorities, and identify the longer-term goals that I may not be able to provide solutions for, but will need to be addressed and that the new Headmaster is made aware of. I had to approach it differently to coming into the role in a permanent position. Although a short-term role, there is a sense of ownership of projects and tasks where you have to do the best you are able to so that the School can appoint the right person into the role full time soon after. 

I did find that challenging in terms of how I approach things, because it suddenly became apparent to me that there were going to be occasions where you could have hard conversations or you could potentially avoid those conversations altogether, to be dealt with in the future by the permanent appointee. But I was fortunate in that I gained Roy’s support that it wasn’t just a caretaker position. I know I am not here for long, but the only way I’m going to be able to do justice to the job is to feel and own the responsibility, and to address and share my concerns on issues and challenges faced. I believe this approach could lead to a better outcome for the next person coming into that role and ultimately the School.

Q. The HR Director is often a trusted adviser to the Headmaster and the staff. Interims, due to experience and the contractual nature of the role, are often encouraged to provide frank and fair advice. Did you feel empowered to provide that?

Malcolm Leigh-Smith:

I invested myself into the role and hopefully developed trust quickly. It was really important for me to create some conversations with key people and encourage them to share the important in-depth information with me. I would then have a much better understanding of the implications, not just for myself, but also of the team around me.


A: When COVID hit, coming from a similar environment was absolutely critical. I knew that we were moving from normal operations to potentially something very different – off-campus learning. We were all wondering, how are we were going to manage this? But where I already had the skills and experience was understanding what the implications would be in terms of managing people, their rights and entitlements, the way that we needed to work in a remote environment. My strength was in understanding how all of those functions work and the ability to ascertain who are the essential workers, what are the implications for them, how are we going to manage this transition process, what are their entitlements and how do we consult with them and support them.  

I love working in education, the people really care about what they do, and this is very different to any other environment that I’ve worked in.

I had to think about how we could best manage this in a way that is sustainable and achievable for our people? But the one thing we didn’t really have to worry about was getting people onboard and involved. That I found to be similar to Geelong Grammar in terms of commitment and common purpose. You just knew the people were going to pitch in to support each other within the School, so no one is burning themselves out. Making sure everyone was okay and clear about what they’re doing in these times was critical.  

The appointment of Philip Grutzner was tremendous. There is no other way to describe it. The pleasing thing for me was that I was able simply say to Philip, look, I’m just going to tell you what I know based on what I’ve learned over six months and using my experience in the education sector. I was able to share frankly what I thought were the bigger issues in terms of strategic priorities for the Human Resources function. 

Philip knew my background and had an appreciation of the six months’ experience I had prior to his joining. We were able to have some really open and transparent discussions on the current environment, key priorities and the way forward. As any good leader would – he wanted to spend the first few months listening and understanding exactly what was happening. It’s just been phenomenal. It’s been very inspirational being at a school like Melbourne Grammar and seeing how the School has been able to cope with significant challenges and do so exceptionally well. 

Read Head of Melbourne Grammar School, Philip Grutzner’s testimonial discussing the role of a Human Resources Director in an independent school, and the success of interim talent in this scenario.


For more information about Gig Executive talent, contact the team today: info@fisherleadership.com

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