School Principal or CEO? - Fisher Leadership

School Principal or CEO?

Why many school principals are CEOs, in principle.

By Liz Jones

Managing Partner at Fisher Leadership

Top marks for anyone who can name the similarities between a CEO and a school Principal? It might be time to open your books!

While independent schools vary in the diversity of size and turnover, they are often companies limited by guarantee or incorporated associations, while others are formed under an Act of Parliament. Far from being saved by the bell, their governors have many of the same legal and fiduciary responsibilities as directors of any large, for-profit public company or charitable organisation.

One of the most important tasks that school boards perform is to facilitate the selection and appointment of their school’s Principal. Appointing the Principal can be a daunting and time-consuming process, and at the heart of the appointment is a need to mitigate the risk of leadership change within the school community. At Fisher Leadership we are privileged to be able to partner with many independent schools across Australia to assist with the appointment of CEO-calibre Principals, thereby assisting boards to manage some of the inherent risk factors associated with new leadership.

Leadership expert and author Jean Desravines contends that Principals bear huge responsibility – not least for ensuring the students graduating from school are ready to succeed and contribute meaningfully to their communities and society (OZY, 2014).

Social Affairs and Workplace Expert Professor Gary Martin claims, “School leadership is important, and sometimes the success of an entire school can depend on a strong principal.” (LinkedIn, 2017)

A report from the Fordham Institute recommends that Principals should not be viewed as ‘glorified teachers’; but more as ‘executives with expertise in instruction, operations, and finance.’ (Fordham Institute, 2014)

Principals face many of the same challenges as CEOs. For example, preparing prudent budgets while simultaneously resourcing core business and new initiatives; attracting and retaining high-quality staff; juggling stakeholder expectations; and overseeing strict compliance obligations and reporting. Principals and CEOs are appointed by and accountable to independent boards; they promote targeted research and development, innovation and strategic opportunities while striving for a culture of continuous improvement. Principals and CEOs take calculated risks and mitigate others. They balance their everyday leadership with the complexities of managing a people-centric organisation.

In addition to these high-level expectations, a new global report from UNESCO Mahatma Gandhi Institute of Education for Peace and Sustainable Development calls for school leaders to recognise that personalised education “…is an entitlement and a human right for every learner”. This further speaks to the individualisation of service delivery and enhances the strategic complexity of the Principal’s work.



Do we appreciate the mounting pressure on school leaders?

Research shows that far fewer high achievers are choosing to study teaching today compared with 30 years ago. In Victoria, almost nine in ten state school principals say Victoria’s teacher shortage is so bad they fear they might not be able to put a qualified teacher in every classroom next year (The Age, 2022).

Following the Federal election, the Government has announced its plans to incentivise high-achieving school-leavers and professionals to choose teaching as a profession. The Opposition has also committed to investment in teacher training, including additional funding for Teach for Australia and La Trobe’s Nexus program.

The Association of Heads of Independent Schools of Australia (AHISA) is the peak body representing Australia’s independent school principals. AHISA’s CEO, Beth Blackwood comments that while the Federal Government had made significant progress in supporting teachers during the pandemic, a “deeper shift” in education policymaking is needed. AHISA has released a new policy manifesto arguing for a “strengths-based” policy.

Strength-based practice emphasises people’s self-determination and strengths, and promotes resourcefulness and resilience in the face of adversity. The six strengths-based priority areas outlined by AHISA include supporting the digital transformation of Australian education; upskilling the teaching profession; re-establishing and strengthening students’ learning journeys; supporting student wellbeing; strengthening all levels of school leadership and engaging parents in their children’s education.

While government think tanks like the Grattan Institute and professional associations can signal change at the policy level, it is the school leaders who are responsible for elevating the credibility of the profession, encouraging and nurturing new teachers and developing their staff to be future leaders in education. 

Schools are fundamentally important to our future. Principals are required to balance the books as stewards of academic rigour, custodians of youth education, and business leaders responsible for commercial outcomes. This is no mean feat.

Liz Jones

Managing Partner, Fisher Leadership


What does the talent shortage mean for Principal appointments?

Appointing the right Principal has ramifications for the school’s reputation generally and the students, families and wider school community who will be impacted by the new leadership. As part of the briefing process with a school Board, Fisher Leadership utilises a proprietary Global Capability Framework (GCF), which captures the requisite cognitive capability, personal attributes, emotions, and leadership mindsets required by leaders from Manager through to Board level, to succeed in a rapidly transforming working world. Developed by our CLA team of organisational psychologists, and based on 25 years of international research, every employee across the Fisher Leadership Executive Search business has helped shape and refine the framework to be apt for the future of work.

The Framework enables us to define and measure the cross-professional, multi-disciplinary attributes Principals should possess in order to effectively drive a school’s strategic direction and orient teams to the desired culture. This helps Boards to prioritise the strengths they believe a new Principal at their school will require.

Global Capability Framework

Fisher Leadership’s role is to support the Board by focusing their search and candidate recommendations based on the Board’s expectations. Every school is different and every potential candidate for school principalship will not necessarily be a cultural and capability “fit”. Fisher Leadership curates a selection of candidates who best match the expectations of the school at that point in time. Just as schools are challenged to provide an individualised education for every student, and Principals are expected to be Lead Educators as well as CEOs, Fisher Leadership’s challenge is to utilise it’s experience, knowledge of the sector, understanding of each Board’s requirements and care for each candidate to ensure the school’s new Principal is a resounding success.

 Australia has been experiencing a shortage of high calibre teachers for some time and especially in the STEM areas of science, technology, engineering and maths. Independent Schools Australia (ISA) Chief Executive Officer, Ms Margery Evans told the media, “Anything that attracts more talented people into the teaching profession is good news.” (ISA, 2022)

Australia needs a “compelling national vision” for education. The real challenge lies in improving the skills assessment of principals – when the job attracts even higher-calibre applicants, the leadership impact will be felt far and wide.

No, thank you.