In talking with school principals and boards around Australia, I hear of so many involuntary departures of good principals from some great schools. So many of these ‘separations’ seem to be unnecessary, and many could have been avoided with better actions by their school boards and the principals themselves. The cost to a school of losing a principal, especially one who is loved by students, staff and parents, is huge. Think of just these few issues and their impact on the financial and educational performance of the school:
- The direct cost of termination payments, legal advice and action, recruitment consultants and advertising
- The reputational damage among stakeholders – parents, past students, potential principals, current and potential employees, benefactors
- The time lost in driving the school’s strategic plans and capital planning (‘we have to wait till the new head arrives to decide that’)
- The disruption that occurs in terms of staff uncertainty, departures, apathy and other dysfunctional behaviours (‘while the cat’s away, the mice will play’)
- The lost enrolments, from parents weighing up options and choosing the school with the principal they have met.
School boards should think very carefully about all of these factors before terminating a principal, or placing a principal in an untenable position by their actions. So what can be done by a school board to prevent them from getting to this point, and ensuring the principal is appropriately governed, but not over-governed? This short checklist might be a helpful challenge for your school board.
1. Be clear about roles
First and foremost, delineating governance and management roles is critical. If the board sees itself as a ‘management committee’, then a clash of heads is inevitable. The board has some key governance tasks, including strategic leadership, setting higher level policies to ensure compliance, overseeing the principal’s role and work, approving business plans and budgets, and monitoring the school’s progress against strategy, risk, operational plans and compliance measures. If boards want to employ just an operational facilitator, rather than a genuine principal/CEO, then they should at least be honest about it in the position description. They should really say that competent leaders need not apply. But a board selecting a competent leader and CEO to the role, and then expecting to run the school itself, is inconsistent. It creates a recipe for churn and reputational damage. If you want advertise for a great leader and manager, then do your school a big favour, and let the principal do their job! It actually makes the board’s role a lot easier. So be clear on what you want, and let the principal run the school as the CEO. And be prepared as a board to be challenged on occasions, by a good principal, if you cross the boundaries into management turf.
2. Create a governance culture that builds trust
In short, a school board’s approach to monitoring the school’s business should be one of ‘noses in, fingers out (NIFO)’. So boards should ask lots of questions, suggest and even guide at times, but in the end, let the principal make the decisions on managing the school within the boundaries of the strategic plan. This requires a lot of self-discipline at board level. For many school board members, this is their first governance role. Their instinct is often to function as a manager or owner, whereas they need to take a step upwards and backwards, to allow the principal/CEO to be the manager. Danielle Fraillon recently observed that: ‘[M]any board members know that interrogating the information [emphasis added] from management is the most important part of making quality decisions. How they go about drawing out that information inevitably determines the level of trust between board and top team’. The board chair plays a critical role in setting this culture, and must ensure the board operates at the strategic oversight level, and avoids getting into the operational or management level. The chair must be prepared to pull other members back on occasions.
3. Select your board members carefully
Selecting board members who can (a) understand the school’s culture and (b) step up to the role of a director is critical. So often, board members are selected from a limited pool based on their church or organisational membership, and then we just hope for the best. This is simply not good enough, given the trust that is placed in the school board by parents, owners, founders and other stakeholders. What is really at stake here is the education of thousands of children over the life of a school board member! Schools need board members who can commit to learn and grow in the role, to take advice and guidance, and to demonstrate the capacity to work effectively as a team with other directors and management. They must be able to put aside their personal issues, be it as a parent, church member, tuck shop gossip merchant, staff member, or single issue promoter (how many times do we hear the same point from a board member, as if the junior school pool is the only issue on the table). Board members incapable of setting these aside should be counselled early, and then seen off the board if they do not improve. They must also be able to put aside their own experiences and default solutions, to guide and support the principal, enabling him or her to make decisions with which a director may not personally agree. That is how a well-functioning board works, and it means that board selection must often follow the ‘John West’ rule – the candidates that the board rejects is what makes the board the best. Once you appoint them, it is essential to induct them well and then provide ongoing training, to equip them for their task.
4. Regularly assess and communicate
There is an old Chinese proverb that ‘to move a mountain, you begin by carrying small stones’. Improving performance and changing behaviours is much the same. A process of regular review and feedback is essential to enabling a principal to succeed, and doing it in small and regular steps is the best means. Some ways to build this practice include:
- Setting clear performance measures (KPIs) for the principal, aligned with the school’s strategic and operational plans and budgets
- Articulating the board’s cultural expectations of the principal, and ensuring that culture is part of the principal assessment process; this ensures that there is a balance between performance and cultural alignment for the principal, with neither element dominating the other to the detriment of the school
- Formal six-monthly reviews of the principal’s performance, undertaken by a small group of the board, who consult with stakeholders and review both cultural alignment and performance against KPIs
- Regular weekly or fortnightly meeting with the board chair, to talk over real issues, not just the weather
- Putting the principal/CEO’s report as a key agenda item, so that there is board consideration and discussion of the major issues contained in this report
- Regular in camera board sessions where the principal’s performance and contribution can be candidly discussed, after which feedback is given (complimentary, constructive and critical) to the principal.
Ensuring these processes are undertaken allows for the principal to have feedback in a positive and collaborative way, and to make changes in behaviours and approaches in smaller increments. It avoids the appearance of surprise feedback, which often triggers the breaking of trust and the board-principal relationship.
5. Set behavioural expectations for all parties
The way that board members interact and deal with the principal and management is a critical determinant of board and organisational success. Establishing behavioural expectations in the board meeting, including something as simple as directors, principal and management treating each other respectfully, sounds simple, but it is often not practiced in boardrooms. The trust relationship between the board as overseer and the principal as the delegated CEO must be nurtured by both parties. On one side, principals ignore their board’s concerns at their peril. They must listen and deal with such concerns and guidance – even if it does not accord with their understanding of the situation. If it is an issue of board members over-stepping their roles, it must still be managed with respect. Use the chair as a mediator and facilitator in such circumstances, perhaps respectfully reminding board members of the roles and duties allocated to the principal. Board members must also be willing to accept being challenged – whether it is over a personal agenda or conflict of interest, or an unacceptable behaviour in or outside of the boardroom. Leaking information, using schoolyard and tuckshop chatter as evidence, or pushing personal agendas (e.g. parental issues with a child’s teacher) are classic examples of unacceptable school board behaviours. These behavioural expectations sound like common sense, but such sense is not as common as we might think.
The breakdown in board – principal relationships is unpleasant and costly for schools. Avoiding them is much easier if boards keep an eye on these issues, and deal with emerging problems early. In the words of my (pre-decimal) grandmother, ‘an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure’. Let us help our school principals prosper in their roles, rather than set them up for failure. Our children’s schools depend on it.
Established in 1995, Effective Governance is now Australasia’s largest and most experienced independent corporate governance consulting firm. Michael is a company director, with twenty years of experience in corporate governance in industry, financial services, industry peaks and the not-for-profit sector. He has chaired an ASX-listed company, and served in governance and management of listed and regulated businesses, industry bodies and non-profits.
 Danielle Fraillon, 2015, ‘How not to behave in the boardroom’, Australian Financial Review, 1 June, www.afr.com/leadership/how-not-to-behave-in-the-boardroom-20150601-ghe5va.