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School leaders deserve the support of the business community

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There is a type of leader who has accountability for a budget that is often measured in the millions of dollars, responsibility for dozens of highly qualified staff and an incredibly broad and diverse stakeholder base.  

I am not referring to the chief executive of an ASX-listed company or the managing director of a sizeable not-for-profit business – we are talking about the role of a school principal.

Whereas principals rarely grace the front pages of the nation’s most prominent business and leadership magazines and newspapers, the work they perform is vital and irreplaceable in building our nation’s future by shaping the minds of our children – the next generation of society’s leaders.

Granted, school principal roles vary in size and scope and across the various segments of the public and private, and primary and secondary education offering. But each and every principal’s role parallels that of a CEO in more ways than one.

Just like the CEO’s role is integral to a business’ success, the principal’s role and effectiveness are pivotal to a school’s success.

Like CEOs, principals build a vision for their organisation, they go the extra mile to recruit the best staff, they develop others around them to build a community of leaders, and they endeavour to cultivate a positive workplace culture to drive results.

And just like CEOs, principals manage financial resources and take care of facilities, develop marketing plans and build a brand for their organisation, and are held accountable for outcomes – often by a board or another authority.

There is no doubt the principal’s role has changed dramatically. Cast your mind back 20 years and you would be forgiven if you described the school principal’s role as one of the glorified teacher – a leader with instructional excellence.

Fast forward to today and it is crystal clear the role of the school principal is increasingly mirroring that of the CEO.

Of course, there are some fundamental differences. It is a fact, for example, that Australian school principals are more likely to be subject to abuse or violence than their non-education counterparts.

And data from The Australian Principal Occupational Health, Safety and Well-being Survey report has told us that school leaders as a group appear to be subject to greater levels of stress and burnout than leaders in other professions.

Add to this the facts school leader salaries are unlikely to match those of CEOs who manage similar budgets and staffing levels while school principals are unlikely to have received the same level of preparation or ongoing development for their roles as those outside the education sector.

While there are no immediate or quick fixes for the salary issues, the business community can play an important role in upping the ante when it comes to better equipping principals for their evolving CEO-styled roles.

In doing so, the business community would be supporting the development of arguably the most important CEOs in our communities – those who play a significant role in the development of their future employees.

More often than not our preparation for school leaders has focussed on curriculum design and instruction.

The reality, however, is they are running organisations – and that is where their preparation and ongoing development often fall short.

Not only are principals concerned with what to teach and how to teach it, there are challenges with managing staff, issues relating to budgets and a stakeholder set-up that includes not just the customer (the student) but the customer’s stakeholders (the parents).

And the principal must negotiate with others, resolve conflicts, attend to complaints, and use data to inform their decisions.

This is where the business community can step in and lend support.

Take the local accountancy firm – it can support school leaders in enhancing their financial literacy – or the communications consultancy, which can mentor school principals in developing a branding or marketing campaign. Even the local IT company might be able to train a school leader to get on top of using data to drive key decisions.

In fact, the possibilities of business supporting school principals are endless.

And let’s be clear on one thing. While school principals can learn from business, they will most certainly be able to teach business leaders an important trick or two.

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