Leadership tenure: Fact and fallacy

Beth Blackwood

18 January 2018

It was alarming this week to read of the longer tenure of Principals in independent schools being linked (without a shred of evidence) to poor governance. In fact, the evidence points in quite a different direction: rapid turnover of Principals, or ‘CEO churn’, has the potential to negatively affect the performance of schools.

It would be dangerous indeed if Board members of independent schools accepted without question that an average CEO tenure in Australian corporations equates to an ideal period of leadership of Australian independent schools.

PricewaterhouseCooper’s (PwC) 2016 CEO succession study found the median tenure of CEOs in Australian Stock Exchange (ASX) listed companies was 5.5 years, and trending upwards, driven in part by a ‘desire for stability after a period of major adjustment’. The median tenure of CEOs in USA-based corporations has also been trending upward. In 2009, at the peak of the Global Financial Crisis, the average tenure of the CEO of an S&P 500 company was 7.2 years, down from 11.3 years in 2002, but by 2015 was 10.8 years. Significant drivers of the attrition rate of US CEOs were economic conditions and generational change.

It would be foolish to be influenced by average CEO attrition rates that may reflect circumstances very different to those at play within an independent school. It would also be unwise for the Boards of independent schools to subscribe to another corporate fallacy, that to change the business, one must change the CEO.

Findings of US research on Principal turnover or ‘short-cycling’ include:

  • High Principal turnover often leads to greater teacher turnover which, in turn, can have a negative impact on student achievement and other schooling outcomes, as well as increase fiscal costs
  • Principal turnover has direct negative effects on student- and school-level achievement, and that the strongest impact appears immediately after turnover occurs
  • Regular Principal turnover can lead to teachers not investing in any change efforts and learning to simply ‘wait [Principals] out’; as a result, it also decreases the probability of school improvement.

US data and analysis referring only to Heads of independent schools, indicates that a Principal’s long-term impact on a school only begins to be felt after eight to 10 years in the role, due to the importance of the Principal’s relationships within and without the school community. Repeat enrolments, donations, support for the school generally and connections with the local community all depend on the Principal’s skills in relationship building, as do the social and political capital that support successful school transformation.

On the other hand, Principal churn may entrench resistance to change, result in anxiety of staff and insecurity of families, risking ‘crippling instability and damage to the school’s culture’.

Australian governance consultant, Michael Willis, also warns of the high cost of Principal churn, which may include:

  • 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.

Independent schools are unique communities. Wise school governors will consider far more than volatile CEO tenure averages when considering the future of the school’s leadership.

Beth Blackwood is Chief Executive Officer of AHISA. Prior to taking up this role she was Principal of PLC Perth for 18 years.

Research references in this article are drawn from a 2017 report on Principal tenure prepared for AHISA’s membership by former AHISA National Chair, Mrs Karen Spiller OAM, Principal of John Paul College, Qld. Prior to taking up the Principalship of John Paul College in 2018, Mrs Spiller was Principal of St Aidan’s Anglican Girls’ School, Qld for 18 years.

Click here to download this article as a pdf.