Principal CEO

02/15/2011 06:27 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Michael Haberman Managing Director, Global Philanthropy Team, Northeast Region, JPMorgan Chase

What do a public school principal and a CEO have in common?

For those outside the world of education, it might almost sound like the beginning of a joke. But the answer, it turns out, is: A LOT.

Many recent studies show that a principal's leadership is just as integral to a school's success as a CEO's is to their business. In the massive longitudinal study Organizing Schools for Improvement: Lessons from Chicago, researchers found that school leadership is one of five essential ingredients in the recipe for school success. Last year, The Wallace Foundation published a report based on six years of research confirming that leadership is second only to classroom instruction as an influence on student learning.

While school leadership is more important than ever, it's also more complicated than ever. Principals are expected to attract and retain talented staff, build morale among their employees and students, manage multimillion-dollar budgets, improve productivity, encourage employee excellence and create a vision and strategic plan. Many also contend with boosting parent engagement, building a school brand to increase student applications and working with multiple external groups from unions to the media to community-based organizations. As U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said in a recent speech, "Top-flight school leaders are more like CEOs than building managers."

Yet, unlike CEOs, principals often do not get the upfront -- and ongoing -- training they need to be successful. With some exceptions, such as those who go through the Leadership Academy or New Leaders for New Schools, the typical principal often begins as a teacher, becomes a vice-principal and then a principal, but doesn't get the management training needed to run a complex organization. No successful private sector company appoints a CEO who hasn't been groomed for the job. And once appointed, most CEOs receive ongoing professional development and support. Corporations invest in their leaders so that they are prepared for and can succeed in their positions.

Our principals deserve the same support. But who can provide this training, this unique insight into the new role of the CEO principal?

While the question is a complex one, it's obvious that CEOs and other business leaders who handle management and operational issues day-to-day can be a part of the solution. I've seen business leaders across sectors -- from financial executives to fashion icons to record label executives to independent consultants -- begin partnerships with NYC public school principals and get results.

These volunteers from the private sector are not taking over the schools. They are not privatizing public education. What they are doing is known in organizational development as knowledge transfer -- the process of passing on information gleaned from experience from one person to another.

From one leader to another, their partnership provides the space for a personal exchange of ideas, advice and insight. Private sector volunteers are able to share a business-like acumen that often helps principals assess their approach to many aspects of their business-like work, such as strategic planning, team-building, staff retention, effective use of data and evaluation, effective communication techniques, and budgeting and oversight.

With this powerful combination of leaders across sectors, the results are often astonishing:

• There is the principal whose business partner helped her boost the number of students graduating by 38 percent within a school year.

• The Partnership that decreased teacher attrition from 25 percent to 3 percent and transformed a school from a model of failure to a model of excellence.

• And the business partner whose marketing advice helped a principal build a school brand, in turn increasing school pride and increasing student applications by 22 percent.

"I want to empower our principals," said New York City School Chancellor Cathie Black in a recent interview with New York Magazine. "Because the empowerment of principals, I believe, is critical to the success of the system."

I couldn't agree more.