It makes cents; why executive search firms can be great value for schools


What the! We’ll do it ourselves. We’ve got the expertise. We’ve got the reach. We’ve got the pull.

These sorts of reaction are not unknown by executive search firms that seek to service schools. Exacerbated by search fees that can typically be $40 – 100k for a principal and $15 – 60k for finding others on a school’s executive, many schools are tempted to find their own executive personnel.

Sometimes, this initiative can work. Sometimes, it doesn’t – and even if it does, it may work out much more expensive than originally thought.


When schools do a search for an executive appointment, the major cost is in the time it takes.

Searching for an educational leader often involves the following tasks:

  • Drawing up a job description, conferencing the key competencies and wording the advertisements.
  • Placing the advertisement in print and electronic media.
  • Dealing with telephone and email enquiries about the job.
  • Reading CVs and letters of application and grading the applicants.
  • Shortlisting the successful applicants and contacting the unsuccessful applicants.
  • Arranging times for face-to-face or virtual interviews. If face-to-face, then interview location and logistics need to be arranged.
  • Managing the Round One interviews and in some cases Round Two and even Round Three interviews.
  • Arranging times to speak to referees.
  • Speaking to referees and collating feedback.
  • Notifying the preferred candidate and informing the unsuccessful that were shortlisted.
  • Dealing with requests for feedback from those that were unsuccessful.
  • Undertaking professional qualification checks.
  • Completing a background search on the candidates’ presence in the digital world.
  • Obtaining evidence of Police Checks and ascertaining that there have not been any allegations of unprofessional conduct that have been upheld.

It is important to recognise that the time taken to complete the tasks described will vary from school to school and from position to position. However, the typical number of person hours needed to place an executive into a school is about 120 hours.

The price per hour will vary hugely depending on who is involved. Obviously, the time given by some staff is not likely to match the price per hour of others such as the principal. Many people on different salary levels are likely to be employed in the business of an executive search by a school. However, the investment by higher salaried individuals is likely to be reasonably significant. This results in it being likely that the average price per hour is about $100.

Based on these figures, done internally by a school, the cost in person hours alone would be about $12k per appointment.


A further cost to schools would be advertising. It is the same for executive search firms, many of whom pass on these costs to the client. This is particularly common when advertising in print format. Small wonder. Advertisements in the print media can be expensive. A cost of $10,000 is reasonably normal with the actual cost depending on the newspaper, the number of appearances and the size of advertisement.

Because 95 percent of executive applications for schools are now sourced online, many search firms save their clients the print advertising costs by only using digital searches. Often, the cost of these digital searches is adsorbed by the search firm. 

If print advertising is still requested by the client school, good educational search firms have usually secured discounted rates that can result in a significant saving to schools.


Many schools feel they have the “brand” and reputation needed to attract many applicants without any help from an executive search firm. This can be true – but probably not quite as true as most schools suggest.

Educational search firms, particularly those with an international reach, often have tens of thousands of educators already on their books. This gives them an enormous reach – a reach well beyond that possible for any school.


Search firms place executives into schools for a living. They know their clients and they know a great number of possible applicants. This is particularly true of the search firms that specialise in executive placements into schools.

It is also true of the search firms that have placed middle managers into schools as well as executives. Why? Because over the years, middle managers mature into quality executives that can, in the years ahead, fill the top leadership positions in schools.


Good search firms not only find quality candidates – they also help with the selection process.

Quite properly, the eventual selection of candidate is the privilege of the client school. However, search firms can be invaluable as a second opinion.

Furthermore, leading search firms are able to advise on many other matters including the issues that need to be explored with each candidate. Advice can also be given in areas such as interview protocol, the wording of job descriptions, the placement of advertisements and even in deciding the appropriate salary range and emoluments.

There are particular search tasks that benefit from the sort of expertise a good search firm brings. An example would be checking on a candidate’s stated qualifications and exploring a candidate’s profile on social media.

Expertise in other matters is often sought from executive search firms such as how to welcome and induct the successful candidate, and in the monitoring of their progress in the job.


You can’t put a price on a school getting the right leaders. However, you can put a price on getting the wrong leaders. It can run to tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees, reduced productivity, imperiled wellbeing and reputational loss.

It is important not to overstate the case. Even the best executive search firms will sometimes preside over an appointment that doesn’t work. However, this will not happen often. If it did, the firm would disqualify itself by going out of business.

Given the advantages detailed above, it can make good sense for schools to use a quality executive search firm when looking for its leaders.

About the Author:

Dr Tim Hawkes OAM FACE FACEL has more than 27 years’ experience as a leading school principal. He is also an author, authority on staff and student wellbeing and an educational consultant and executive coach.