Lessons learned from transitioning from school leadership to business leadership

Celebrating 5 years of Hutton Consulting

My deviation from the established pathway to Principalship started when I stepped out for a year, ostensibly to study Business and add to my educational leadership toolkit, but instead resulted in me starting a business – an executive search and leadership development company. I did not deliberately set out to ‘disrupt’ the recruitment sector, in fact in my family I am seen as the ‘rule follower’ and yet as educators we seem to be hardwired to see potential solutions, creatively problem solve and consistently seek to improve processes whilst providing high quality service to our stakeholders, clients and communities. With an educational lens in mind, I have sought to transform and improve the recruitment industry from a fairly transactional and financially driven service into a highly relational/ personalised service, adding value to the many longstanding client partnerships we enjoy as a company through our deep knowledge, insight and understanding of schools and education on a national and international scale. To do this, I admit there was courage required to step out of the safety of school leadership and go where no former Deputy Principal female leader had gone – in starting an executive search business from scratch and rapidly building it out to a team in five years, most educational consultants are solo operators or in partnerships of two – and so I would like to recognise that I was supported from the very start by the wisdom of Rosa Storelli, the encouragement of my family and in particular, Peter (my partner in life and business) and my former Principal; Susan Just. So after five years, the lessons learned are these:

1. The importance of holding true to your values: confidentiality, transparency, flexibility, integrity, creativity, inclusivity. This has been particularly important when hiring into our team. We place a great deal of emphasis on transparency and honesty, and I have learned to listen to my inner voice more when ensuring there is values alignment with hiring new team members.

Our company values are the roots of our business and guide us in our every day interactions both internally as a team and externally with our relationships – we have turned down search roles with schools or companies that we do not feel are aligned to our values. 

2. Leading High Performing Teams through collective efficacy, autonomy & trust: I deliberately set out to establish a recruitment company where consultants could work individually from their home office and come together regularly in teams. I did not want to pass on the overhead expenses of fixed office costs to clients (schools) and whilst many schools did not feel that we were a “real company” without a large office in a capital city, the blend of home office space and meeting rooms spaces in different locations served us very well going into a protracted lock-down period during 2020, where we were already used to the ‘new ways of working’. We had already established utilising technology on a daily basis for interviewing, internal communication and meetings. Our team manage their own time, we have flexibility in our work practices and open communication around when leave or breaks are required to sustain a positive working culture. Schools are amazing, and there is a high degree of relational trust with our consultants – it is not unusual for us to utilise a spare office or classroom in a school if daily schedules are tight. Who needs a formal office?

In establishing a non-hierarchical organisational approach to working together as a team – we problem solve together, and there is a great deal of collaboration, consultation and trust between members. It is a distributed leadership model where everyone’s opinion and voice is valued. As a leader – I have always sought to surround myself with exceptional people who compliment my skills and capabilities, and can find purpose in applying their interests and talents to their role.

3.  Bringing a ‘Value-add’ Mindset to business: the purpose and why I started the business is as clear to me now as it was five years ago: I believe when fitting character to culture in searching for the right fit of leader for schools – you need to have a deep insight and knowledge of education to do this successfully and when the right appointment of leaders are made – the students will directly benefit from this. As a company of senior educational leaders all working within the educational sector, we seek to value add to clients by sharing our strategies, knowledge and ideas, writing Position Descriptions, developing new roles to suit the context, drafting communication, designing organisational structures – we come to each meeting with the mindset of ‘how can we best help you?’ As a leader, I have learned that I am happiest, when I see the ideas suggested by Hutton Consulting taken and developed in hundreds of schools across Australia and internationally – small seeds that often become larger projects and positively impact the learning of staff and/or students. I don’t need to own these ideas or innovations, it is about offering a high quality value-add service.

4.  View competitors as worthy colleagues: I admit that in the early years, I did spend quite a bit of time analysing what the company competitors were doing. I collected poorly written ads, analysed market trends, websites, marketing strategies, success of appointments, and whilst I believe it is healthy to keep abreast of your competitors, I think at times my focus drifted more to what they were doing, rather than just focusing on how we could be the very best search company in this sector. As a competitive person, I am learning to enjoy the journey – rather than focus too much on point scoring.

5. Placing a monetary value on knowledge: This was a challenge for me – I was brought up in a Baptist family and service is at the heart of our values. I am a helper. I sometimes still have difficulty with saying ‘No’. When I started the company, I travelled all over Victoria and visited many leaders and conducted career conversations. I also presented keynote presentations at conferences without charging, and so 3 years into establishing HCA, we decided that our knowledge (and time spent) in regards to leadership career consultations actually was worth something, and started charging for this service. As an educator – I think this was the hardest challenge for me – it feels commercial – but I rationalise this – we have to eat!

6.  Seeking feedback for improvement: This has been a very important aspect of developing and evolving the company. Every opportunity we have to present a proposal for a search assignment, if we are not successful – each consultant will seek feedback from the Client. The early feedback was instrumental in guiding quite a few of our business practices. I was once told – “You can’t be very good, your fee is too low”.  Now I could look at this statement as an indictment on the school that they think the higher the fee charged – the better the quality of service – but upon deep reflection, it was a lesson for us to ascertain where the market sits in terms of fees charged and then make decisions around our pricing structures. I have been fortunate that we have had some very generous leaders in the industry provide honest feedback on our services, and I am grateful to them for their encouragement in assisting us to improve and develop further.

In celebrating five years as Founding Director of Hutton Consulting, I would like to acknowledge the team members – past and present who continue to add value every day, my family (who hear about my work a lot!), the schools and companies that we have been fortunate to partner with so far, and to the students who remain the focus of why we care about finding the right leaders in education.

About the author:

Fiona Hutton is the Founder & Managing Director of Hutton Consulting Australia