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Interview with Dr Lee-Anne Perry AM

Microphone 311There were many thoughtful and informative interviews which could not be included in the latest edition of The Book of the Board (published by The Federation Press).  But interviewees have been happy to approve their separate publication.  Dr Lee-Anne Perry reflects on her experience as Principal of All Hallows' School, and as a board member of education organisations.  

Interview with Dr Lee-Anne Perry AM by David Fishel

Lee-Anne Perry AM
Dr Lee-Anne Perry AM was appointed Principal of All Hallows' School, Brisbane in 1999. Prior to taking up this appointment, Dr Perry served as Principal of Mt Alvernia College, Kedron (1993-1998) and of Mt Carmel College, Wynnum (1990-1992), following a teaching career in state and Catholic schools in New South Wales and Queensland. She is Deputy Chancellor of Queensland University of Technology, Board Member of the Queensland University of Technology Council, a member of the QUT Chancellor's Committee and Planning and Resources Committee; and Deputy Chair, Queensland Catholic Education Commission. Dr Perry has served as Executive Member and President of the Association of Principals of Catholic Secondary Schools, Queensland and the Mercy Secondary Educators Association (Australasia). She is a former governing board member of the Queensland Studies Authority (QSA). Dr Perry recently resigned from her position as Principal of All Hallows' School to take up the position of Executive Director of the Queensland Catholic Education Commission in July 2015. 

How has the All Hallows' board evolved?

When I first came here we had more of an advisory board, but over the years it has changed to become a governing board. The constitution has also gone through a couple of iterations. For example, if a board member's daughter becomes a student at the school, the board member now has to resign. Because governance and Directors' responsibilities have been far more clearly in the public arena we've sharpened our policies and documentation procedures. But our meetings were always conducted well.

The main responsibility of the board is setting the policies of the school and being involved in developing the strategic plan. The board also has delegated authority from the trustees for approval of the school budget and setting the fees.

I think every governing body should be run very professionally. They should not be tempted, no matter how small they are, to be casual in their approach. I don't think that is of much use to anyone. There are some fundamentals that all boards should follow. I expect board members to come prepared. It is reasonable to have high and clear expectations irrespective of the nature of the organisation. I don't think it matters if it is a for profit or a nonprofit, you still have particular tasks and responsibilities to your stakeholders/clients or whoever.

What induction do board members have?

In the past there was a process leading to their appointment whereby the board and I were asked by the trustees whether there were people that we would like to be considered. If we were recommending someone or if it was someone one of us didn't know, myself and the Chair would meet with that person and talk about the school and the expectations and then the trustees would have a separate interview with them. So there is a bit of preparatory work in terms of briefing, particularly if they don't have any direct connection with the school.

Once they have been appointed, myself and the Chair meet with them and run a formal induction session where we go over the mission and ethos of the school, the strategic direction, and the detail about the structure of the board, the constitution, and so on. When they arrive they also receive an induction pack. It has things like the constitution, the delegations, the policies and procedures. We have signficantly improved that.

What do you look for in a new board member?

We are just going through this process at the moment. We have a board and we have four committees: finance, property, risk and compliance, and mission and ethics. Each of those is Chaired by a member of the board, so the board members have to also have qualities that will enable them to Chair a committee. The legal and financial areas are certainly two we like to have covered, but beyond that I don't think the professional skills are really that important. It is perhaps more important to have people with some governance experience - people who understand what the role is or who can bring a strategic perspective, people who don't get bogged down in the details, and people who can actually value add to the school.

We have a highly professional staff, a very experienced leadership team, and that is where the expertise in terms of running the school sits. So I'm not looking for that on the board, but I am looking for people who have experience in other industries or professions who bring those skills and can be analytical and can look critically at the issues. Interpersonal qualities are also really important - people who have the confidence to share views, are prepared to challenge others, who will genuinely listen, who are reflective, analytical. You need people who have different ways of thinking, you need those who are able to synthesize, others who can bring that lateral thinking to the group. It is bringing those qualities to the group and being able to share them in a respectful way. It is difficult to get that exact mix.

We have had this same group for a couple of years so we have gone through our own formation in that time and we have a sense of strengths and weaknesses so that the next potential directors might have a better idea of the qualities and professional skills that we are looking for. I think that qualities are perhaps more important because we have a great range of professional skills and if you need further professional skills you can buy them in through consultants. Marketing and communications are often sought after qualities in a board director and I think that is ok, but I don't think it is critical. If you particularly wanted that expertise you could get a consultant or, if you're in a school, we have parents who will give us that experience.

How do you see the leadership role of the board?

One of the major responsibilities of the board is appointing the Principal. I've now been here for 15 years, so no one on the current board has actually had that involvement, but it is clearly a major responsibility.

I feel strongly about the importance of the separation of governance and management responsibilities. I'm an experienced Principal so I bring a lot to my role and to school management. I have been very fortunate that the Chairs I have had have all been very clear on this difference and therefore they make sure that board agendas are around board matters and not management matters. The clarity of the relationship between the board and the CEO is a critical one, including ensuring that both parties have a clear understanding of the governance role of the board and the management role of the CEO.

The board sign off on the strategic plan, and that's the frame against which I report to the board - so I am telling them about the operations of the school but in the context of the strategic direction. It keeps the board focused on what their responsibilities are.

What do you most want from your board?

Support and challenge are two of the things. Support in terms of what the board can do individually and collectively - bringing different perspectives and expertise to bear on the major strategic issues for the school. I look for their perspective, as people who have a commitment to the school but who are not intimately connected to the school in the same way.

I always want them to be asking questions. Why this, have you thought of that? That is a really helpful process for me and I use the same process with all the people who report to me. I see myself as supporting and challenging them. You want the best outcomes for the school and the wisdom is not vested in one person. I see the board bringing their wisdom to the major issues for the school.

The board approves policy. One policy that is critical is the one on enrollment. In a school like this where there is very high demand, the question of who gets in and who doesn't looms large, and speaks to a whole range of issues around the mission of the school - what is it and how is it reflected in our enrolment policy? That's a policy that is tested in a practical sense because when you have a lot of applicants and you're saying "I'm sorry we can't offer you a place" there is push back. Being able to refer to and rely upon a relevant board policy lessens the pressure.

How does the CEO's/ Principal's appraisal work?

It has varied a bit depending on the Chair. I have had several Chairs in the time I have been here. There is a formal five year review and there is also a formative review annually. Prior to that I prepare a report for the board Chair which is against the goals that have been set and approved by the board, alongside any other issues I need to address. Then the Chair meets with me and raises issues or else affirms what I am doing. It is just the two of us involved in the annual meeting.

When you first became a principal, did you benefit from mentoring?

My first Principal’s position was in a Brisbane Catholic Institutions school, which at the time did not have a school board or council.  So at my first job I didn’t have a Chair who could have mentored me. Subsequently, I have had very good board Chairs who have come from different backgrounds and who have been experienced CEOs themselves outside the education sector and who have also had governance experience. I have found them to be useful sounding boards in terms of particularly challenging staff issues. Someone to talk through issues with, not expecting them to solve it, but just to get some higher level advice. I’m not a needy person, I’m fairly self-contained, I’m not looking for emotional support, but I know that for some people that is really important. But if ever I have needed it, they have been open to that if I have sought it. The Chair, Deputy Chair and myself meet before the board meetings and have a breakfast, just to build the bonds between us.

What is the board's role in fundraising?

Our board doesn’t have a direct role in fundraising. The school has a foundation, which is a separately incorporated company. It has recently been brought under the control of school board which will now appoint the foundation members. The foundation board is there to raise money. There is an endowment element but it is mainly about fundraising for capital developments. The Parents and Friends groups also do some fundraising, but that is really about supporting the soccer team, or the water polo team or other activities.

What observations do you have on changes in the sector?

The regulatory environment has changed and accountabilities and compliance have dramatically shifted. I’ve been a Principal for nearly 25 years now. Accountability, reporting, compliance, have all significantly increased - the sheer amount of what we have to do now is greater. For every meeting I put together a checklist of the compliance actions since the last board meeting. The list is quite extensive and growing. The legal framework for nonprofits and their directors and managers is more complex. In schools the whole student protection area is one that has dramatically shifted. Child protection issues are clearly a serious matter.

The funding environment is becoming increasingly challenging. Public funding is going down but the accountability is going up. This presents the challenge of making sure you are a financially viable within the mission of the organisation, while at the same time you are directing more resources toward meeting your accountability requirements. Some of these seem perfectly appropriate, but there are others which seem of questionable benefit.

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About the Author
David Fishel 2014 - compressedDavid Fishel is a Director of Positive Solutions, a consulting firm specialising in the cultural and non-profit sectors. He has been a board or Council member of several cultural and educational organisations, including Circa, Creative Enterprise Australia, QUT, and the Brisbane Writers Festival. He has been involved in the development of national training programs for board members in the UK and Australia. He is the founding Director of BoardConnect, a non-profit organisation established to provide advice and support for the board members and CEOs of non-profit organisations throughout Australia. David has facilitated strategic planning and organisational development for cultural, health, Aboriginal, sports, educational and other organisations.