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Beware Your Own Expertise

By Jeffrey Shields posted 05-07-2019 07:39 AM


CEO Notebook |

Deep knowledge of many fields can help you handle an ever-expanding portfolio, but it can also limit your openness to new ways of thinking.

jeff shields
Jeffrey Shields, FASAE, CAE
NBOA President and CEO

Business officers are experts. I have no doubt that your school would be hard pressed to operate without your mastery of accounting, finance and tax, and you have likely developed additional knowledge in risk management, facilities and information technology among other areas of a business officer’s impressive, ever-expanding portfolio. Most likely this expertise has been a keystone of your career success.

If you are a long-tenured business officer, however, consider this: the very knowledge that has served you so well may hinder your ability to identify new solutions that could help your school thrive in a complex and changing environment. This is the premise of a recent Harvard Business Review article, “Don’t Be Blinded by Your Own Expertise,” which I read with great interest, on not only your behalf, but also my own.

Author Sydney Finkelstein cites several examples of veteran leaders whose previous experience led to overconfidence in their understanding of new circumstances, which ultimately prevented their effectiveness. These examples include the leader of the Homeland Security Operations Center during Hurricane Katrina, whose past experience slowed his response to this terrible tragedy. Another was Motorola executives who in the 2000s were so focused on their own success in the cellphone market that they did not take the threat of the Apple iPhone seriously. The past isn’t always prologue.

Distinct characteristics can sink leaders in the “expertise trap,” according to Finkelstein. Those in the claws of expertise may ignore or resist advances in technology. When assessing potential opportunities, they may focus more on what could go wrong rather than new opportunities. And my least favorite trait of the trapped is their tendency to repeat, “That’s how we’ve always done it.” I truly hope this does not sound like you, but it may sound like others in your community.

What might be the remedy for those of us who have the honor and privilege of working in learning communities?

Check your ego. The best business officers I know rarely take credit, even when they deserve it. Furthermore, they know what they know, but they don’t always have to have the answer. This is especially true when it comes to identifying financial resources for new projects or initiatives at the school. Instead of reflexively saying no, effective business officers ask good questions and encourage others to think about resourceful ways to achieve the same end result. This way, everyone shares credit in the conclusion or solution.

Identify a “learning buddy.” One of the best parts of my job is my access to different learning environments. Whether it’s in schools, at conferences or through my daily interactions with the talented and hard-working NBOA staff, I continuously have the opportunity to listen and learn from others. Think about that certain colleague, from whom you always pick up something new or who gets you to think about something in a different way. That’s your learning buddy, as corny as it sounds. Find time for lunch or a quick call with these individuals. They will encourage your expertise to manifest in new ways that will benefit your school.

Tap diverse perspectives. Whether the diversity is generational, ethnic, cultural, professional or stems from other life experiences, seek out diverse voices and bring them into your circle. You could tap students, parents, trustees or any number of individuals with whom you interact. The key here is difference, which can spark curiosity that will help you think about current challenges from a new angle.

I’m in awe of the expertise that business officers bring to their schools, and I know many of your heads of school, trustees and staff feel the very same way. Don’t let this expertise become blinders to the current and future needs of your school, though. Find ways to continue learning so that you can continue leading and your school continue thriving!

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Follow NBOA President and CEO Jeff Shields @shieldsNBOA.
From Net Assets NOW, May 7, 2019. Read past issues of CEO Notebook.


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