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The Cost of Perfectionism

By Jeffrey Shields posted 28 days ago


CEO Notebook |

Delegating can expand your strategic capacity and promote creativity and skill development among your team.

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Jeffrey Shields, FASAE, CAE
NBOA President and CEO

“I want it done right, so I’m going to have to do it myself.” If you’ve heard someone in your office make this statement, or perhaps you’ve made this statement yourself, chances are you are dealing with a bad case of perfectionism. Many in your roles are often recognized for being so capable at solving problems, finding opportunities, accepting every additional responsibility, and executing on every detail. But, at what cost?

One of the keys to being effective in your leadership role is to understand your strengths – which are many – but also the strengths of those around you. As a business officer, it is nearly impossible to be the most knowledgeable person in the room about every area you oversee. Nor should that be your goal or self-expectation. For example, you may have secured your business officer role based on your education and experience in accounting (approximately 25% of NBOA members are CPAs), but does that skillset easily translate to overseeing your school’s transportation, food service or preventative maintenance program? The point is, you cannot be an expert in all areas, let alone a perfectionist. You should not expect this of yourself, and neither should your school, because the consequences are detrimental.

We need business officers to serve as financial leaders at their schools. This means serving as the strategic partner to your head of school and board of trustees as well as the other members of the school’s leadership team and the collective faculty and staff. Therefore, it is deleterious to your leadership role to have your fingers in every operational detail of your school, assuming proficient staffing, training, policies and procedures are in place. And, even if you are capable of doing so, what capacity do you have left to be strategic? By over-performing, you are likely producing the unintended consequences of allowing others on your team to underperform.

According to “How to Delegate When You’re a Die-Hard Perfectionist,” by Melody Wilding (Fast Company, May 12, 2021), there are ways to move away from being the “office superhero,” and the results could truly benefit you, your staff and your school. Consider the following:

Consider the cost: A mentor once shared with me, “Your job each day is to review the 20 plus items on your to-do list and pick the seven that will have the greatest impact on your organization.” While this is somewhat tongue in cheek, the lesson is valuable. If you’re reluctant to delegate key responsibilities, you won’t have the appropriate time and energy for what matters most. It’s exhausting and likely does not ultimately produce the best long-term outcomes.

Business officers at schools of less scope or resources may find the same relief and support in a part-time staff accountant or bookkeeper or even by outsourcing some accounting requirements to a specialized firm.

Start small: Your portfolio of responsibilities at your school is broad and varied. It can be overwhelming to determine what areas can and should be delegated to others or even outsourced. It is not an “all-or-nothing” proposition, according to Wilding. She suggests focusing on “upskilling and transitioning tasks in parts.” Focus on tasks that are very time consuming, repeatable or may require a specialized skill you don’t already possess, and consider delegating tasks to others, even when professional development or training is required. This will create more time for you, and your staff will develop broader expertise. For example, business officers often share that having a controller in the office who oversees monthly financials, reconciliations and the audit, among other responsibilities, has made a tremendous difference in their ability to think and act more strategically in their role. Business officers at schools of less scope or resources may find the same relief and support in a part-time staff accountant or bookkeeper or even by outsourcing some accounting requirements to a specialized firm.

Share responsibility: As a leader, Wilding says your job is to provide the “what” and the “why,” which in her view is providing context for the work and defining what the outcome should be. She suggests leaving the “how” to others, keeping in mind there are often several ways to reach the same outcome. This can be a challenge for those who have a tremendous amount of experience, but one of the best ways to serve your staff and your school is to unlock the creativity and new ideas of those around you. The past year is surely evidence of that. When possible, simply state the outcome you’re looking for, why it’s important and allow your staff colleagues to determine the how. It will save you time and help you develop new talent simultaneously.

There is no doubt that accuracy, attention to detail and a commitment to high quality are hallmarks of the independent school business office. And that’s thanks in large part to the hard working and talented members of this community. While there may be short-term satisfaction to being the one that can do it all, the long-term costs are simply not worth it. So please, consider the cost, start small, and share your many responsibilities!

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Follow NBOA President and CEO Jeff Shields @shieldsNBOA.
From Net Assets NOW, May 25, 2021. Read past issues of CEO Notebook.

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