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Projections: You Are the Continuity

By Jeffrey Shields posted 18 days ago

  

Projections |

As the average head-of-school tenure shrinks, business office leadership has largely remained steady — and essential to furthering our schools’ present and future course.

From the January/February 2022 Net Assets magazine

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Jeffrey Shields, FASAE, CAE
NBOA President and CEO

Five years ago — if you can remember back to that distant time before COVID — we in the independent school sector were worried that a high number of business officers and CFOs would retire over the next few years. I wrote about the detrimental impact this would have on schools. It turns out that our worries were for naught.

While the population of business officers is aging (the average age is currently 53), far fewer retired over the past five years than expected. We also know that the majority of business officers are not thinking about or currently planning to retire over the next 10 years, thanks to NBOA’s recent report, “Demographics of the Independent School Business Office: Key Research Findings 2020.” Longevity in the position remains high: 45% of independent school business officers currently have between six and twenty-five years of experience in their schools. An additional 34% have between two and five years of experience.

Times of enormous change and volatility require a high level of institutional stability, and it turns out the business office in a majority of independent schools has provided such stability. This is both something to celebrate and leverage as we stand at this crossroad.

Under normal conditions, this reality would be good news for schools. Under current conditions, it’s great news. While the tenure for heads and other top administrators in independent schools is growing alarmingly short (nearly a third of independent schools had three or more heads in the past decade, according to a 2019 NAIS report), the stability in the business office has proven to be a major asset, especially during the pandemic. The extensive experience business officers bring to the leadership table has played a key role in helping independent schools navigate the myriad and unprecedented challenges of late. And the collective experience and knowledge within the business office will also be of enormous value to schools as they emerge from the pandemic and enter the next phase of independent education.

Times of enormous change and volatility require a high level of institutional stability, and it turns out the business office in a majority of independent schools has provided such stability. This is both something to celebrate and leverage as we stand at this crossroad.

Taking the Lead

The theme for the 2022 NBOA Annual Meeting this coming February is “ELEVATE!” Together, we’ll examine the myriad ways business officers can raise the level of their work as we establish the next-generation of independent schools. As we enter such discussions, however, it’s also important to consider the ways in which the role of the business office has already been elevated in recent years.

The essential role of the business office in seeing each school’s mission in the budget, as we like to say, has clearly risen to new heights. As more heads step into retirement and schools hire new or interim heads — some leading for the first time — business officers will continue to play a crucial role in bringing stability, experience and systems-thinking to the leadership table daily, serving as essential institutional problem-solvers in partnership with heads.

It’s interesting to note that in some schools, business officers are also being asked to take on additional leadership. The stability in the business office, paired with the increasing turnover at the headship position, has even led some business officers to step in as interim heads of school recently.

I spoke recently with business officer Dean Sidell, who served as interim head at The Tower School in Marblehead, Massachusetts. Back in fall 2018, Sidell, then a long-tenured business officer at the school, stepped into the role of interim after the head at the time, Tim Delehaunty, died unexpectedly. Given this shock and sudden loss, the board encouraged Sidell to step in as a stopgap measure to provide the school needed continuity while it figured out its next steps. It was a wise decision. “It was a struggle for the school because of the loss,” Sidell told me. “But my connection to the community, my years of experience, and the relationships I had with other members of the leadership team were helpful in keeping the school moving forward.”

Likewise, Dallas Joseph, vice president of finance and operations at the Baylor School in Chattanooga, Tennessee, was tapped to serve as an interim head several years ago. Why him? I asked in another recent conversation. “It was my relationship with the board, the trust I had established with the board chair emeritus, finance committee chair and other trustees,” he explained. “A secondary factor was my relationship with the head of school. He trusted me with assuming that role.” Joseph pointed out that he is the person the board most often turns to for decisions when the head of school may not be available, so it was a natural transition — in his words “easy and effective.”

“Among other things, my experience affirmed how important the business officer role is for the head and the school. We — the head of school and business officer — are the two people who best understand the entire school.”

Dean Sidell
The Tower Hill School

Sidell told me that serving as interim gave him a new and deeper appreciation for both the role of the head of school and the leadership role of the business officer. In addition to gaining a better understanding of the tough but essential buck-stops-here mentality for heads, he learned that while he could serve as both head and CFO for a time, not having a strategic partner made the decision-making more difficult. “Among other things,” he said, “my experience affirmed how important the business officer role is for the head and the school. We — the head of school and business officer — are the two people who best understand the entire school.”

For other business officers who may find themselves considering the role of interim head, Sidell offers encouragement: “It was a great experience for me and one that I would suggest for any CFO.” If you do sign on, however, he also encourages you to hire an interim CFO — someone who can serve as your strategic partner.

A Headless School?

Another interesting development is the creation of an equal-partner leadership team that includes an academic leader and a CFO. Some schools have done this as a temporary measure following the sudden departure of a head of school. Alex Exley, the business officer at Brooklyn Waldorf School, found herself in just such an arrangement at her previous school, the Housatonic Valley Waldorf School in Newtown, Connecticut.

Like too many schools these days, Housatonic Valley was dealing with disjointed life under a series of short-term heads — or, as they are known in Waldorf schools, the Administrator. So, at Exley’s urging, when her school lost its top administrator five years ago, the board appointed a three-person leadership council that included Exley, the school’s lead teacher and the enrollment director. It took some time for the three to establish their working relationship, but once they did, this collaborative approach proved highly beneficial.

“It gave the school the leadership continuity it needed to be proactive instead of reactive,” Exley says. “It enabled us to engage in some important long-term projects such as our salary and compensation study. And it created a higher level of trust with our families and community.” As a result, the school’s enrollment rose to its highest level, and attrition levels went down.

For family reasons, Exley had to move to a new school this past year, but she would have happily continued on the leadership team at Housatonic Valley. While the expanded role presented more work, she admits, it was deeply rewarding to see the impact the leadership council had on the school.

Given her experiences, Exley encourages other schools — especially independent schools that have struggled with a revolving door of headship — to consider some variation on a shared leadership team. A unique benefit, she noted, is that if any member of the team moves on to another school, as she had done, the others can offer leadership continuity while bringing in a new member the team. “In our current landscape of volatility and change,” she said, “this continuity is immensely valuable.”

Whether schools ask business officers to take on additional leadership as interim heads, create some variation on a new shared leadership structure, or stay a more traditional course, it’s clear that business officers will be exercising their leadership skills in the coming year to ensure that their institutions not just survive, but thrive.

Time to Thrive

Whether schools ask business officers to take on additional leadership as interim heads, create some variation on a new shared leadership structure, or stay a more traditional course, it’s clear that business officers will be exercising their leadership skills in the coming year to ensure that their institutions not just survive, but thrive.

The list of concerns is long these days — the needs to improve hiring practices that create and sustain a talented and diverse faculty; to strengthen our programs for well-being and mental health support for students, faculty, and staff; to develop flexible systems for delivering our increasingly flexible programs in ways that provide students and families with more agency; and to maintain the quality of our facilities while ensuring ongoing financial sustainability.

As we take stock of the lessons in crisis management and new initiatives of the past two years — as we examine what works and what needs to be improved — one fact stands clear to me: The experience, skills and perspective business officers bring to schools matter now more than ever.

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Follow NBOA President and CEO Jeff Shields @shieldsNBOA.
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