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5 Minutes with Jane Carney: A Love for Education, an Ambition for Business

By Net Assets posted 06-04-2018 06:36 AM


Leadership |

The 2018 recipient of the Ken White Distinguished Business Officer Award says a key to her success at independent schools has been her network of generous business officers. “The business office can be an island unto itself.”

Interview by Cecily Garber

From the May/June 2018 Net Assets magazine

Photo above: Previous recipients of the Ken White Distinguished Business Officer Award at the 2018 NBOA Annual Meeting, with Carney at center, NBOA Board Chair Tracey Fudge (far left) and President and CEO Jeff Shields (far right). 

Net Assets: You started out as an elementary school teacher. How did that experience impact your work as a business officer?

jane carney

Jane Carney
2018 Ken White Distinguished Business Officer

Jane Carney: When I started teaching, I was 21 and had just graduated college. I taught fifth and sixth grade in the first multi-age elementary school in Lincoln, Nebraska, with 38 kids in my homeroom. I was the class’s third teacher that school year; the previous two had quit, something they did not share at the interview! I taught math to the gifted kids and Orton-Gillingham reading to those with learning disabilities. During my seven years of teaching, I gained an incredible appreciation for teachers and the multiple things they must deal with on a daily basis in and outside of the classroom. I also developed a deep understanding of the challenges kids with learning differences must face. Some of our biggest “trouble-makers” were just trying to survive in the classroom, and getting sent to the office assured they wouldn’t be humiliated in front of their peers. I learned a lot as a teacher; lessons of compassion and determination, and the importance of providing the right kind of support for students, teachers and families to foster success.

Net Assets: How did you transition into working in an independent school business office?

Carney: I had always loved math and wanted to do more with business. In the early ’70s, there were only a handful of women in the business college at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. So I took a more traditional female route and received a degree in elementary education. However, that desire to pursue a career in business continued to rise, and I started auditing evening business classes at the university while I was teaching.

I knew that I didn’t have all the qualifications listed in the ad; however, I knew I could do the job.

Later, after I moved to Hawaii, I enrolled at the University of Hawaii to prepare myself for an MBA program. My first year in the program, I got pregnant with my first child and put my degree on hold. Five years and two kids later, I needed to go back to work and had to decide whether I wanted to continue teaching or pursue my interest in business. Then I saw a posting for a business officer position at Hanahau'oli School in the local newspaper. I thought, “This job would be a perfect marriage of my love of education and my business ambition.” I knew that I didn’t have all the qualifications listed in the ad; however, I knew I could do the job.

At the time, I was serving on the board of the Junior League of Honolulu. At a leadership conference I happened to attend, a speaker said, “If you’re in a job and you already know how to do everything, you should have been there three years ago, as there is no opportunity for personal or professional growth.” I just knew I could do the business officer job and talked my way into it. The head of school was an incredible mentor for me; he saw my education background and business sense, and he supported my hiring.

I used to say to my kids, “If you never try, you never know. You can make it work if you believe in yourself and work hard.”

Net Assets: Colleagues say one of your defining qualities is your steadfast support of other business officers in their professional development. Why is supporting other business officers important?

Carney: When I first started in the business office, I knew nothing about being a school business officer. I was handed a cardboard box of files without instruction. I didn’t know anyone to call or talk to. There was no internet, much less relevant websites. There was no NBOA, just NAIS. So one of the most challenging things for me was that I didn’t have a support group. The business office can be an island unto itself.

My first summer as a business officer I went to NAIS’s version of Business Officer Institute and met Sally (Duncan) Cummings, the business officer at San Domenico School in California. Sally became my mentor and someone who always made time for my calls. Even though she was in California while I was in Hawaii, the distance made no difference. Developing that first relationship meant I was no longer out there by myself.

My father used to say the strength of a community is determined by the commitment of its volunteers. Being a business officer is an incredibly time-consuming job, and yet I see so many taking the time to help others.

Soon thereafter the Hawaii Association of Independent Schools began to grow, hiring its first executive director who wanted to develop an arm for business officers. I soon found myself as the founding president of the Hawaii Association of Independent School Business Officers. Being on different islands had been prohibitive, so HAIS and HAISBO organized professional development programs that brought island schools together. It became a lifeline and a source of information and idea-sharing. Whether one was at a large school or small, in urban Honolulu or up-country Maui, we found that we shared similar responsibilities and challenges, and that together we gained knowledge and strength.

The most rewarding part of my career has to be the relationships I’ve developed, true lifelong friendships. I’ve met so many amazing business officers who took the time to answer my calls and emails, share ideas and extend a helping hand. My father used to say the strength of a community is determined by the commitment of its volunteers. That always stuck with me. Being a business officer is an incredibly time-consuming job, and yet I see so many taking the time to help others. There is a collegiality among business officers that is pretty unique, and something that makes our NBOA community so strong.

Net Assets: You have been working in the business office for 30 years. How have things changed?

Carney: I started in 1987 in a small office with no windows, a calculator and a typewriter. There was a computer in the corner with a sheet over it, and I was told not to touch it. I remember when the school got a fax machine. Magic! Our first file server sat in my office, and everyone thought I should know how to use and fix it. Technology was a game-changer, giving us the ability to communicate immediately and seamlessly.

I used to have time to ponder. Now, if someone is impatient for an email response, I say, “You can either get my first answer or my best answer, but they may not be the same.”

The flipside is that now it feels like we’re expected to do so much more so much faster. I used to have time to ponder. Now, if someone is impatient for an email response, I say, “You can either get my first answer or my best answer, but they may not be the same.” We need to step back more often and not just shoot off an email, but truly think about it. We also lose the relational element of communication when we’re so pressured just to get things done.

Carney at the 2018 NBOA Annual Meeting
Carney receiving the 2018 Ken White Distinguished Business Officer Award

Another change is the amount of compliance business officers have to track; it has increased exponentially. There are so many different areas and nuances state-by-state. It’s mind-boggling. I’ve worked in a small office and know the challenges of bandwidth.

But NBOA really has made a difference. I was there at its infancy and have seen how it has grown. Being a small-school business officer no longer feels so lonely. You have a have hundreds of colleagues willing to reach out and help. The resources on the NBOA website are invaluable, and I use them all the time.

I also think that the state and regional associations have been very helpful. Cal-ISBOA (California Independent School Business Officers Association) is so important to our California schools, as state regulations often have an “extra special touch” placed on top of federal regulations. Other states face the same thing. I really appreciate the collaboration between NBOA and regional associations as it provides the breadth and depth of knowledge that business officers need to be successful. I appreciate the collaboration that has been developed to help business officers nationwide.

Net Assets: You have worked at independent schools in Hawaii, Massachusetts and California. What have you learned from working in these different regions?

Carney: I have to admit, it was a big leap of faith moving the first time from Nebraska to Hawaii. The four places I’ve lived are so culturally different.

Carney in Hawaii
Carney in Hawaii with her fiancee.

I moved from Nebraska to Hawaii because I wanted to live in a place with more diversity. The islands have so many different ethnic groups — Hawaiian, Chinese, Filipino, Japanese, all very proud of their heritages. However, you have to “hold hands” and work together to make things work on an island; you learn that you can be interdependent and still maintain your cultural identity, your independence. I believe this is how our independent schools also work; holding hands to make our schools and associations stronger while maintaining our uniqueness.

I have also learned that schools, like communities, each have their own culture and you need to take the time to get to know and respect it. I am incredibly grateful for the lessons I’ve learned and the friendships I’ve made at all three schools. Leaps of faith, just like change, can be a good thing.

Net Assets: What is one thing business officers can do to succeed in their careers and better their schools?

Business officers need to be both visionary and analytical.

Carney: Business officers need to be both visionary and analytical. Our heads of school and boards depend on us to bring those perspectives. You need to be able to look in all directions: learn from the past, know where you are today and envision the possibilities for the future. This is what makes the job exciting. Educational degrees and work experience are important, and yet the personal attributes one brings to the job can be even more vital to the institution. You need to have the ability to analyze, innovate and adapt; to think outside the box while recognizing constraints; to learn the value of partnership and collaboration.

The one thing you can do to succeed is to remember that the real bottom line is always the kids, and there you will find the joy of doing purposeful work. 

Jane Carney is the 2018 recipient of the Ken White Distinguished Business Officer Award. Chief financial officer at The College Preparatory School in Oakland, California, she previously worked at two other independent schools in Massachusetts and Hawaii and a public school in Nebraska. She has also served on the NBOA board of directors, among many other leadership roles. She is retiring in June.

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