Article by Donna Pacchioni, Kentucky Country Day School
From the May/June 2021 Net Assets magazine
Independent schools often hire leaders to be change agents and to provide visionary direction, but the best-laid plans might never gain traction if the business officer and head of school are not communicating effectively.
I became aware of this challenge when my school hired a new head of school, Scott Looney. He focused on strategy and I wanted him to focus on operations and the day-to-day needs of the school.
Such a disconnect can come with disappointments and concerns about not being heard or about lack of support. I spent the first year of his tenure wondering why he did not act in the ways I expected or make decisions in the way I thought they should be made.
A coworker helped me realize that the new head was not going to change his behavior or perspective. This is an important lesson for any business officer: You can’t control what others do, but you can control your approach to other people. If I was committed to being happy and successful in my role, I needed to find a way for us to work together.
For example, if I thought he needed to send out an email, I would draft it and ask him to send it. If I needed a decision and he was not responding to my emails, I would ask him about it in person. I changed my approach from, “Why is he not doing this?” to “How can I help him do this?”
I also had to learn this lesson about my colleagues. There is great value in a diverse administrative team, but you need to understand how to work with someone who views the world very differently. Once I figured out I could not change my co-workers, I had to figure out how to change my approach to them.
By virtue of our positions, many of those who work in independent schools expect business officers to be the “no person.” I have found that people often make suggestions assuming I will say no from the outset, whether because the given suggestion costs too much or carries too much risk. And to be honest, I do tend to jump to all the reasons not to do something before my brain gets to why we should find a way to do it. Over the years, I’ve had to learn to be quiet while a colleague outlines a new idea, and to only start talking when I am able to list the positives.
There were times when I clearly had to say no, but more often than not, I could find a way to say yes. If a suggestion was truly not feasible, I would ask the petitioner to help me find a way to say yes. How can we make it less risky? Where can we save money so that we can afford this? Can the development office help us find a donor? Even if the answer is eventually no, by asking the petitioner to help me address the roadblocks, they often can come to better understand the negative response.
As business officers, we often get so wrapped up in trying to solve a problem, write a policy or untangle a new regulation that we forget about all the resources available — including the various networks of fellow business officers.
I was blessed to be part of a small group of local business officers who would meet for lunch every few months. Even though they were from competing schools, I knew they would help me in any way possible. In addition, I was part of the Midwest Business Managers and eventually got involved in NBOA.
Having a rich network of fellow business officers helped my sanity. They understood what it was like to be in my shoes in ways that people at my school never could. A colleague once told me that business officers are often on the “thinker” end of the Myers-Briggs thinker-feeler continuum, while most others in schools are “feelers.” Sometimes, I just needed to have a thinker’s perspective.
The business officer’s role is very broad and can become all-consuming. I learned early on in my career that part of maintaining the right balance meant setting boundaries for myself. That meant committing time to myself outside of school, such as spending time reading or riding motorcycles with my husband. For me, it’s important to have fun at something so demanding of my attention that it prevents me from thinking about work.
Some of my past colleagues may read this and wonder if I’m the person they once knew. In truth, I recognize that there have been moments when I could have been more flexible or understanding — and I wish I knew then what I know today. Being willing to change your behavior and make space for personal development is where real change happens. In the end, everything I needed to know, I learned from my fellow business officers.
Download a PDF of this article.
Getting a Head (Mar/Apr 2020)
Listening is Leadership (web-only, Mar 2021)
Smooth Moves (Jan/Feb 2015)
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