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Our Pursuit Toward Financial Health

By Jeffrey Shields posted 12-04-2018 10:02 AM


CEO Notebook |

You have questions. You have strengths. You have challenges. You are motivated. What we heard on our listening journey. 

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Jeffrey Shields, FASAE, CAE
NBOA President and CEO

More than 60 of your peers gathered in Las Vegas last week at NACOBO, a thought-leadership event that NBOA holds every other year, to discuss our collective pursuit toward financial health for our schools. NACOBO stands for the North American Conference on the Business Office and fosters in-depth discussions on common concerns among its participants (one or two representatives from almost every state, Canada and Mexico, along with NBOA senior staff and the NBOA Board Executive Committee).

NACOBO is a listening event for NBOA. One of the most important responsibilities of a national association is to listen to its members and respond accordingly. NACOBO facilitates this in abundance. Its purpose is to identify issues of shared importance to our growing membership within independent school operations, helping us meet our responsibility to continually refresh our understanding of members’ needs and respond in kind with programs, products and services to support the work of our members from coast to coast. To help achieve this goal, participants shared their expertise, insights and experiences and, as at every NBOA event, built collegiality and a national network among themselves. In fact, the sense of community among business officers in attendance was palpable in the opening moments of the program.

Lewis Carroll famously stated, “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there.” Therefore, joined by NBOA Board Chair Tracey Fudge, director of finance and operations at the Holton-Arms School, we opened the program by sharing the NBOA definition of financial health, developed by business officers on behalf of NBOA:

Financially healthy schools have the resources to sustain their operations for the long term, relative to their individual missions. These schools have successfully developed and implemented financial plans for both operations and facilities. These plans, funded in part with tuition and fees, also maintain financial reserves which adequately cover all current and projected future obligations.

This goal is where NBOA is going on behalf of its schools. But where we are now and how we will get there was part of our listening journey at NACOBO. Here’s some of what we heard:

  • You have questions. In guiding participants through a series of “facilitated introductions,” Jon Hockman of McKinley Advisors had everyone write down a question they hoped to discuss with others in the next 24 hours. Questions ranged from the school-specific to the profound (How can our school thrive rather than just survive from year to year? How can we think differently about the current models we use for sustainability? What will a K-8 school look like in 25 years?). 
  • You have strengths. Every participant received a custom “strengths assessment” from CliftonStrengths, a tool that advances the premise of recognizing and leveraging the natural talents we all have rather than investing time and energy to compensate for our weaknesses. The tool identifies 34 such talents ranging from positivity to “ideation” (fascinated by ideas) to “maximizer” (excellence is your measure). “Name it, claim it, use it more intentionally,” said Hockman of the dominant strengths in participants’ reports. And be a “strengths scout” too, to compensate both for the extensive demands on your own talents and the increasingly team-oriented approach schools need.
  • You have challenges. Participants worked in small groups to identify challenges across six areas of business operations, including accounting, tax, facilities, risk management and HR. Not surprisingly, a recurrent theme among the dozens of distinct challenges cited was change — as it relates to matters including staff cultures and skillsets, financial pressures, parental expectations, compliance requirements, space usage and risk exposure.
  • You are motivated. In both a generative thinking session and a provocative presentation by Grant Lichtman, participants explored sweeping challenges facing the traditional independent school model, along with specific strategies for clearly defining, differentiating and delivering a different (potentially radically different) value proposition. Participants identified strategies they were actively pursuing and considering alike, including being far more entrepreneurial, greater collaboration with other schools, and rethinking teacher training and expectations. “What is it about our schools that makes change so difficult?” said Lichtman. “There is no cookbook recipe that works for every school. The most important thing is to be on the trajectory of change. It’s easier to adjust to a target if you’re already moving.”

I hope you see yourself in the highlights of our NACOBO discussions and the work of NBOA while we work together to answer these often-confounding questions, build on our collective leadership strengths, overcome our challenges, and stay motivated to fulfill our unique roles in guiding our schools toward long-term and sustainable financial health.

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Follow NBOA President and CEO Jeff Shields @shieldsNBOA.
From Net Assets NOW, December 4, 2018. Read past issues of CEO Notebook.

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