CEO Notebook

Jeff Shields

Jeffrey Shields, FASAE, CAE

President and CEO
@shieldsNBOA

You Be the Judge

From Net Assets NOW, January 7, 2020. Read past issues of CEO Notebook.

Good judgment. It’s one of the characteristics that heads of school admire most in their business officers. Judgment can take many forms in this all-important partnership. Honest broker. Truth teller. Sounding board. Confidante. Regardless of what it’s called or looks like, school leadership relies on the business officer to provide good judgment to support and advance the school programmatically and financially. This is why “The Elements of Good Judgment,” a recent Harvard Business Review article by Sir Andrew Likierman, sparked my interest.

Although written on behalf of chief executives, the article also speaks to independent schools as they become increasingly complex nonprofit entities and heads of school function more like CEOs. Heads look for additional support when making consequential decisions — in tandem with the board of trustees — that will impact the future of the school. Exercising good judgment on behalf of our schools is even more important when considering two other key factors: the pace of change within the competitive landscape and the difficulty of forecasting a future that is likely to be so different from our past.

In terms of independent school leadership, day-to-day and year-to-year decisions are rarely unambiguous. Almost every decision made at a school affects students, families, faculty, administrators or some other key stakeholder group. I’ve often described independent schools as the “ultimate people business,” and as such, the answers are rarely black and white.

The article shares six specific practices that help a leader ensure they are exercising good judgment: learning, trust, experience, detachment, options and delivery. Three of these resonated most with me in terms of the business officer’s leadership role: learning, experience and delivery.

Learning means “listening attentively, reading critically.” Good judgment requires listening to a diverse set of individuals, including the administrative team, board of trustees and faculty, and understanding their perspectives without filtering out opinions that may differ from your own. Most importantly, when presenting what you’ve heard, tell other leaders what they need to know rather than overwhelming them with every data point. This is a key leadership skill for business officers; Likierman confirms it’s particularly important when communicating financial matters to individuals without a financial background.

Experience is crucial to informed decision-making and sound judgment, though Likierman challenges leaders to consider “whether you are drawing on the right experience.” Past practice may interfere with judgment of current contexts, so make sure that you and other leaders are learning the lessons that will help you move forward. This is especially important considering that independent education will likely look much different in the future than it does today. In fact, I would say that it is already strikingly different than it was just ten years ago.

Delivery is where business officers provide the greatest impact as school leaders. The best decisions may be undone if implementation is improperly executed. Business officers must be able to assess risk within the school environment, especially for new and bold decisions. Likierman explains strong leaders “get advocates to question their assumptions by engaging in premortem discussions, in which participants try to surface what might cause a proposal to fail.” Of course, it is often the primary responsibility of the business officer to ensure it does not.

It sometimes happens that business officers do their due diligence, provide good judgement and make educated recommendations, and still, for a variety of reasons, the head and/or board opts for a different path. Though this can be disappointing or frustrating at times, providing good judgement when called for is the best approach. Campaigning for every decision is not.

Good judgment will always be one of the most important tools in a business officer’s toolkit. I hope you find these shared insights useful as we start a new year — and even a new decade — leading our schools to continued success!

Jeff Shields

Jeffrey Shields, FASAE, CAE
President and CEO

Jeff has been NBOA's president and CEO since March 2010. Prior to joining NBOA, he spent almost 10 years at the National Association of College and University Business Officers (NACUBO), serving most recently as senior vice president and chief planning officer. An active member of the American Society of Association Executives, Jeff earned the Certified Association Executive (CAE) designation in 2002 and was selected as an ASAE Fellow in 2008. He currently serves as a trustee for the One Schoolhouse, Inc., and previously served as a trustee for Georgetown Day School in Washington, D.C.

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