CEO Notebook

Jeff Shields

Jeffrey Shields, FASAE, CAE

President and CEO
Twitter: @shieldsNBOA

When CFOs Succeed to the Top Spot

From Net Assets NOW, June 20, 2017. Read past issues of CEO Notebook.

A few weeks ago, Melissa Orth, NBOA’s board chair and chief operating officer/chief financial officer of Greenhill School, in Addison Texas, shared exciting (and somewhat sad) professional news with the NBOA Board of Directors. She is leaving her role at Greenhill, where she has been for 18 years, to accept an amazing opportunity as president and CEO of The Legacy Senior Communities, a Jewish faith-based senior housing and health care organization based in Dallas.

While bittersweet in some ways, Melissa’s departure from NBOA and the independent school business officer community should come as no surprise. In my opinion, Melissa embodies everything that a nonprofit leader should be. She is extremely knowledgeable about nonprofit management and governance issues, and she excels at identifying and articulating a clear and inspiring vision for the future. She connects with all types of audiences, both from the podium and informally one-on-one. She uses — and values — data to inform decision-making. But here is perhaps what I’ve appreciated most about my work with Melissa over the last seven years: her ability to express a cogent and compelling point of view while making room for opposing opinions, and ultimately facilitating the soundest decisions for the organization. That’s leadership, and I’ve been privileged to witness it firsthand.

To me, Melissa’s trajectory raises a broad question: What qualities and experiences do chief financial officers possess that make them strong candidates for an organization’s top leadership position, such as head of school or president and CEO?

Many of my answers parallel those of Susie Clements in this interview in Financial Director, a publication in the U.K.

Among the key characteristics Clements uses to describe successful CFOs: vision, a growth mindset, energy and vitality, and exceptional presentation and communication skills. She contends, and I agree, that the individual in the top spot must possess the ability to understand not only the organization’s financials from top to bottom, but also where the organization must go. This is why the business officer is called upon to present to the board of trustees with sufficient detail to support critical decisions. Moreover, the business officer must work closely with the board, often developing a strong working relationship as well as establishing trust.

Clements also cites experience running large projects as a strong qualification of CFOs. Within independent schools, many CFOs have both implemented a new school-wide technology platform and managed the intricacies of large-scale construction projects — sometimes even simultaneously. These types of experiences, she says, are notable examples of “agility and the experience of leading change” — core competencies for the 21st-century leader.

All business officers have seen the head of school role up close, but not all have the desire to assume it. Many very successful business officers have told me that they enjoy their “behind the scenes” role and relish neither the spotlight nor the pressures that come with the top leadership position. Others, with numerous qualifications behind them, aren’t considered because the role of head of school is still viewed largely as an endeavor best suited for those with an academic background.

When I accepted my role at NBOA in 2010, a revered head of school with decades of experience told me that more CFOs should become heads of school. He was prescient in his understanding of the changing role of the head of school and the many transferable skills business officers possess to assume that role with efficacy and success. Although this transition does not happen with great frequency, Melissa Orth departs the independent school community breaking through a glass ceiling and blazing a trail that other business officers may choose to follow.

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 One Schoolhouse and Georgetown Day School in Washington, DC.

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