All Business ... Some of the Time

By Jeffrey Shields posted 09-22-2015 01:52 PM


CEO Notebook |

"The bean counters are taking over the world!" A school faculty member posted this on Twitter, the implication being that the "numbers people" were influencing too many decisions at his school. I don't know a single business officer who harbors dreams of taking over his or her school, but this post did make me wonder about the motivation behind it, and perhaps the impressions that develop among faculty when their school experiences budgetary challenges.

I think a healthier attitude is conveyed in "The School-Business Paradox" by Dr. Arnaud Prevot. A teacher of language and technology at the Archdiocese of Portland, Prevot writes about the complex relationship between teachers and school leaders, who "must work closely to achieve their mutual goals, in a setting commonly called a 'family'" (a notion with pros and cons) "where one is called to spend long hours for the sake of 'children/students.'" But these parties also have a business relationship that takes precedence if mutual expectations are not met. Private schools "must be a business, while not being one," Prevot writes. "This is the paradox, and a large part of a school's success will come from working between those two realities."

Welcome to our world!

I agree that schools must operate in a businesslike fashion without ever losing focus on students and learning. For me, the "school as a business" ideal would run on a continuum. At one extreme would be schools where teachers are unencumbered by restraints on how they facilitate learning and character development. These schools would have nearly unlimited access to the tools they need, and would operate in an environment supporting them. At the other end of the continuum would be schools that embrace the less-rosy reality that faculty and administrators are, in fact, employees; that technology and other educational tools require financial resources; that campuses and buildings are expensive to create, maintain and re-purpose to meet the needs of 21st century learning.

Of course, most schools are somewhere between these extremes. Moreover, they are constantly moving up and down the continuum as their leaders and trustees focus more on quality of program at certain times and more on financial resources at others.

To me, this need to continuously recalibrate is what makes the role of the business officer a bridge to world-class status for independent schools. And it begs the question of why anyone would feel a school must be either a school or a business. Why not take the best of both worlds and deliver that best-in-class education in a business-savvy way? This means understanding what your school does better than any other (e.g., your unique value proposition), connecting it to the needs of your market (students and families), and delivering it in the most efficient and effective way possible (like a business).

At lunch the other day, a business officer expressed how fortunate she felt to work in a profession that has a natural time of renewal every year. The thought really struck me. Most professions operate on some kind of a cyclical basis, but working in a school (and at NBOA) is uniquely revitalizing in that every fall begins a new school year, bringing the opportunity to work with different people, create new possibilities and simply connect to the notion of "what will be different" this year. As we undertake this period of renewal at our schools, I salute the business officers who will once again help their schools operate in a businesslike capacity, without ever being a business.

What's your thinking on the "school as a business" ideal? Share your thoughts on Twitter at @ShieldsNBOA or email at

From Bottomline, September 15, 2015. 

#Leadership #Culture