CEO Notebook

Jeff Shields

Jeffrey Shields, FASAE, CAE

President and CEO
@shieldsNBOA

Strategic “No’s” Are Essential for Leadership

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

“How you say no as a campus leader can be as important as the decision itself.” This sound advice comes from a recent Chronicle of Higher Education article on how college leaders should handle decision making during the COVID-19 pandemic.

When I visit schools, I wince when I learn the business officer has the unfortunate reputation as the campus administrator most likely to say “no” to any given proposal or initiative. This is because school business leaders are constantly answering critical questions related to finance, risk, compliance, and health and safety —and now at a pace rarely seen or experienced before.

Sometimes, in the best interest of our campus communities, the answer must be no. The ability to say no as necessary demonstrates confidence in your leadership role.

If you are like me and would prefer to say no differently when called upon, the article’s author, David Perlmutter — a communications professor and dean — offers different strategies that could help you give the needed answer in a way that best aligns with the fiduciary leadership role that you and you alone perform at your school. These include:

“Let the data say it for you.” Sometimes you are presented with good ideas that may have not been thought through entirely. This happens often in the enthusiasm to serve our students and families more effectively. But with limited resources, it’s critical to offer data that clarifies the pros and cons of a decision and helps all parties see the best workable decision is self-evident.

“Look for an alternate pathway to yes.” The most accomplished business officers I know employ this tactic. When the goal is easy to support but the financial investment is beyond reach, experienced business officers know that other, more financially feasible approaches may result in the same outcome. In this alternative to “no,” the business officer serves as a partner and problem solver with their colleague, rather than a bulwark, and can ultimately help move their school forward.

“Don’t say no if somebody above you will say yes.” This tactic requires a close, trusting partnership with your head of school. When you as the business officer redirect who will make a tough call, you have to be certain that you are on the same page with your head of school. It’s critical your colleague does not learn that a “yes” can be secured by going around you and directly to your boss. If this happens, it requires an immediate conversation between the business officer and head to align priorities, and ensure the business officer’s role, responsibility and authority is clear before the situation repeats itself.

“Don’t be mysterious about your reasons.” Mindful candor and transparency go a long way toward understanding. Be truly open to hearing your colleague’s request and be clear about any valid concerns. Mutual understanding that ultimately leads to an agreement is always desirable within our school cultures.

Throughout the pandemic, your presence on campus has likely been elevated higher than ever before. Various constituents are observing and listening to you, regarding the difficult decisions you are making each day. They understand that the health and safety of the community is our collective priority, and the school’s primary business — education — must go on as well. Take advantage of this opportunity to demonstrate you care.

I often return to the old saying, “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” Leading your school “like it’s a business” (in faculty’s eyes) is a sure way to appear cold and indifferent to your school’s mission and students. And yet independent schools need to embrace and follow basic business principles to secure the necessary financial resources to fulfill their missions in perpetuity. Therefore it is imperative for business officers to assert their understanding of the mission, the value of the education and their care for faculty, administrators, and staff as they make the most difficult business decisions.

Perlmutter contends that “If you find it hard to say no, don’t become an administrator.” I’m not sure that I 100% agree with this sentiment and would soften that stance to say: Now more than ever, you need to heed the call of leadership for your school, and saying no is often part of that role. You can communicate “no” in a way that best serves your school and elevates your role as a respected leader. And when “no” is necessary, as inevitably it will be, you can always turn to your colleagues at NBOA who understand the difficult choices you make in the best interest of your school.

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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