In Their Own Words: Heads and Business Officers Talk Partnership

Role clarity, communication and joint investment in DEI efforts all help bolster the head-business officer partnership.

Jun 25, 2024  |  By Jeff Shields, FASAE, CAE

Jeffrey Shields, FASAE, CAE
NBOA President and CEO

This year's Business Officer Institute (BOI), held earlier this month at Kent Denver School in Colorado, was nothing short of transformative. I was in attendance, marking my 15th BOI, and led two sessions, so I can report firsthand this year’s program did not disappoint and neither did the latest cohort of professionals newer to the independent school business office. They were eager to ask questions, build relationships and learn how best to steward the business operations at their schools.

First, a tremendous “Thank you!” to Kent Denver and Jerry Walker, associate head of school and CFO, for hosting this year's BOI. The mountain-side campus was the perfect backdrop for a week of insightful learning and meaningful connections, and Jerry truly gave it his all as a knowledgeable and generous host and faculty member.

We kicked off this year’s week-long program of core sessions and networking with a panel discussion on the all-important head of school and business officer partnership. Leaders from Colorado Academy and Kent Denver shared their insights on fostering a healthy and productive collaboration between these key roles, as well as tips for working with board members and other key members of the leadership team. Here are my top four takeaways from what these interesting and provocative business leaders had to share.

A group photo of BOI 2024 participants, faculty members and NBOA executive leaders.

1. Understand Each Other's Role.

At the onset of their relationship, it's essential for the head of school and the business officer to not only share institutional knowledge but also align their perspectives on their roles. David Braemer, head of school at Kent Denver, provided a poignant analogy: “Many people will say that the head of school is the brain of the school, but that’s not true. I’m the liver. Can I filter out what’s harmful? It’s not pretty, but it’s necessary. What the liver filters out may be different from year to year, but the function stays the same.” This was a surprising yet spot-on metaphor of the head of school role at independent schools.

2. Keep Each Other in the Loop.

BOI panel (1)

CFO Jerry Walker emphasized the importance of transparent communication with his head of school, noting that after any private conversation with a board member, he promptly informs the head to avoid any surprises. This practice ensures that the head isn't caught off guard by a board member mentioning, "Well, I already spoke to Jerry about this issue." He also highlighted their ability to be candid with each other due to a strong foundation of trust and respect, which has led to closer alignment between their leadership roles, nurtured overtime.

A strong camaraderie and mutual respect between head and business officer was apparent among our expert panelists. When Colorado Academy Head of School Mike Davis was shockingly bit on the leg by a bull snake during a mountain biking excursion — a more common occurrence in the West than say Washington, DC — he immediately thought to send a picture of the bite to his school partner, CFO/COO Whitney Johnson. “You develop a sense of humor” during moments like this, she said.

3. Alternate "Good Cop, Bad Cop" Roles.

At Colorado Academy, Davis and Johnson take on “good cop, bad cop” roles when addressing issues. "It works because we know we have each other's backs," said Johnson. It’s important to alternate roles to prevent the business officer from being perceived as the sole bearer of negative news. Walker was designated the "COVID czar" during the pandemic under a previous head of school, and received the brunt of criticism and scrutiny during this time. It’s clear that this is part of the gig from time to time, particularly when navigating a crisis, but it can be detrimental if the business officer takes on this type of enforcement role exclusively.

4. Elevate DEI as a Core Focus.

It's vital to recognize that simply expanding or creating a DEI office isn't the key to transforming school culture. Even small schools with limited resources can make substantial strides in fostering a more inclusive environment, said Davis. Hiring plays a crucial role in advancing DEI, for example. Kent Denver saw a significant increase in access to candidates of color with the appointment of a new HR professional with a strong recruitment background.

In addressing DEI-related challenges, alignment between the head of school and the business officer is crucial. At Kent Denver, leaders unpack DEI-related issues and concerns within the context of the institution's mission and values. This approach ensures a clear and principled response, especially in an era where all interactions with school leaders face greater scrutiny, noted Davis.

While NBOA draws from a national and international audience, BOI is more intimate than the NBOA Annual Meeting, with 75 attendees by design. However, the ideas shared have relevance for the entire NBOA community, and it’s my hope that those reading this article can take away even a sliver of the energy that we experienced in Denver and the many insights shared there. I would be remiss not to extend my sincere appreciation to our esteemed faculty members, who prepared for months in advance to help deliver this world-class professional development experience:

For me personally, this one-of-a-kind gathering is one the best ways to wrap up the school year calendar, with experienced faculty sharing critical lessons from the past and all eyes trained squarely on the future of our schools. With the Rocky Mountains as our backdrop, it’s no wonder we were able to scale new heights and tap into mile-high possibilities for the coming year!

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Jeff Shields

Jeffrey Shields, FASAE, CAE

President and CEO


Washington, DC

Jeff Shields, FASAE, CAE, has served as president and CEO of the NBOA since March 2010. NBOA is the premier national association serving the needs of business officers and business operations staff at independent schools. Shields, an active member of the American Society of Association Executives, has been recognized as an ASAE Fellow (FASAE) and earned the Certified Association Executive (CAE) professional designation. His current board service includes serving as a director for AMHIC, a healthcare consortium for educational associations in Washington, DC, as well as a trustee for the Enrollment Management Association. Previous board service includes serving as a director for the American Society of Association Executives, as a director for One Schoolhouse, an innovative online school offering supplemental education to independent schools, and as a trustee for Georgetown Day School in Washington, DC. Shields holds a BA from Shippensburg University and an MA from The Ohio State University.

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