Great Minds Work in Pairs

Finding your go-to workplace partner(s) is key to bringing meaningful change to your school or organization.

Feb 20, 2024  |  By Jeff Shields, FASAE, CAE

Jeffrey Shields, FASAE, CAE
NBOA President and CEO

Workplace friendships are more than a “nice to have.” They are truly valuable when it comes to sustainable innovation in organizations. If you’re lucky, and I hope many of you are, you have at least one person in your school that is your “go-to” person. The person who you can bounce that crazy idea off of first or come to with a sticky problem. They may be within your business office staff, your school’s leadership team or the faculty — someone you’ve developed a trusted friendship with over the years.

These ideas came to life when I read the recent Harvard Business Review Article, “Got a Radical Idea at Work? Find a Partner” by Roberto Verganti and Paola Bellis. The article confirms what I think many leaders have known for a long time: when you have a great idea, find individuals that you trust. They will believe in it and support it, or tell you the idea is just plain dumb. If it’s worth pursuing, it’s far more likely to succeed with a partner’s support than if it had your initial support alone.

Maybe it’s an out-of-the-box idea to generate a new source of non-tuition revenue or a technology solution that will bring greater efficiency to your school’s business office operations. Maybe it’s an idea about expanding your potential market of families. As the 2024 NBOA Annual Meeting approaches, I’m thinking about schools that bring not only business officers but also the head of school, HR professional or controller to the meeting because ideas shared by multiple people have a way of gaining traction.

Verganti and Bellis cite many examples of this practice. One was RNA scientist, Katalin Karikó, at the University of Pennsylvania, who truly believed that RNA could be groundbreaking in the world of vaccines. No one else was buying it. An accidental meeting at an office copy machine with Drew Weissman changed the idea’s trajectory. They had an “a-ha” moment regarding the power of mRNA, which three decades after the chance meeting provided the basis of the COVID-19 vaccines that helped end the pandemic, not to mention earned them Nobel Prizes. Groups of scientists dismissed the idea, but finding that one person that shared it turned the hypothesis into a product that ultimately saved lives.

In many cases, the person you share your idea with will likely have questions, and you will have to address them. One-on-one you can field questions, rethink your pitch or the shape of the idea without feeling like the idea is dead on arrival. 

A pair can more effectively innovate than a large team for several reasons. First, Verganti and Bellis say, it’s less daunting to share a “half-baked” idea with one person than a group. Sharing it with one trusted person has a much higher success rate than sharing it with your team out of the gate. Second, “Reframing the idea is easier to do with one person,” they explain. In many cases, the person you share your idea with will likely have questions, and you will have to address them. I’ve been in situations where a new great idea was questioned to death by a team — essentially the game was over before it began. One-on-one you can field questions, rethink your pitch or the shape of the idea without feeling like the idea is dead on arrival. Third, a pair can handle ambiguity better than a team, and managing ambiguity is key to moving forward a new idea. Finally, “a pair can be more resilient” and, in my opinion, nimbler than a team. The concept of experimenting, learning and course correcting is much easier for a pair than a group.

So, how do you find this idea thought partner? If you’re lucky enough, you hire them! I’ve often been told that I have a good eye for hiring. I have three partners at NBOA that help make sure that the best and most original ideas have the highest chance of success. Each of these partnerships is unique and has gained strength over time. One has complementary skills sets to mine and can take a brand new idea, break it down into steps, and manage it to its successful outcome. Another thinks a lot like me, and we can iterate an idea into something we both get excited about. My third thought partner thinks very differently from me and brings analytical skills to every situation; they ensure ideas are considered more thoughtfully when I would be inclined to move quickly. At the risk of embarrassing them, I want to thank James Palmieri, Jennifer Osland Hillen and Irena Reese, NBOA’s senior leadership team, for being the “thought partners” I go to time and time again at NBOA!

So, the next time you find that great, radical, audacious, scary idea, make sure you take it to the person that understands you and will help bring the idea to reality.

Jeff Shields signature

Jeffrey Shields, FASAE, CAE
NBOA President and CEO



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.

Full Bio »



years is the target ceiling for a school plant's financial "age."

Get Net Assets NOW

Subscribe to NBOA's free twice-monthly newsletter.