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  • Writer's pictureMike Vachow

Charles Dickens, Independent School CFO

Updated: Jun 24, 2021

What follows is an argument for elevating soft skills to the same value as technical skills in the position description of Business Director (CFO, Director of Finance, etc.) at an independent school.

But first, the unavoidable analogy drawn from literature. Dickens fans will recognize Matthew Pocket as a minor character from Great Expectations. In a typical set piece, Dickens describes Pocket surrounded by his large brood of children who are "tumbling up" rather than growing up, thanks to his and Mrs. Pocket's lackadaisical parenting approach. Matthew, who lives his real life in books, expresses his frustration from time to time by pulling his hair, as if to levitate himself from the chaos swirling around him.

I once knew an excellent independent school business director with this same habit. I can see him now, tugging on the tufts that ringed his balding pate, as I outlined my "business plan" for the school's summer programs, my first administrative gig, for which my six years as a high school English teacher and baseball coach had ill prepared me.

This is the independent school Business Director: Wendy to the Lost Boys, John Wayne to The Cowboys, the sole rational person marooned on an island of lunatics. Perhaps too flip a distinction but not far off when you think of the business director as the prime owner of the "school-as-a-business" and the rest of the operations team as the owners of the "school-as-a-labor-of-love." An often vast, thorny desert lies between these two realities of the school, and the business director should be an expert guide in helping administrative colleagues--notably the director of admission and director of advancement--and trustees, faculty and parents navigate this distance.

An ideal independent school business director candidate (and references) should be able to describe instances when empathy infused a decision about the bottom line. S/he should also be able to relate moments when s/he managed up, providing counsel to a board or CEO. An ideal candidate should be able to describe instances when s/he confidently, humanely delivered tough, business-side news to a customer or colleague.

Good teachers live in a world where the only things that reliably tie out at the end of the day are the following:

  • I know and love my students.

  • I've done my best to help each of them grow as students and citizens.

  • They leave me into the care of the proper adults.

Good CFOs expect to tie out a far more granular set of line items each day, but the best of them see that any seemingly objective item could have deep emotional, cultural value, and build the credibility with colleagues, trustees and parents and an understanding of the institution to make balanced decisions for the school.

The intersection of humanity and the brutal banality of modern commerce is the central conflict that fuels most of Dickens' work. In the worlds of Dickens' novels, characters who slide too far toward one of the poles of the continuum wind up in jail or become victims of spontaneous combustion. But that's an essay for another day and another blogosphere. . . but fair warning.

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