Does a one size CFO fit all?

Running a school is a challenging business. The focus on raising education standards in the UK is set against a backdrop of funding changes and moving targets. A growing number of schools are becoming academies and multi-academy trusts (MATs). Principals and head teachers are being asked to do more with less, to make difficult decisions in a culture of reducing budgets and greater competition.

Not only do schools and academies need financial rigour but many require strategic capability to assess options for the future. The type and nature of the school/academy/trust, the experience of the head teacher and the strategic vision of the board, means a one size CFO will not fit all.  Add in the broader debate about other support services – premises, human resources, catering, IT and the people dimension of leading numbers of staff and it gets even more complex. As a consequence there are a number of challenges when recruiting a good CFO, as they need to be an integral part of the school’s senior leadership team, alongside the head teacher and their counter-part leading teaching and learning.

Given the change in context, the role requires individuals who possess the gravitas and know-how, to play a pivotal role in advising on, and implementing school-wide strategies. It is an influencing role which instils an approach of astute resource management and enables teachers to deliver the best progress and outcomes for young people.

Things to consider

Financially qualified, or suitably experienced, or both?

In the UK across both the state and independent schools sectors there are a number of bursars/school business managers/CFOs who are not financially qualified but who are suitably experienced. A number have a qualified finance manager reporting to them.

This is an important decision; some schools who have not appointed a qualified accountant as CFO, have run into financial difficulties and found the CFO lacked the necessary skills to fulfil the role in the school’s context, even when they have undertaken a comparable role elsewhere. It can be even more of a challenge to recruit a suitably qualified and experienced CFO to a school, if there is not a clear proposition. Potentially good candidates need to be able to answer, ‘why do I want to be CFO in this school?’

Appointing someone from outside or inside the sector?

At first glance it can be easy to assume that to be a good CFO requires prior experience of working in an educational setting. However, there are many examples of individuals successfully transferring directly from the private sector, military and the wider public sector. At assessment centres and interviews many have outshone individuals who have experience in the sector.

Whether the CFO needs to have school experience may depend on the vision and direction of travel for the school; for example is it likely to become an academy, or if already an academy, a MAT? The key question is can you find the skills required within or outside the sector?

A CFO for today and tomorrow?

As already mentioned the landscape of education is continuously changing. It may be very different in 12-18 months, and it is challenging for a school to recruit based on the unknown. However, it is important to consider questions such as how operational or strategic do we need the CFO to be? Do they need experience of income generation and budget reductions? Will they need the skills and appetite for growth? Can they stand up and challenge those on the board in a constructive way? Is this what we want or will they be too challenging?
Finding answers to such questions before starting the recruitment process will make it easier to mitigate poor decision making throughout the recruitment process.

A CFO with people skills?

The structure reporting into the CFO within a school can differ. Leadership of non-financial areas such as HR, premises, ICT, catering and administration may mean managing large numbers. Alternatively there may be a need to have experience of managing external contracts for these service areas. Managing non-finance areas will not appeal to all. The balance of the role is a key consideration – in some schools 80 per cent of a CFO’s time is spent on non-financial issues.

Therefore, the challenge is to find a CFO who can work strategically and operationally, can cover finance and the broader operational areas from catering to premises, are equally adept in running contracts alongside teams and has the emotional intelligence and interpersonal skills to win hearts and minds both within the organisation and outside. Shall we just add walking on water and make it a full set of skills?

CFO roles come in all shapes and sizes within schools. There are clearly many challenges in recruiting effective people into these roles, however, by giving careful thought to the points above and not rushing the recruitment process, this will go some way to mitigating the risks of recruiting a good and effective CFO.

If you would like to discuss this in greater detail, please get in touch with Mike Cheetham.