Employees have a vested interest in the future of the school, with a number spending many years employed by the school, and quite a few sending enrolling their own children. In these senses, employees are significant stakeholders. While each school is different and it is ultimately up to the principal and business manager to decide what will and won’t be shared, here are some things to consider before you share financial information.
Do they want to know?
Not always. Ignorance can be bliss. It can be a very respectful thing to allow someone to outwork their role without being accountable to everyone else. Others may appreciate the insights that financial information can bring, and it may give them a greater sense of confidence in the school leadership. Employees may also be stirred to prayer (and thankfulness) for the financial circumstances of the school, and this could occur in good times as well as challenging times. I believe you would have to be careful in situations of the latter, for some of the reasons I will mention below.
They will be more supportive
If they know more, will employees be more supportive of management decisions or will management be more exposed to scrutiny? Is scrutiny such a bad thing? Most of us in our roles live in a world of accountability and understand that such accountability comes part-and-parcel with decision-making. In theory, our decisions should be able to withstand the scrutiny of others.
It can be difficult to appreciate the difficulties in the distribution of finite resources if you’re not aware of the resource constraints and the range of decisions and alternatives that must be chosen from. One would hope that a rational person, when faced with the same information as others, would make the same (or similar) decisions. Disclosure of financial information and the difficult choices to be made could have the effect of increasing the pool of support.
They might not be able to cope or understand
Those in school leadership positions are charged with making decisions in the best interests of the whole school and not purely a single faculty or area. Employees can have a very narrow focus sometimes, and that focus might be limited to their own faculty (“We need more funds for the Sports Department.”) or it might give rise to claims for salary increases. If a healthy surplus is forecast, employees may not always understand that this is needed to fund capital expenditure, such as new ICT equipment or building improvements, or to repay and service debt or provide for other liabilities such as employee long service leave. It might be hard for employees to understand the differences between profit and cash (and it might be hard for us to explain it in simple terms). As an aside, this is why I think the Statement of Cash Flows is such a wonderful tool when coupled with the Statement of Income and Expenditure and the Balance Sheet because it explains how much cash was produced from operations and how it was used on financing (loans) and investing (capital) activities.
Some employees may lack the capacity or confidence to understand the finances of a school without getting easily ‘spooked’. An employee who has never seen a financial amount bigger than the value of their own home can become worried when a few more zeros are added on the end of the number. To us business managers, they are just zeros and the fundamental concepts remain the same irrespective of whether it is $1,000 or $1,000,000 (although I do recognize that the risk increases with larger amounts). It has always surprised me that the average teacher doesn’t understand the size of financial value of the school, even when they could do simple maths such as the number of employees multiplied by the average salary plus more for overheads and other expenses. But then again, we are all different and have different skills, so I guess this could be understandable.
Exposing new leaders
Certainly, one group that should be able to receive and understand school financial information is the emerging leader. Training of future leaders is an important function of the current school leadership and sharing financial information with emerging leaders exposes them to the decision-making processes and how this can sometimes not be straightforward. These emerging leaders can also have increased insight into the needs of the school and play a supporting role in the allocation of school resources. By the very nature of their emerging leadership, these should be afforded more trust (and opportunity to demonstrate trust). An emerging leader that gets sloppy with sensitive information is shooting themselves in the foot.
It’s not a democracy
School leaders, whilst hoping to increase participation in decision-making, shouldn’t run the school by consensus or democracy. While there are opportunities for consensus and consultation in managing a school, those in senior leadership positions such as the principal and the business manager do have responsibility to outwork their roles without subordinating this to others. This doesn’t stop school leaders from being accountable for their decision-making.
Enter the conspiracy theorist
One of the things that gives our world ‘colour and texture’ is the presence of the conspiracy theorist. While maybe lower in number or less rabid, I am sure they are also present in a Christian school. For these people, no matter how open you are with them, they will think something underhanded is going on. To some extent, you can only do so much for these people, and if a person believes something sinister is going on despite open-handedness, you just have to move on. However, I believe the vast majority of employees in Christian schools are people of goodwill and would welcome more openness and transparency when it comes to the financial position and performance of the school.
If you share school financial information with employees, will this information get in the wrong hands? One would hope not. There is a risk of course, but I think this is where school leaders need to be wise about what they do and don’t share, and how it is shared. Since there is a chance of a leak, it pays to share summary information and only that which, while you don’t intend for it to become public, will not do too much damage if it does. I think it is wise to be careful about releasing financial information in printed or electronic form, and information that is more sensitive in nature could be shared verbally.
Some principles for sharing
While each school is different and it is ultimately up to the principal and business manager to decide what will and won’t be shared, here are some principles you might consider if you do decide to share financial information.
Having moved from a job in public service where I had a ‘job for life’ to my business manager position in a school on a 5 year contract, I had fleeting thoughts from time-to-time such as ‘What if I lose my job?’ Without dwelling on it too much at the time, my thoughts were that if I was doing okay or better still – doing great, what was there to be concerned about? I still hold that to be true. If I believe that my God is a provider and will care for me - even in the tough times - I do not need to be worried about where the food on my table or the clothes on my back will come from. (Luke 12:22-34) Off on a tangent, I do get concerned occasionally about the origins and content of my food and clothing - do they contain artificial things that are bad for me or my environment? Were they produced unethically? But I digress.
In this blog, I have unpacked this question of job risk in more detail by looking at the negative and positive factors, with the hope that by looking at both (but without unnecessarily worrying about them), one can identify some potential actions.
If your time is short – just read the headlines.
If you have your hand in the till, I hope you get caught and you’ll deserve everything you get! Don’t think more highly of yourself. Your Christian school is holy ground. As Christian business managers, we should be prepared to subject/submit ourselves to controls that demonstrate our integrity and uphold this as a Godly standard within our schools.
Loss of belief or Christian values
Christian schools employ Christian staff to be living examples of a life in Christ. A business manager that loses their faith and has no intention of being restored to faith has no place in a Christian school. However, many Christians go through seasons of challenge in their faith, and one would hope that a loving and encouraging Christian workplace – supported by a church family – would be the ideal environment for a person to be restored to faith.
Further, the business manager has an ideal opportunity to outwork their faith in many ways within a Christian school, and this privilege and opportunity should not be treated lightly.
Economy or enrolments
We know that a school’s business performance is significantly affected by enrolments. Growth provides plenty of opportunity, but decline is leveraged in the opposite direction. Business managers need to be astute to the different responses for growth, plateau or decline of a school can bring, and schools need to be agile when changes occur. Very hard decisions sometimes must be made, and a big decision is what happens to the school workforce. The agility of the school can be improved by considering such things as levels of debt, cash reserves, risk management, reduction strategies. It is important to reflect on the cost structure and staffing levels of the school at different enrolment sizes. There are schools around the country operating successfully at all different sizes, so the challenge for a business manager, principal and board is to develop successful strategies to navigate a changing environment while minimising adverse impacts on school community confidence.
Poor performance and incompetence
Everyone makes mistakes but it is how often mistakes occur coupled with the business manager’s prevailing attitude that will have an influence on how long a business manager will survive. A teacher will make an error of judgement about behaviour management or student welfare; an ICT network engineer may set permissions incorrectly; and a business manager will make an error when dealing with financial matters.
When it comes to incompetence, it is about not having the required skills or aptitude to perform the work to an acceptable standard. A business manager who is prone to error and fails to do anything about this by developing the skills and aptitude will suffer a double-whammy. The means of developing the required skills are obvious: study, training, application and a cycle of continuous improvement. Developing the right aptitude is a more complex challenge because it goes to the heart and values of a person. If a business manager does not recognise the need for good organisation and planning, quality review, work ethic, inter-personal skills etc., how will they develop these aptitudes?
A business manager must meditate and act on improving aptitude and skills to continue to be of value to their school.
Are you the business manager that everyone creeps around for fear of tipping you over the edge or bringing out your dark side? Do you snap at people? What do you think about the people around you? Do they irritate you?
You might get away with this for a season, but at some stage it may come to grief, and it is likely to be yours.
Do you feel like you are getting bitter and twisted (or ‘going feral’ as I once described my own circumstances)? Are you feeling like:
The principal – business manager relationship is one of the more significant relationships in a school, and probably one of the most significant for a business manager. The relationship, like all good ones, is a dance that requires two to tango, and must be worked on continuously.
When there is a change in principal, they bring with them their preferences (more hands-on; more hand-off; greater or less financial literacy; more aspirational and visionary – less conservative and prudent etc.). A business manager that has grown accustomed to their former principal’s ways might have a rude shock - so might the new principal!
A relationship that works well is one that is built upon mutual understanding, and this understanding can often be the accumulation of many interactions. With a new principal, ask directly and observe indirectly. What is their preference? Do they want to know more or less? Do they want to be informed of every nuance or activity, or are they more the delegating type? Get to know your new principal.
There is someone better
You shouldn’t believe the above statement. To do a job effectively – to own it; put your all into it; improve and develop yourself; and to be thankful for the role and influence one has in a Christian school – one has to believe it. But let’s look at a breakdown of the population:
The job has outgrown you
Have you ever heard the analogy of the frog in the boiling water? The water was body temperature at first but increased in temperature ever so slowly that the frog didn’t realise it was getting hot until it was too late!
We face an ever-increasing expectation of compliance and complexity in school finance and administration. Yesterday’s skills need to be continually updated. There are a range of accounting standards changes looming, as well as other legislative changes.
A business manager needs to decide whether they buy in this expertise or develop it themselves – or both.! But one thing is for sure, the status quo is no longer satisfactory.
There are a range of positive factors that business managers can do which, on balance, would increase job security.
Do you add value?
Business managers have a set of skills, knowledge and experience which might not exist elsewhere in the school. I remember our former Head of Senior School said to me one day when we were evaluating service proposals: “Where did you learn to do that?” Business managers should survey the school leadership landscape and look for opportunities to lead and deliver in areas that no-one else is attending to. There are a few things that need to be considered to make this work:
This can be in the form of doing the minimum, or it might be doing what I have always done and not being willing to try a new way or bring about improvement. While the busy business manager role doesn’t afford a lot of time to do more, is this the way that it should be? Do you look beyond your own work to that of your brother or sister?
Be a positive influence
What is your outlook or attitude towards circumstances? Do you walk around with a dour expression and you see the things that could go wrong rather than the possibilities of what could be? I am not suggesting for one moment that you throw out wisdom and good practice, but there is a point on the spectrum where stewardship turns into stinginess; where caution becomes fear; where critique becomes critical.
I was once told that there is a difference between managing and leading. Managing tends to focus on control and risk avoidance; status quo; pursuit of agreed targets etc. – all of these being worthy practices. Leadership, it is suggested, takes measured risks; inspires others to greater things; provides direction and structure where there is none; and sees a future of possibilities to be explored.
While I am not suggesting we all change our role titles, are you a business manager or a business leader? Do you approach your role with a healthy blend of both managing and leading?
Develop and lift up those around you
I am becoming increasingly sure that if we focus on those around us and less about ourselves, we can find personal satisfaction knowing that we are helping others (it’s the joy in giving). Do you focus on your own work and forget about others or do you give others an outstretched hand of support while you are doing your job.
A business manager who is insular and only thinks of themselves may be sowing a harvest for tomorrow, but it might be the wrong harvest.
I heard a visiting preacher at my church once preach ‘to tilt things in favour of favour’. If you are always treating others unfairly, with disdain or ignoring them, won’t you be treated likewise increasingly? Conversely, if you are striving to do good and have a positive influence on those around you, isn’t it more likely that others will treat you the same way?
Always have in mind the best interests of those around you.
Be willing and active in learning
Periodically we need to assess where we are at and how we are equipped to do our roles. For some, it might mean some study; it might be self-paced and structured learning; and for others it might be exposing yourself to new experiences and projects which take you to new experiences and thinking.
For those of us who are qualified accountants, we are required to undertake continuing professional development to remain sharp and skilled at what we do – for CPA Australia, it is 120 hours every three years (that’s not much). If you don’t have this requirement, why not consider your own target of how much time you invest each year. But don’t do it just by attending seminars – do something deep and stretching. When I got a new guitar, I didn’t just look at it and admire it – I unpacked it and applied it! I believe this benchmark to be true – an expert (or a talented person) becomes that through 10,000 hours of practice, and I believe a similar concept applies to our professional lives. I didn’t pop out of my mother’s womb and immediately demonstrate a knowledge of accounting standards – oh if it were that easy!
Be flexible and have a can-do attitude
As business managers and accountants, our tool kit contains processes and systems. To make sense of so much of what we deal with, we need a bit of structure and consistency. I once heard a statement that ‘consistency equals quality’ and I think that is mostly true. However, we can sometimes get fixated on the process or system, but it is only a means to an end – the ‘end’ is what we are really after.
So next time you encounter a person or a problem (or both packaged as one), consider if some flexibility will go some way to creating a win-win situation. Is there a way it can be done which achieves the end but gets there in a way that better meets the situation at hand?
Sticking to your guns about ‘the process’ might only demonstrate that you are inflexible and more interested in procedure than you are about outcomes.
Demonstrate integrity and be accountable
In our roles – maybe more than many others – the words ‘integrity’ and ‘accountability’ have real meaning. I think that is because many believe that money has been such a source of corruption and failure for so many people. If we are dealing with a subject matter that is inherently tricky, isn’t it all the more reason that we should carry out our roles with integrity and accountability? We should demonstrate our own buy-in to these with practical and visible examples for those around us of the high standard we hold ourselves to. Sometimes, this means setting a standard higher than what is acceptable to demonstrate to those around us that our schools are in good hands (clean hands and a pure heart – Psalm 24:4).
Submit to authority
Have robust discussions and speak your mind – for sure – but know that you are working under authority and must respect that authority. In my mind, submission has a very practical flavor – support your boss in front of others; support the changes that are being implemented, even if you would do it a different way yourself. There may be some rare times when you have ‘a hill to die for’ (whistle-blowing is one such scenario), but don’t overuse that card too much.
Work through differences in an impersonal way
I know that I am a fallen individual and am not perfect in many areas. I have decided that if ever I am caught in a disagreement, I have to shoulder some of the responsibility for the current circumstances. I firmly believe that being vulnerable and contrite in these circumstances is a valuable olive branch of peace that would cause a decent person to treat me in the same manner.
If you are caught in a disagreement or grievance, do your utmost as early as possible to find resolution and sort out your differences, and as much as possible, try not to make it personal or take it personally. There may be times of course where you are not dealing with a reasonable person, and you have to do what you can and leave the situation to God, always being prepared when called upon to have another go at resolution.
One of the most powerful and impacting situations I have seen was when a teacher yelled severely at his students. When called before the principal, he was very contrite. However, he went further. He not only apologized to his class – he sought their forgiveness. What a wonderful example to young people of the power of humility.
There is an opportunity for relationships to be even more enduring and robust if such situations are dealt with in a humble, contrite and restorative way.
Be organised and structured
Our roles often bring order, structure and reliability to our schools. You might have heard the phrase ‘The gardener has the worst garden’ meaning what one does professionally might not be what one does personally. Do you conduct your own personal affairs and indeed the way you conduct your work role to demonstrate your belief in and support of the practices that you espouse for your school?
How you organise and manage your own affairs reflects on the approach that you will and do take for your school.