Many Chief Financial Officers (CFOs) in the schools sector do not have schools experience behind them and highly capable finance leaders can adapt and learn the schools sector. Paul Aristides, Partner in our Education practice, considers the potential advantages brought by candidates coming from sectors outside of education, and what leadership skills they need to be successful.
Though school funding, it can be argued, is relatively clear compared to other aspects of public sector funding, the intricacy arises in other areas where the genuine expertise of financial leaders is put to the test. Several prominent and sizable Trusts boast CFOs with diverse backgrounds from outside the education sector. There is every reason to consider reaching out to candidates beyond the schools sector in your search for the next CFO.
In 2023, GatenbySanderson appointed CFOs to Truro and Penwith Academy Trust and Haberdashers’ Academies Trust South; two Trusts separated by 289 miles yet with a common aim. Both needed a strategic financial leader, bringing not only the core skills of leading finance but someone who could operate in a uniquely structured organisation, both managing up, down, and across. Both Trusts had choice in their shortlists and, though some candidates did bring experience in the schools sector, some credible candidates did not, including the successful candidate in the Truro process, Sam Davis.
Sara Allison at Haberdasher’s was certainly satisfied: “GatenbySanderson have helped us source and recruit for an essential leadership role within our Trust. I was really impressed with the resources they put behind the executive search and the depth and breadth of their contacts in the public and private sector. I would not hesitate to recommend their service to any organisation needing assistance sourcing candidates for key executive level roles. They have provided an excellent service to us.”
After these recent hires, we thought about the challenges of the role and market. Despite being in different locations, the two trusts had many similarities. The CFO role requires a mix of financial skills, strategic planning, and adaptability. CFOs play a crucial role in maintaining financial stability and efficiency in the complex education system, facing various challenges that need skillful navigation to allocate resources optimally and support educational goals.
One of the foremost challenges is the intricacy of financial management across multiple schools within a trust. Multi Academy Trusts (MATs) typically oversee several schools, each with its own budgetary needs, staffing requirements, and operational nuances. Coordinating these varied financial landscapes while ensuring compliance with regulatory frameworks demands a meticulous approach and the ability to balance centralised control with decentralised decision-making.
Moreover, the ever-evolving landscape of educational policies and funding structures poses a significant challenge. CFOs must stay abreast of legislative changes, funding reforms, and government policies that impact education finance. Adapting financial strategies to align with these alterations while maintaining the financial health of the trust is crucial. In a year when there is the possibility of a new government and potential change in policy and funding, aligned with changes to the regulator, any executive team member needs to have a strategic outlook and an eye on the future.
Another challenge is using resources efficiently to improve education. CFOs must balance controlling costs with allocating funds for excellence in education. They need to identify areas with the best returns on investment, like staff training or infrastructure improvements while ensuring financial sustainability. Moreover, financial reporting and transparency are critical. MATs must provide accurate reports to stakeholders, including trustees and regulators, involving tasks like maintaining records, ensuring compliance, and presenting financial information.
Collaboration and communication across diverse stakeholders presents yet another challenge. CFOs must effectively engage with school leaders, trustees, governors, and external auditors to align financial strategies with educational objectives, fostering a shared understanding of financial constraints and opportunities. The transactional relationship between Headteachers and the Centre is unique amongst many organisations, and that power dynamic is one that many from outside the sector would have to get used to.
Progressing to a CFO role in a MAT demands a blend of expertise, experience, and strategic vision. Typically, this journey begins with a solid foundation in finance or accounting coupled with experience in the public sector, sometimes within schools. Aspiring Directors/CFOs sometimes start as finance managers or senior accountants within a trust, gaining firsthand knowledge of educational finance intricacies. Continuous professional development, like obtaining advanced degrees or becoming professionally qualified, and showcasing leadership skills are crucial. Building a comprehensive understanding of educational policies, budgeting intricacies, and effective communication with stakeholders propels individuals toward the CFO position within a multi-academy trust. The Academy Trust Handbook is a must-read for any incoming CFO.
Considerations for candidates
Several factors might influence the path to becoming a CFO within a Multi-Academy Trust (MAT). The primary considerations include:
- Qualifications and Experience: Typically, a strong background in finance, accounting, or education management is required. Without relevant qualifications or experience, advancement may be challenging. You must become fully qualified via any of the CCAB members or CIMA.
- Competition and Timing: The availability of CFO positions within MATs can be limited. Timing, coupled with competition from equally qualified candidates, might impact opportunities for advancement. For some, working in smaller Trusts means there are wider gaps to bridge. Consideration of moving to larger Trusts or out of sector can support transition to CFO.
- Organisational Structure: Some MATs may have hierarchical structures or specific internal promotion policies that could affect progression opportunities.
- Skill Set and Leadership Abilities: Beyond technical expertise, possessing leadership, strategic planning, and communication skills are crucial. Lack of these skills might hinder progression. The MAT sector is a little behind in leadership development compared to many and again a move out of sector may be worthy of consideration.
- Networking and Relationships: Building relationships within the MAT, showcasing initiative, and demonstrating value through contributions could influence career progression.
- External Factors: Changes in educational policies, financial constraints, or unforeseen organisational shifts can impact job availability or the criteria for hiring CFOs.
While these factors may pose challenges, dedication to continuous learning, acquiring relevant skills, gaining experience, and showcasing leadership qualities can help overcome limitations and increase the likelihood of advancing to CFO. As always, securing a Trustee/ NED position at another organisation, in a different sector, brings rich experience and variety to a career narrative.
In conclusion, the successful appointments at Truro and Penwith Academy Trust and Haberdashers’ Academies Trust South underscore the value of considering CFO candidates from diverse backgrounds. The evolving challenges within the education sector demand financial leaders with a strategic outlook, adaptability, and the ability to navigate complex financial landscapes. Aspiring CFOs must carefully consider factors such as qualifications, competition, organisational structures, skill sets, and networking to overcome challenges and advance in their careers. The demonstrated benefits of experience outside the education sector, as seen in these recent appointments and other CFOs in the sector, highlight the potential for a broader perspective to enhance the success of financial leaders in multi-academy trusts.