The what, why and how of school business leadership

What does it mean to be a school business leader? Everything! Who becomes a business leader? Those who crave diversity and a challenge. But how do you know if someone has what it takes to be a school business leader? Hilary Goldsmith, finance and operations director in a bustling Brighton secondary, also known as @sbm356 and author of the wonderfully witty blog of the same name, shares her insight on how to spot, understand and recruit a good SBL

Being a SBL is a funny old game. It’s not something that many people aspire to, it’s more a profession you fall into by accident, and I think it’s probably the diverse nature of the role that attracts people who have been on a less than straight career trajectory.

We’re not accountants or facilities managers, nor are we HR managers, health and safety officers, insurers, caterers, legal advisers, marketers, administrators, company secretaries or goat herders by profession; yet we are all of those things, some of the time. (Well, apart from goat herder, that’s probably just me.)

People sometimes ask me what I love about the job, without question, it’s the diversity. I would be bored silly doing the same thing every day, I love the fact that one minute I’m writing a 20-page proposal for the setting up of a new legal enterprise and the next I’m discussing the most effective method of dissolving uric acid crystals in the boys’ toilets.

Every SBL has a unique job description, heck there’s not even a name for what we do – some are SBMs, SBLs, FDs, DF&Os, COOs, VPs and a bad-scrabble hand of other variations. The best way to work out what an SBL does is to write down everything that happens in a school, cross out all the things that happen in the classroom, then Pritt stick the bits you have left onto the biggest piece of paper you can find and write, ‘The SBL will take responsibility for…’ at the top. Voilà, you have the job description of your SBL/SBM/…whatevs.

SBL-ing, where variety is the preferred choice in life

SBL-ing is for those folks who can’t chose which dessert to have so they pick the mini selection of three. Or, the ones who have to have a handful of everything in the Pick n’ Mix and end up with a rucksack full of sweets because they can’t bear not to have tried them all.

Next time you’re passing, take a sneaky look at your SBL’s pen pot – they’ll have a wide selection, in every colour. They’ll also have a variety of tech devices – an Apple iPhone, a Windows PC and an Android tablet, or any combination of those things. That’s not because we’re masters of technology, that’s because we can’t commit to one brand and have to keep our options open – all of the time.

Do you have what it takes to be an SBL?

The business of school business is unique; the NASBM competency matrix is excellent and will certainly set your SBL a professional structure, but if you’re recruiting a new SBL, alongside the standard interview questions, I’d strongly recommend an in-tray exercise to test the more diverse aspects of the role – something along these lines:

  1. The headteacher would like you to paint the corridors in a ‘bright and inspirational’ colour, but your premises manager refuses to engage with any paint colour other than magnolia. Discuss ways forward.
  2. What is that smell in the boys’ toilet?
  3. The new NQT PE teacher asks for the keys to the minibus. What do you do?
  4. How do you get permanent marker pen off a whiteboard?
  5. You receive an invoice for a new school improvement software package about which you knew nothing, but to which the school has apparently committed for the next three years. There’s a handwritten note on it saying, ‘Deputy head agreed this, from the main school budget’. How do you proceed?
  6. The school has a pigeon problem. What’s the solution?
  7. Staff are complaining about the lack of car parking spaces. What action do you take?
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These seven questions will show you the real calibre of your potential employee and how well they really know school operations.

Aspiring SBLs, write down your answers to the above BEFORE you read on. Heads, do the same. Existing SBMs, you already know them, but refresher training is always fun.

Now in the same way that magicians never share their tricks, SBLs never really want you to know how they do what they do, but trust me when I say that the questions selected above have already been vetted, and the revelation of the answers to non-SBLs has deemed to be ‘low risk’.

So, here they are:

  1. Paint the walls magnolia – the premises manager is right. You can accessorise with brightly coloured displays and accessories to please the head, but chances are he’ll forget what he said the following week, or will change his mind about the colour choice three months, and several thousand pounds, later. The only things that bright coloured walls inspire are acid-house style dancing, graffiti and hyper students. Trust your premises manager.
  2. It’s uric acid. Stronger and more prevalent in male pee than female, interestingly. Uric acid crystals build up in urinal pipework that isn’t correctly dosed and can only be removed with enzyme-based cleaning products. Air fresheners and extra mopping won’t work. SBLs know more about school toilets than they do anything else. We can talk about toilets for hours. Only a genuine SBL will be able to answer this question.
  3. You send them away empty-handed. The rules around minibus driving are so complicated it can take several years to fully understand them. On this basis alone, you should only ever employ PE teachers who took their driving test in 1978 or before – these guys can legally drive a tank full of monkeys across London Bridge on May Day Bank Holiday with full impunity.
  4. Graffiti wipes – but you can only produce these magical items once you have negotiated the safe handover of all permanent markers pen from the desks of all PE and tech teachers. Then ban your finance officer from ever buying any more.
  5. Compose an email to all SLT members copying in the bit from the Finance Regulations about unauthorised purchases being charged to the individual personally, wait for the culprit to fess up, reluctantly agree to try and find the money from somewhere, possibly the homeless cats charity collection tin, and send them away guilt-ridden and ‘owing you one’. Then phone the company, reduce the three-year option to a one year package and charge it to ‘pastoral’.
  6. If you have written an answer to this one, you have failed the test. No one knows or needs to know what happens to the pigeons. That’s between you and the Pigeon Man. Trade secret.
  7. Take no action. Staff will always complain that there are not enough parking spaces. It’s a law of school physics that whatever the number of car parking spaces a school provides, there will always be 10 staff cars too many. If, by some miracle you do ever find yourself in a place where no-one is complaining about car parking spaces, you clearly have too much space and therefore have room to build a new classroom block. Only stop building when you receive 10 complaints about the lack of car parking spaces.

So, there you have it, all you need to know about how to spot, understand and recruit a good SBL.

Oh, and one last tip to aspiring SBLs; never ever, ever, ever, whatever they promise or whatever gifts they might send, never ever answer the phone to a photocopier salesman. Ever.

This is the full version of an article which appeared in June’s edition of Education Executive

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