How the Bursar became the CFO

WHEN corporations talk about workplace culture, they could learn a thing or two from the education world. After all, students’ progress is a benchmark of success every bit as critical as a share price.

With 140 years of history, Ruyton Girls’ School has been around longer than many companies, and Director of Business Leanne Smith appreciates her job is about more than just the financial side of things.

“First and foremost, if you are thinking about working in a school you need to really want to be involved in the school community,” she says. “It’s not just about sitting in your office doing your job.

“You need to get involved in school events and understand what’s going on at the grass roots of the school, understand why teachers want to work here, why parents want to send their children here and what the culture of the school is.”

In another era Leanne’s role would have defined as ‘school bursar’, but the change reflects how business-minded schools are now.

“Bursar is the old-fashioned term that existed when I started in schools for the holder of the purse strings,” Leanne says. “They were typically male and often ex-army, but it’s quite different now. You’ve got to be very strategic and work alongside the board, the principal and the executive on the development of a strategic plan.”

Leanne is part of the leadership group at the school in Kew, in Melbourne’s east, and works closely with principal Linda Douglas, adding “she’s essentially the CEO”.

“She might bounce issues off me before resolving them herself, and she needs complete confidence in my financial management of the school,” Leanne says.

Leanne’s move into school finance came about 20 years ago when, as a young parent, she was feeling the strain of combining professional and parental duties.

“I was working in the corporate sector and it was really difficult; it really wasn’t a family-friendly environment back then,” she says. “I felt like I wasn’t doing either job well – my job as a parent or my job in the corporate sector.”

But after meeting a school business manager at a function (“the most relaxed executive I’d ever met”), Leanne’s epiphany took shape. “When you work in an environment that cares about people you immediately feel looked after yourself, so it’s natural to look after others and make them feel valued,” she says.

Leanne still maintains a healthy work-life balance – she walked the Inca trail to Machu Picchu this year, and enjoys working on her golfing average – but clearly relishes work challenges.

As Secretary to the Board, Leanne has a major focus on strong governance. “This means keeping across policies and making sure the school is compliant and meets its duty of care, so for something like cyber policy this is absolutely critical in managing the safety of students,” she says.

The digital era has redefined education as much as any sector, and is a major focus for Leanne.

“Technology is advancing all the time and what we have to have are adaptable spaces and make sure the technology we incorporate has flexibility for change in the future,” she says.

One of the bellwethers for this disruption was the introduction of GST, which required schools to develop the capability of what had been fairly manual systems.

“When I first started in schools in 1999, the focus was the implementation of GST and that’s one of the first complexities that came into our finance environment because the GST wasn’t on everything,” Leanne says.

Apart from the vagaries of applying GST – for instance, there’s no GST on school fees, but it is added to a meal provided on a school trip – the new tax heralded more involved accounting.

“Our systems have become much more complex and able to deal with the complexities of the school environment,” she says. “Everything is integrated – student data and parent data – all in one place so we can pull down the info we need to submit government grant requirements and our financial returns.”

Organisational change is a buzz phrase in business and the education sector is no stranger to that. The need for teaching and support staff to maintain their expertise is unrelenting, given students’ familiarity with the latest technology.

“When I started it was Gen X, now it’s digital age students – and they are so far advanced in their knowledge around technology,” Leanne says.

While the constantly evolving needs of the school community mean a solid workload, one of the blessings of the Business Manager role is the seasonal nature of the school term.

“As a leader, you work for nine or ten weeks flat-out focusing on the operational side, but then you get that break when we get to sit back and think and put our minds to strategy,” she says. “There are not many businesses where you get that chance.”

There is plenty to discuss on the strategic side for Leanne: these are exciting times for Ruyton, which will soon launch a $30 million-plus building project. Prior to getting the first shovels in the ground, fundraising will figure prominently, and with it the chance to tackle a disparity in donations between boys’ and girls’ schools.

“Boys’ schools have been able to establish these large core funds through giving of former students and traditionally girls’ schools haven’t had that success,” she says. “Traditionally in the past men have been responsible for the household finances and making decisions where money goes – but that’s not so much the case now, so we hope to change that for our school.”

Leanne is as industrious off-campus as she is at school: she’s a member of the Association of School Business Administrators (ASBA), having just completed a two-year presidency, and on the board of Girls Rock Melbourne, which aims to get more women into the music industry.

“Giving back to my industry is something that’s really important to me  and a great opportunity to network,” she says.