Because many educational leaders find the first half of the spring semester the most stressful time of year, I’ve been talking a lot about the squishy side of kind leadership lately: self care and avoiding burnout and what-not. That said, there comes a time each year when we need to set aside the vision boards and meditation apps and open up our spreadsheets. Because budgeting season is upon most of us.
Today I’m going to share the lessons I’ve learned from leading everything from the office supply fund to a multi-million dollar academic library budget, and provide some concrete tips that will make budget season, if not stress free, at least a little less terrifying.
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Because many educational leaders find the first half of the spring semester the most stressful time of year, I’ve been talking a lot about the squishy side of kind leadership lately: self care and avoiding burnout and what-not. Now, I will never apologize for getting warm and fuzzy here, because in order to heal our organizations, we as leaders need to heal our own heads and hearts. That said, there comes a time each year when we need to set aside the vision boards and meditation apps and open up our spreadsheets. Because budgeting season is upon most of us. Today I’m going to share the lessons I’ve learned from leading everything from the office supply fund to a multi-million dollar academic library budget, and provide some concrete tips that will make budget season, if not stress free, at least a little less terrifying.
Welcome to the Kind Leadership Challenge, the podcast that empowers educational leaders to heal their organizations in ten minutes! I’m Dr. Sarah Clark, founder of the Kind Leadership Guild, where I use my PhD in Higher ed leadership and nearly 2 decades of experience in academic libraries to coach leaders like you who want to build a better world without burning out.
Kind Leaders aren’t perfect, and we don’t need to be. We strive to make tough decisions without becoming jerks. We design systems that enable our teams to make a big impact without overworking. And we know that once we stop controlling and start collaborating, even the most ambitious vision can become effortless. Kind Leadership is pretty simple, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. So if you’re up for a challenge, stick around as I teach you how your school or library can create a resilient, thriving legacy that will strengthen your community long after you’re gone.
So, Budgets. I am going to spare you long diatribes on state appropriations, price inflation, salary compression and CFOs who see your department as a cost center rather than a capital investment. Anyone listening to this knows the systemic funding problems our schools and libraries face, many of which are out of our control. Also, if I start ranting, well, there goes my promise to keep these episodes in the neighborhood of ten minutes. Instead, we are going to take a breath, recite the serenity prayer, and zoom in on six areas of our finances where we DO have some control.
First, I hate to break this earthshattering news to you, but most everyone has emotional baggage around money. That’s why, if you manage a budget, you need to take some time up front to identify and process your feelings around the budget process. In addition, if you’re using your perfectly good listening time to catch a show called the Kind Leadership Challenge, you probably care about spending your organization’s resources in the way that will best support those you serve, as well as the health of your organization itself. If you understand your feelings, and what triggers them, you will be in a better headspace to make the best choices possible to meet your goals for the budget. Which brings me to tip number two.
If you can identify your goal for this year’s budget, you will relieve a lot of stress about the process right off the bat. Sit down with your notebook, as well as the appropriate members of your team, and explore the question: What does a “successful budget” look like this year? For example, for my library, I consider a successful budget one that allows us to provide the most information resources and services that directly support student learning and faculty research, while minimizing the resources spent on the infrastructure of the library—things like the Library management system, cataloging systems, Discovery layer, and what-not. And you’ll notice that I talk about minimizing resources, not money. If the choice is paying slightly more money for a product that will save our team a lot of time in maintenance and stress, it’s usually a no-brainer to pay more money if we have it to spend.
Third, once you’ve defined your overall goal for the budget, it’s time for you and your team to identify the issues that stand in the way of achieving that goal. Make this one as collaborative as you van, because they will see issues you don’t, and their understanding of your boundaries will help you understand that when you say no to a purchase request, it’s for a real reason. When considering roadblocks, think of the standard issues like price increases and enrollment dips, but also the subtler things like office politics, vendor mergers, or any significant new unfunded responsibilities that have been added to your team’s plate. Then get precise, and consider what might happen, and when, and how you can avoid or address those obstacles to your goal.
Fourth, now that you’ve gotten clear on your budget goal and the obstacles, what are your spending priorities, both in terms of time and money? Perhaps you’re about to roll out a new software tool for your team, which means it might make sense to invest in training. Perhaps you have a team member who has been working on a conference proposal, and you want to set aside some money to cover their travel and registration. You may have heard there’s a new degree program coming down the line, and the library needs some funds to subscribe to a database that supports it. Or perhaps you are ready to up your leadership game, and would like to invest some funds into coaching to help you identify your weak spots and make better decisions. Prioritize your needs, wants, and nice to haves—but before you turn them into a budget proposal, there’s one more thing you need to do.
My Fifth tip for budget season is support—and I don’t just mean money. As the leader of your team, you either create the budget yourself or oversee the process. However, Just about anyone needs to get the budget approved by someone above them—even university presidents and school superintendents have governing boards of some form or fashion. Although in most cases those above you are invested in the success of your mission, they may not always understand the efforts needed to fulfill that mission, or the money required. A sensible leader communicates early and often to appropriate stakeholders about what they need, how much it will cost, and why they need it, so that both sides can come to consensus long before you send them your budget proposal.
Finally, it’s time to create your budget. Every school will have its own systems and processes and challenges, and I am SO not digging into those weeds. However, I want to give you some final thoughts as you make the final decisions around building and implementing your budget. First, accept that there is no perfect budget. your job is to create a “good enough” budget, where you prioritize your expenses based on your priorities and in recognition of financial realities. In addition, consider the pros and cons of multi-year contracts and subscriptions. They can and do save organizations a lot of money in cost controls, especially for those must-have, big ticket items. However they also lock up substantial portions of your budget for years to come. You know better than me what your appropriations have looked like the past few years, and how much wiggle room you may need to give yourself down the road. And finally, any budget you create should also have assessment mechanisms. Because sooner than you’d like, the next budget cycle will roll around, and you’ll want hard data to help you do this all over again.
So here’s your challenge—work through the six tips I provided as you begin or continue thinking about your budget, whatever it’s size or scale. And even if you don’t yet have budget responsibilities, consider talking to the people in your organization who do, so you can learn more about what they do and how you can make their lives easier. If nothing else, the budget and finance folks in any educational institution often have to do the most unpleasant work and get the least amount of praise for what they do. Interacting with them in an empathetic manner is a small kindness which may not only make their work a little brighter, it could also help you make some friends who can guide you in making the best financial decisions possible for your organization.
Thanks as always for listening to the kind leadership challenge. Before you go, here’s a quick way you can spread the word of kind leadership. I’d like you to take a moment to think of a friend or colleague who might benefit from this week’s episode. Then, open your app or head over to kindleadershipchallenge.com/61 and share this episode with them. Never doubt that day by day, you’re building a better world, even if you can't see it yet. So until next time, stay kind now.
Discover what Kind Leadership is (and isn't) in this four part series!
In the next 45 minutes you'll learn the first steps to healing your organization--and yourself--so you can start building the better world that you desire and your community deserves.