WINSTON LING, the former chief financial officer at Tyndale University College & Seminary in Toronto, remembers a time when the school’s president, Brian Stiller, wanted to launch a new program that Ling opposed. He thought it was too expensive, and the return on investment too uncertain.

“Brian was very creative — lots of big vision,” recalls Ling with appreciation. “But our organization was financially sick. It had no extra money to do anything.” So they struck a deal. If the president could find donors to cover the costs of the new program for three years, Ling would report to the board that the school had sufficient resources to launch the new initiative. But if three years of financing were not in place, Ling would tell the board that they couldn’t afford the new program.

“My job wasn’t to dampen his enthusiasm but to figure out how we could make his idea work,” says Ling.

Different people, different skills

To say Winston Ling was a hard act to follow is an understatement. Hired as chief financial officer in 1995, when Tyndale was a small school called Ontario Bible College and Ontario Theological Seminary, Ling and Stiller rescued the institution from near bankruptcy — “things were a lot worse than I expected,” he admits today. Then, after the campus enjoyed a dozen years of economic stability under his watchful eyes, he announced plans to step down. He was tired, ready for a new challenge, and felt the school would benefit from a different set of skills in the CFO’s office.

Tyndale takes planning seriously and doesn’t limit succession planning to identifying the next president. The school’s close brush with financial disaster convinced the board and administration of the vital role a CFO plays in an institution’s well-being. Tyndale avoided foreclosure because its board and president understood the need for a CFO like Ling who had specific skills to assist them at a difficult time. They also accepted Ling’s belief that the requisite skills might change as the school evolved.

“Winston came to Tyndale at a time that required a lot of quick and tough decisions,” says Randy Henderson, who was serving on the school’s board when he was tapped as Ling’s successor in 2007. “That’s not my strength, and I’d have trouble in that kind of environment. But Tyndale is a different place now than it was 17 years ago. A new president and a new CFO come to an organization at different points in the organization’s development. Hopefully the skills they bring are the ones the organization requires at the time.” The new president, Gary Nelson, has been serving the school since 2010, and, like his processor, he’s a big-vision leader.

Ling agrees. “I left the CFO job because I knew we needed someone to move the school forward. I don’t have the patience to accomplish that. Fortunately, Randy does. When he joined our board of trustees and I saw his credentials, I thought, Thank you, Lord—my successor has arrived! I was lucky to be involved in choosing the next CFO. Still, it took several discussions over breakfast and lunch to convince Randy to make a career move.”

Finding a CFO

Determining the precise skills a school needs in its financial officer is the responsibility of the board and administration, but Ling and Henderson offer general advice based on their cumulative decades of experience as financial leaders in the public, private, and nonprofit sectors. Some recommendations are common sense, while others are surprising.

I believe that one of the jobs of the CFO is to protect the reputation of our team — the president, the deans, the student life people. We’re on the same team and we need each other. I want to do everything to protect their reputation, in a positive way. But we don’t just toe the line because that’s what we were told to do. That will never happen.
— Winston Ling

Among the latter:

  • Successful CFOs don’t have to be trained as accountants, but they must have the ability to interpret financial data and ask the right questions. “I wouldn’t say I’m a great accountant,” says Henderson, “but I’ve got great accountants working with me.”
  • Most schools will not find the best CFO candidate within their current workforce because their staffs are too small. “Nine times out of 10, a school will need to look outside for a seasoned person with the right skills,” says Ling.
  • Screening committees should rule out “yes men” who are likely to rubber stamp every idea a board brings to the table. Likewise, they should remove from consideration candidates who are little more than number-crunching versions of Dr. No. Even during lean times, “a CFO shouldn’t risk stifling everyone’s creativity by constantly saying ‘no,’” says Henderson.
  • Ling says that a school’s CEO and CFO don’t have to be personal friends, but they do need to have an excellent professional relationship based on respect and trust. “It makes sense to recruit a CFO who has different views than the president and is comfortable challenging the president’s thinking,” suggests Ling. “The organization becomes better when we challenge each other.” On the other hand, Henderson says that he works more effectively when he enjoys a good personal relationship with the president. “That does not stop me from challenging him!” he says.

Henderson and Ling agree that these challenges between a president and CFO are best worked out behind closed doors, with no one witnessing the exchange other than the participants. Disagreements are opportunities for thoughtful compromise and are resolved before the board of trustees convenes. “There are no surprises,” says Henderson. “I would never go into a board meeting and say something contrary to what the president was saying without him knowing I was going to do it.”

Choosing a CFO from the corporate world has advantages, although it means that the new employee and the organization will be on learning curves as they adjust to each other’s management styles. Henderson laughs when he recalls his second day on the job — Ling stopped by the CFO’s office, saw Henderson at his desk, and with mock relief called out, “Whew, you’re back!”

Transitioning to a new CFO

Having Ling on campus as a mentor was an asset as Henderson made the transition from his former duties as vice president at three Canadian companies. Ling, too, had come to campus after successful tenures in business, first in banking and as the financial officer of a chain of nursing homes. They understood the similarities and differences between the two settings.

I look for the board to be very honest. If I take something to the board that isn’t right for Tyndale, I expect them not only to challenge it, but to tell me to go back to the drawing board. I expect support, but I also expect brutal honesty.
— Randy Henderson

“The common theme in all my corporate work was growth, expansion and taking an organization to the next level,” explains Henderson. “Those concepts carried over to my new position. A lot of the principles that I learned in the business world applied in the Tyndale world as well.”

Three additional factors helped ensure a positive relationship between the board and Henderson after Ling relinquished his responsibilities to his successor:

  1. The new CFO had served on the board for two years and was friends with the members. They knew him well.
  2. Henderson’s reputation as a successful businessman preceded him. The board and administrators respected his accomplishments and were avid listeners when he offered advice on financial matters. He, in turn, let them know he was eager to learn from them about the complex operations of an educational institution.
  3. He didn’t need the job — a situation that gave him a degree of independence. When Ling initially approached Henderson about the CFO position, he built his case by pointing out, “Randy, you’ve done well in business, so now you can afford to work here like the rest of us.”

Ling was only half joking about the freedom that financial security can bring. He had experienced the same freedom when he made a similar move. “At this stage in our careers we have the luxury to walk away rather than compromise ourselves professionally,” says Ling. “We’re part of a team that includes the board, administrators, and faculty. We all need each other. One of the CFO’s jobs is to do everything possible to protect the reputation of the team. He doesn’t toe the line because he’s told to toe the line. He has a thick skin and is able to say ‘no’ if he believes it’s in the best interest of the team.”

Sometimes it gives him the freedom to be a little cheeky. That program that Ling insisted be funded with three years of operating expenses? After two years, only two students were enrolled, and tuition wasn’t even close to covering the program’s expenses. Ling chuckles about it now. “The president came to me and said, ‘Now I understand.’”

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