John Powell is a member of The Broad Residency's 2018-2020 cohort and serves as Director of Financial Management at Uncommon Schools.
My alarm goes off and I make my way to the kitchen to start some coffee brewing and feed our dog. I take her outside and sip my coffee as I start to wake up.
I head off for a run around lower Manhattan. Early morning is the only time the streets are empty enough that running cross-town is even thinkable. The sun comes up as I get to the West Village—a beautiful way to explore the narrow streets here.
After a shower and breakfast while checking the news, I leave home and head for the subway. I’m starting my day at our Midtown office, where the Accounting team works. Most days I’m in Union Square, a nice walk from our apartment. Today, though, I have a 20-minute ride on the crowded subway ahead of me. I get off at 42nd Street and walk a few blocks to the office.
I meet with our two Directors of Accounting. Since I started at Uncommon, we’ve had a weekly check-in to make sure our teams, which work closely together, are aligned and that we’re planning comprehensively for big financial events. They’ve been at Uncommon longer than anyone else on the Finance team, and have been an invaluable source of advice and information. Today, we talk about a few new processes we are hoping to introduce for the next fiscal year, and about how best to roll these out to our partners in school operations.
While I’m in Midtown, I catch up with my New York City finance team—a Senior Associate Director and Associate who support our 24 schools in Uncommon NYC. They’ve been working from this office a couple days each week, and it’s nice to have a quiet spot to catch up on their work. We discuss their plans for upcoming budget meetings with the NYC schools, and set goals and a timeline for some analytical work and budget presentations they have coming up.
I catch the express train down to Union Square to spend the afternoon at our main office. I try to make the most of this brief time out of the office, and stay “unplugged” as long as possible before the rest of the day’s back-to-back meetings. I buy a sandwich for lunch on the walk from the subway stop to the office.
I’m off to the races with afternoon meetings. First up is a budget meeting with one of our Home Office instructional support teams, led by another of the Senior Associate Directors on the team. She does an amazing job asking the right (sometimes tough) questions and guiding the group to make decisions. I leave feeling comfortable about the team’s budget for the rest of the year, and head to back-to-back regional budget preview meetings. The Senior Associate Director responsible for our schools in Rochester, Troy, and Boston presents his analysis of regional budgets for the next fiscal year. I’m there mostly to support him and to help connect regional budget issues to the bigger picture for the organization. The Managing Directors of Operations, to whom we’re presenting, ask great questions and together we generate a few action steps for each region. We’ll see the effects of our work when we finalize budgets in a month or so.
I step out of the last regional budget preview to take a call with the Senior Director of Finance (my boss) and our Real Estate and Facilities Senior Director. We’re discussing construction timelines and financing options for a new school building, and are trying to pull some key data together in time for a presentation to the regional Board of Directors next week. After ironing out some timing and cost details, we have a solid plan for the presentation.
I step out of the office with one of the Senior Associate Directors on my team. We’re headed to a coffee shop across the street for a change of scenery and some privacy as we discuss her annual review. At the end of the yearly professional development cycle, it’s a great chance to look back at the team’s progress towards its goals. Even though the budget season is reaching full swing, and time is hard to come by, I’m glad we prioritized one-on-one meetings for the team. After a great conversation, I’m re-energized for the year ahead.
For the first time today, I have a chance to dig through my inbox, prioritize items that have come up, and start checking off tasks from my to-do list. I’m hoping I can at least get to a comfortable place before heading home, though I know I’ll have at least some work to do later tonight once things have settled down.
I leave the office and start the 20-minute walk home. Once I get to the apartment, I feed and walk the dog and rummage in the refrigerator to come up with something to cook. Thankfully, my wife and I did some mid-week grocery shopping, so it’s not too hard to make something edible for the two of us.
After eating dinner and relaxing a bit, I open my laptop and spend a couple hours getting to the work I didn’t do today: responding to emails, finishing annual reviews for the team, and building out a capital budgeting template for the team to use as they build school and regional budgets for next fiscal year. It’s easy to get lost in the Excel work, so before I know it, it’s time for bed.
I settle into bed to read until I fall asleep. On my nightstand: a few back issues of the New Yorker, a biography of Churchill and Orwell, and a Canadian journalist’s memoir of his time in Afghanistan.
I wake up, feed and walk our dog, and brew a pot of coffee. No time for a workout this morning, so I vow to get one in before the day is done.
I get to the office a little earlier than usual to review materials for today’s Finance Committee presentations. Even though my team and I have spent days preparing our slides and materials, I don’t feel ready until I’ve had one last chance to look at the numbers.
We kick off two of the most important hours of the year: presenting next year’s budget to the Finance Committees of two of our regions for their approval. Our school leaders have built budgets they believe will do the best for students, and it’s our job to ensure each region’s sustainability for the next year and beyond. Try as we might to anticipate every question from the Finance Committee, there are always a few that require us to think on our feet.
I check in with the NYC finance team for a quick update. While I’ve been in Finance Committee presentations, they’ve been presenting the current year’s budget updates to regional leadership in Brooklyn. Assured that the meeting went well, and that we’ll talk through more detailed feedback next week, I move on to the next item in what’s quickly becoming a busy morning.
I meet with our Home Office finance team to review the current year budget update numbers, which will be a key part of our presentation to the Board in just a week’s time. This is our last chance to reallocate resources in response to changes in our budget projections, so we make sure to cover every budget shift in our meeting today.
I grab my lunch from my desk on my way to my next meeting: a check-in with the Chief of Staff to the Chief of Operations. She’s my key contact for school and Home Office operations, and we’re working on plans to revise how our teams work together in the upcoming school year. Today’s meeting has us analyzing our shared processes and identifying where we need clarity or decisions from our bosses. We’ll bring our work to them during the annual step-back next month, which will set both teams up for our work next year.
I meet with the New Jersey finance team to finalize our plan to allocate funds to two school regions. This involves a deep-dive into the year’s budgets and our latest projections for each school. We need to make sure we get the plan nailed down before we finalize the regions’ budgets for the next year, which we’ll need to present next week.
With my meetings done for the day, I finally get back to my desk and start in on some longer-term projects on my radar. On today’s agenda: some research into non-profit law and a bit of financial modeling work on one of our region’s growth plans.
I head out of the office, tired and happy the week is over. We have one more tough week to get through—a week of Finance Committee meetings for the rest of our school regions and for the Home Office. After that, we get to turn to team development work for the upcoming year.
After feeding and walking our dog, I head to the gym for that workout I promised myself. Later tonight, my wife and I will walk to our favorite restaurant to celebrate the end of a long week.
I wake up, put on some coffee, and take our dog out. It’s my first day back to work after spending the previous week at my sixth Broad Residency session in Memphis. I’m tired but, as usual after session, feel mentally recharged and ready to hit the ground running.
I leave our apartment and head to Penn Station. This morning, I’m headed to Camden, New Jersey where we have 3 schools.
On the train, I send a few emails and catch up on the progress of some presentations in the works while I was gone. With a half hour to go, I read through the materials for this morning’s presentation to the Camden Prep Board of Trustees. I’ve looked at them over the weekend, but it’s nice to have them fresh in my mind before walking into the meeting.
I meet up with another team member at the Philadelphia train station, and we share a ride to one of the Camden Prep campuses. We’re making some final adjustments to our presentation while the sounds of an elementary school music class find their way through the open door of the office. The students’ voices are just the thing to take the edge off any pre-meeting anxiety and put things into perspective.
The board meeting ends. We presented updates to the region’s budget and the annual financial audit, as well as answered questions from the board. Everything went well, though as usual we have some work ahead of us to follow up on some of the board’s questions.
After a quick debrief with the regional leaders, we’re back at the Philadelphia train station, grabbing a bite to eat before boarding a train back upstate to Newark.
I spend the train ride working on a financial presentation for another regional board. Once that’s in good shape, I catch up on creating the agendas for a few planning meetings later in the week—a task that I find myself spending more and more of my time on.
We’ve made it from the Newark train station to one of our largest, and newest, campuses, which houses kindergarten through 12th grade. The building is beautiful, a tribute to the hard work of our real estate and facilities team. We find a small conference room and spend the next few hours preparing for tonight’s board meeting—the second of the day. This time, it’s for North Star Academy, our network of 14 schools in Newark. The agenda resembles the one from this morning’s meeting, but the region is bigger, and the financial data are more complex.
The board meeting kicks off with a stirring singing performance from one of the elementary schools. It’s another reminder of why we do the work and helps ease tension at the start of the meeting. Things go smoothly for the audit presentation and our quarterly budget update, thanks largely to the hard work and preparation of my teammate.
We leave the meeting in good spirits and share a ride through the rainy night toward the train station. The last few weeks’ work of budget meetings, financial analysis, and creating presentations has paid off.
I get home in time to see my wife before she falls asleep, and to take our dog out one last time before bed. I have a few more board meetings and presentations this week, but it feels good to have the first two under my belt. There are no train rides in my future tomorrow, but I do have an early meeting, so I do my best to fall asleep.