Many CPAs follow a traditional path. They graduate from college, pass the CPA exam while in public accounting, and continue to advance through the ranks in their respective firms or companies.
Chris Wildman, CPA, CGMA, took a vastly different route. A United Kingdom native, he began his working life as a police officer with the Metropolitan Police Service in London, not long after graduating from the University of Liverpool with a Bachelor of Science degree in mathematical statistics. During his three-year stint as a “bobbie,” he met his future wife, and the pair eventually moved to the outskirts of Chicago, where Wildman began rethinking his career. He worked first as a banker at Bank of America, and then transitioned into accounting after attending graduate school at nearby Dominican University. He worked at financial and healthcare companies before landing a job as a staff accountant in 2011 at a local high school, a move that transformed his already interesting professional life.
Fast forward to today, where Wildman is now the chief financial officer, treasurer, and chief school business official for North Shore School District 112, near Chicago. There, he directly and indirectly leads over 50 people, and he answers not only to a board of education, but an electorate that wants things done right for their children.
In a recent interview, Wildman talked about his non-traditional career path, his outside passions, and what motivates him at work:
What inspires you in your current role?
Working in education is very much a give-back. It is fulfilling. I like that I get to work with educators and operations people—and at the end of the day, we’re in it for the kids. And I like the fact that I work in a building that has children and students. I stop in the classroom and see classroom delivery and see teachers teaching, and it grounds me and reminds me what my job is about.
And I like the diverse mix. I don’t just manage the investments of the district or payroll. I am in charge of the budget, risk management, transportation of students, the cleanliness of the buildings, and the operation. I work with auditors, meet with architects or my department, and work with human resources on staffing.
What is your overall goal at the school district?
If I can do my job properly and have invested the money well and we get a good return, it means that’s more money to spend on the kids. If I can handle our risk management program, that means there’s more money for the teachers. I like to translate things in terms of teachers and classrooms because that’s what I’m really here to do.
Why did you pursue the CGMA designation and how has this helped you in your career?
I always wanted to be a management accountant, and it is really about squaring that circle and getting the designation I originally wanted. I really value the CGMA. The CPA and CGMA go very well together. The combination of being a CGMA and CPA got me this job, and definitely has helped further my career. The CGMA is highly relevant to what we do and a lot of what we do is management accounting.
You have been called agile, flexible, and savvy by your peers. Can you elaborate?
I don’t approach every problem dogmatically. I believe there is an indefinite number of solutions to a lot of things. The pragmatic, flexible side of me is: What is the best decision we can make based on what we have in front of us, and what are the politics involved in this decision? As a CFO, I have to answer to an elected board of education, and ultimately any decision will be judged by the community. Flexibility is important because what would work in one district might not work in another. The flexibility is just giving options to the board of education to make the best possible decision.
Outside of work, what currently sparks your passion?
I’m a father of two young children, and most of my time outside of work is devoted to my family, and just being a good father to them. It is really great to be involved in education and have young children. I work for an elementary school district and get to see and hear about things that are groundbreaking and inventive, and normally you wouldn’t hear about this as a CPA.
Outside of that, when I get away I like to scuba dive, and I’ve done this in Australia, Mexico, Europe, and Costa Rica. I’ve traveled a lot, and traveling is important to my family and I.
You have also had your share of past adventures. What kind?
I have accomplished such things as bungee jumping, zorbing, and skydiving in New Zealand, and climbing challenges such as Mount Sinai in Egypt and the Uluru/Ayers Rock in Australia. I have run a couple of marathons back in 2004—in London and Dublin—so I’m always trying to find time to run and get back to that level. That’s my past before I became an accountant. With a 5-year-old and a 2-year-old, I’m much less likely now to jump out of a plane.
Ironically, do you spend your days avoiding or mitigating risks at work?
I’m not a risk taker. I like to make strategic decisions based on a series of decisions and methodology. Part of my job is to be an agent of change to oversee operational changes without taking adverse risks. I will never do anything that will endanger the district. It is my job to seek and to challenge and to look for operational efficiencies, and to make the district as effective as possible. I break things down into steps and if something is a 10-step process, it means 10 times something can mess up. If you can make it a three-step process, there are only three places to mess up. I map things out and look at the theory of constraints and say, “Where’s the bottleneck of this?”—and if you take that approach, you can identify what your problem is.
You started out working as a police officer. How was that experience?
It was a lot of fun. I was a single man and the hours were long and it was challenging and diverse work. As a young man, it taught me that integrity, punctuality, and your appearance are very important. I’ve carried those things into my other career.
How did you end up working in education?
I worked for a financial firm, which was a great learning experience because it taught me everything about accounting—the preparation of financial statements, deadlines, timelines, and the importance of making sure that everything is checked. From there I passed the CPA exam, and I did not want to be an accountant per se but wanted to be a financial leader. I figured out that school districts are for me.
What is your management and leadership style?
I have an open-door policy, and open cell phone, too. I talk with my directors every day on my days in, but I don’t call and bug them in the evenings, because I believe in work-life balance. And I like to lean in myself; I’m pretty hands on with a lot of stuff where I need to be, and I like to delegate as well. I trust my people and empower them to make decisions. That’s a big part of being a leader—you’ve got to trust your colleagues and superintendents and trust yourself to make a good judgment. Make decisions with the best information you have at the time.
What guidance do you provide to your staff?
I don’t believe in perfection. I believe in excellence. Excellent is good enough. I will tell my staff that once we’ve attained our goal, then stop and refocus on something else. If you do that enough, you can accomplish more in the long run vs. a perfectionist mentality.
What advice would you give to young CPAs as they embark on their careers?
If you have picked up the CPA and you are looking to advance your career, the CGMA is a good route to go. It will never be a problem that you have too many letters after your name. Both are a winning combination and for people who wish to be a CFO or to be a chief operations officer or in a strategic leadership position, it’s a good combination to follow. You can never have too much professional development—it’s not possible. There’s always an area you need to focus on, and as a CFO, you can’t know everything.