Yousef Awwad - CFO, Portland Public Schools

Lifelong learning and leadership: A CFO perspective

As CFO of Portland Public Schools in Oregon, Yousef Awwad, CPA, CGMA, manages an operating budget approaching $1.2 billion annually. He is directly responsible for the school district’s finance, budget, purchasing, risk management, publication services and records management functions, comprising a total head count of 70 directors, managers and employees. Before coming to Portland in 2014, Yousef served as finance director for the Arizona Department of Education and as CFO and deputy superintendent for the Tucson Unified School District.

What’s your passion?
The transformative power of education isn’t an abstract concept for me. My dad didn’t go to school because he had to work on the family farm, but he learned how to read and write when he was an adult. Where I grew up in Jordan, electric service wasn’t stable. I can remember sitting around the table with candlelight, and that's where my dad would teach me and my siblings to read and do simple math before we were old enough to go to school. His goal was to see all nine of his kids go to college. We all did, some of us with a master’s degree or higher. It's a huge accomplishment for him. I’m currently studying for a doctorate in education at the University of Portland.

How did you get into government finance?
I first studied and worked as an accountant in Jordan and moved to the U.S. when I was 26 years old. I earned my MBA at Webster University and worked several years for a large bank. Eventually, after I got my CPA license, I became an auditor for the Arizona Department of Education, where I audited local school districts. I was promoted to finance director and then worked as CFO and deputy superintendent for the Tucson Unified School District. It was during this period that the CGMA became available and I saw it as a way to validate my experience in management and governmental accounting and also tap into CGMA resources. I was recruited to Portland by an executive search firm.

What is the key to success as a leader?
When you attend school for accounting and auditing, they don’t teach you much about leadership. We’re fortunate now to have the CGMA Program to help accountants develop these skills. The three tips that have worked for me are: 1) Listen—I mean really get to know your people and their concerns and aspirations. 2) Give them tools they need to succeed. And 3) empower them—let them do what needs to be done.

How is the role of the CFO changing?
In the past, the CFO’s job was much more of a back-office, transactional function. Now we’re strategic partners with other parts of the organization. In addition to finance, I’m responsible for risk management—not just financial risk management—but across the entire school system. I’m also responsible for recordkeeping and printing. Some of these don’t have to be under the CFO, but the CFO skillset has proven adaptable to more than just finance. Today’s CFO skillset requires much more than technical skills. Communication is a large part of my job. I not only communicate inside my organization, but also with the public and business partners in the community. The CGMA includes a focus on communication. We need that.

Your work seems to be very domestic. Why the CGMA?
First of all, while the U.S. has an outstanding accounting profession, I think there are things we can learn from other parts of the world and vice versa, particularly in management accounting where strategy and people skills are critical to our success. The CGMA provides a mechanism for doing this. I also have significant exposure to the global financial markets as a fiduciary of a large pension plan and as a bond issuer. The world of finance is global, and I don’t think you can be successful going forward without recognizing that.

What advice would you give young CPAs/CGMAs?
I encourage accounting students and recent graduates who are interested in a career in government or industry to consider studying for the CGMA. But I wouldn’t stop there. They should get as much education as possible. Especially in the education field, we need young people to study for their master’s and PhDs. There’s an opportunity for them to use their skills, expertise and experience to help our country, because in education, you're building citizens that can thrive and lead the country for generations to come.