Michael Coughlin: Team Player

Michael Coughlin '99, chief financial officer for Waterloo Community Schools. Photo courtesy of Brandon Pollock, Courier Staff Photographer

Waterloo, Iowa – Michael Coughlin seems to chafe at the notion of individual accomplishment, even as a winner of The (Waterloo-Cedar Falls) Courier’s 2016 Finance Superstar Award.

That sentiment came through as the 59-year-old chief financial officer with Waterloo Community Schools attempted to explain his core fiscal philosophy.

“Leadership is a privilege that is earned through respect and the willingness to empower the ideas of others for the benefit of the organization,” said Coughlin, who joined the school district in January 2007. “My personal philosophy is based on strong integrity, following regulations and policies, recognizing and developing the skills of the staff and communicating effectively, all starting with listening skills.”

Teamwork is created and maintained when all of those components are established, understood and utilized, so accurate information can produce effective solutions, he said.

There’s also “the element of inventive and innovative thinking” while maintaining a healthy attitude, Coughlin said.

Coughlin, a Kenmare, N.D., native, said his thinking about financial leadership is tied directly to the success of the purpose of his organization.

“During my career I have worked for different sizes of districts, from 350 students and now 11,000 students,” he said. “Each district has unique challenges but are all similar in purpose. The experiences of performing every financial duty along the journey has equipped me to see the whole structure. I like to compare it to a carpenter looking at a finished building: he doesn’t just see the outside, he sees through it and understands all the components.”

Coughlin brings those aspects to the fore every day, said Tara Thomas, director of school and community relations, who nominated her colleague for The Courier’s annual award.

“For the past eight years as the CFO for Waterloo Schools, Michael Coughlin has focused on building a budget to support the needs of children and utilized existing funds to best serve their needs,” Thomas said. “As an integral part of the negotiations team, he works to provide district employees fair and comparable salaries.”

Thomas said Coughlin’s “innovative approach” to his job has given rise to budget strategies that “use optimal program evaluation and accountability.”

“By employing state-funding practices that allow for the best use of state funds, Michael maximizes general fund dollars by managing grants effectively,” Thomas said. “He is a good steward of taxpayer dollars who applies best practices from an ethical and moral standpoint.”

Financial balances are important, but they don’t overshadow the bigger picture, Coughlin said.

“The budget does not determine the educational programs, but rather the educational programs determine the budget,” he said. “It is critical to examine the success rate, to challenge the status quo, to ask why and to not accept ‘that’s the way it has always been done.’ The public has entrusted us with significant resources and we are responsible to deliver quality.”

Understanding the impact of all funding, as well as legislative action, is the best way to influence the financial health of the district, Coughlin said.

That’s the best way “to provide accurate information, accountability and guidance,” he said.

Coughlin, who earned a bachelor of science degree from Upper Iowa University in Fayette in 1999 and a master of science in education from the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater in 2002, said two quotes he encountered in college left lasting impressions.

“There are three points of being successful: listen, listen, listen,” he said. “Don’t let your books get in the way of your real education.”

The first “speaks for itself,” Coughlin said. The second urges students to learn from their total experience.

(Note: This article was republished with permission of the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier.)

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