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Business Officer Magazine

CBO Skills Across the Board

Higher education challenges have heightened the profile of the chief business officer—and broadened presidents’ and governing boards’ expectations of the top financial position.

By Oscar Page

The financial challenges faced by colleges and universities are influencing all aspects of nearly every institution. Common issues relate, but are not restricted, to: unpredictable enrollment, the need for new revenue streams, changing educational delivery models, the role of the faculty, the changing expectations of governing boards, and an overall shift in the culture of relationships and responsibilities.

One area where the impact is particularly evident is in the nature of the leadership team that is shaped by the president and board of trustees. Because of internal and external pressures, presidents and board leaders are bringing new and different perspectives to the role of the cabinet.

Broadening Expectations

Specifically, the chief business officer (CBO) position is rapidly changing at most institutions. More expansive leadership expectations are also quite visible in the description of other positions in the business office. In conversations with presidents and boards, we find some common themes in descriptions of the effective CBO. Obviously, the person must exhibit a good understanding and control over the finances, which means maintaining a solid grasp on the development and management of all facets of the operation.

In addition, the CBO who is going to be successful in this financial and cultural climate must be responsive to developments in other sectors of the enterprise. Based on AGB Search's work in higher education executive recruitment, following are some of the essential characteristics top leaders look for:

Transparency. President and board leadership expect this new-style CBO to work openly and effectively with the faculty, staff, and administration in the development of the budget. This no longer means an annual budget report to the campus community prepared solely by the CBO. Rather, the CBO establishes a direct line of open communication with the president, the cabinet, budget managers, faculty, and staff. The various stakeholders are looking to the leadership team to confirm that the priorities outlined in the strategic plan are being funded and translated into action throughout the institution.

Strategic vision. A related expectation is that the CBO can not only build but also manage a budget based on strategic goals. The phrase that is used frequently in board discussions is "leadership driven by the strategic plan." Boards expect strategic vision but also a commitment to ongoing support of the plan.

Ability to craft an inclusive financial model. A third characteristic often mentioned by top leadership is the ability to build a budget model that takes into consideration the institutional mission, vision, revenue sources, and programmatic needs. This includes a thorough understanding of and ability to manage debt, provide guidance relative to the endowment, work effectively with the enrollment management sector, and assure that facilities are well maintained and meet the needs of the educational and service programs. No longer can the financial management side of the house operate in a vacuum. The tuition-driven college or university expects the CBO to be able to think strategically, going beyond simply applying the financial figures to the strategic plan.

Community Outreach

An area that is becoming increasingly important to higher education institutions is economic development. Colleges and communities are working together to redevelop deteriorating areas, bring new jobs to the community, and create programming to support the workforce for those jobs. Institution and community leaders expect the CBO to play a major role in that work, representing the college as a strong and involved partner. In instances where communities are declining in population because of lack of job opportunities, collaboration between the university and community is mutually beneficial to rebuilding a vital environment. The key player in that scenario is often the CBO, working in partnership with the president, board leaders, and community officials.

Carrying It Forward

In addition to fulfilling an ever-growing number of responsibilities, the CBO plays an important part in mentoring and teaching staff and other colleagues. For more details about succession mentoring, see "Readying Your Replacement," in September 2014 Business Officer. As a mentor, he or she is expected to lead by example and help the staff to grow professionally. As a teacher, he or she is expected to educate staff about good management practices. For example, one new CBO I've worked with explained that she held classes for all budget managers, including the president, on the basics of managing a budget.

In this new reality, the chief business officer is a financial analyst in the planning process; a partner to the provost, to assure proper faculty support; and an enrollment manager, relative to the financial aid program and the college's marketing arm. Yet another role is seen in participating with the advancement areas, working to engage alumni and friends of the institution. Board chairs and presidents expect the CBO to constantly strive to work effectively and provide leadership within the greater college or university community.

In summary, when presidents are looking for a new CBO, the words or phrases most frequently mentioned are: knowledgeable, financially astute, transparent, collaborative, accountable, accurate, analytical, constituent focused, ethical, mission focused, persuasive, reliable, and strategic. Add to that the skills of an active listener, an effective communicator, a relationship builder, an endowment adviser, a debt manager, and a mentor—with solid judgment and an expansive vision—and capable of effective financial modeling and economic development.

That's quite a list of requirements. Candidates who can talk about and understand all or most of these attributes are solid prospects for the job. But, in these challenging days, that is just an early rung on the ladder to becoming an effective financial leader who can successfully execute the elements of the strategic plan for the entire campus organization.

Developing staff to take on key tasks is an important element of CBO success and helps create a stable environment, in which individuals can take on more responsibility and support the business office in its ever-expanding role. "Keep employees engaged and involved in continued growth," notes Gavin Leach, vice president for finance and administration, Northern Michigan University, Marquette. "That helps create an environment that encourages them to stay and continue to grow within their existing jobs."

OSCAR PAGE, president emeritus of Austin College, Sherman, Texas, is senior consultant, AGB Search.


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