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Eye on the Presidency

Dream big. That’s the advice of chief business officers who kept climbing the education career ladder until each reached the top.

By Margo Vanover Porter

See the sidebar, “Even If You Don’t Know Where You’re Going,” for advice by former University of Richmond President E. Bruce Heilman.

Once you've obtained the coveted chief business officer title—and the recognition and respect that go with it—where do you go from there?

When NACUBO recently posed that question to CBOs and CFOs as part of NACUBO's first national survey focused on professionals in the position, 8 percent shared their hope to become president of a college or university. Unrealistic?

Not according to Hal Higdon, formerly vice president for administration at Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College, and now president of Ozarks Technical Community College in Springfield, Missouri. “For those who are chief financial officers or chief business officers, you are better qualified than you think—and better qualified than your colleagues think,” he insists. “You're actually perfectly fitted for the presidency.”

Higdon believes his earlier career's focus on finance and administration effectively groomed him for the top slot. “Obviously, when you work in administration in a community college, you work closely with the president. You see the role of the president up close. You see the dynamics that make a successful president, so you can learn how to model that.”

Because of his exposure to the ins and outs of the position, Higdon's transition turned out to be seamless. “I didn't think it was hard,” he recalls. “The job was straightforward—to provide leadership—not to come in as a micromanager. When you are an administrative officer or chief business officer, you have a big operation and you quickly learn to delegate. That lesson helped get me ready for the presidency; in this position, you certainly can't do everything yourself.”

Higdon points out that institutions now seem more willing to give the green light to CFO candidates. “Traditionally it's been a little hard to move up from a CFO role,” he says. “Usually, it's chief academic officers who move to the presidency. That seems to have been changing in the past few years.”

Doctorate Helps Pave the Way

Wendy Libby, president, Stetson University, DeLand, Florida, spent the better part of 20 years in the business offices of higher education before deciding to grab the brass ring. “I'd been in situations where I had a taste of the management of the entire institution, and I thought, 'I can do this.' So I just decided to test the water. It took me two years to find the right university.”

Earlier in her career, Libby enhanced her resume by acquiring her Ph.D., teaching a few classes, and expanding her knowledge of curriculum and assessment. “Then it's really a matter of finding an institution that understands that it's not necessary for you to come in as a tenured faculty member or academic leader to be president,” she says. “There are other avenues, depending on the institution's strategic needs, that might be more direct than those coming through the professoriat.”

In 2003, Libby landed her first presidency at Stephens College in Columbia, Missouri, after being recruited by a search firm. She credits the firm with providing feedback that enabled her to rethink how she presented herself and answered questions during the search process. For example, she says, she used to attach to her resume a short, two-paragraph letter saying, “I'm interested in this position. Here's who I am, and here's what I do.”

“The search firm explained the power of receiving a letter that explains why you are uniquely suited to fill each of the requirements laid out in the job description,” says Libby. “My letter went from one page to three or four pages, but I was selected for the 8-to 10-person interview list at every place I applied from that point on. Then it's a matter of chemistry—whether the people who are interviewing you feel you would fit into their culture and make a difference in their strategic issues.”

Libby finds her life as a president rewarding, particularly when she lands a major gift that supports one of the strategic priorities of the university. She also cherishes convocation and graduation. “When you see the new students and their families walk in for convocation, they have so much excitement about the institution and how their lives are changing—and you know you play a large role in making a difference. Then, four years later at graduation, you look around and say, 'Whoa. This place delivered on its promises. Look at the smart, committed, service-minded young people we're about to turn out into the world.' Those are absolutely great days.”

Although Libby doesn't miss her CFO role, she does miss its regular workday. She remarks that her presidential position frequently requires long hours that can be grueling. “This is an animal that you get on and hope not to fall off,” she says.

Why Just Act the Part?

Richard V. Hurley really never intended to apply as president of the University of Mary Washington (UMW), Fredericksburg, Virginia. “You know why?” he asks. “I don't have a doctorate. Having grown up in this business, I understand the high value of a doctoral degree for someone sitting in this chair. I never aspired to be a college president, because I didn't think that was within my realm of reach. For me, the pinnacle of my career was going to be a chief financial officer. I set my sights on that, I enjoyed it, and I planned to retire from it.”

Then fate intervened. While between presidents, the university in 2007 asked Hurley, who was then the executive vice president and chief financial officer, to serve as acting president. He juggled both jobs for 14 months until a successor could be found. Fast-forward to 2010, when the UMW president announced an early departure. Yet again, Hurley picked up the slack. The critical difference: This time, he actually threw his hat in the ring.

“The campus was clamoring for me to be put into the presidential position on a full-time basis,” he says. “My greatest challenge initially was to give the campus some comfort that we were going to be stable from a leadership and financial perspective.”

He admits that serving as acting president doesn't compare to the real deal. “When I was acting president, I knew I had to keep the trains running on time,” he says. “When I hung up the phone after being offered the job of president, it hit me that 'I'm not just maintaining the place any longer. People will look to me for vision and leadership.' I've spent a lot of time thinking through that.”

Hurley's advice for CBOs who have their eyes on the presidency: Get close to the governing board of your institution. “Observe the dynamics and politics of the relationships,” he says. “Learn everything you can from your observations and interactions with boards. In most cases, you will be reporting to a board and you need to know what makes some presidents successful with boards—and others not.”

MARGO VANOVER PORTER, Locust Grove, Virginia, covers higher education business issues for Business Officer.

Even If You Don't Know Where You're Going

“Whatever stage you're in professionally, whatever your age and level of ambition,” noted E. Bruce Heilman, former president of the University of Richmond, “you can benefit by remembering some principles that will lead you to places and positions which, earlier in life, would have been impossible to predict.”

Heilman outlined a number of those pivotal actions in a general session presentation, “You Won't Know Where You Are Going Until You Get There,” at the EACUBO 2009 Annual Meeting, in Atlanta. Here are some leadership axioms based on Heilman's nearly six decades in higher education:  

  • Expect the unexpected. “I never dreamed that, with 198 students [when I was admitted there on the GI Bill], Campbellsville College would become a university of 3,000 students and that I would serve on its board of trustees—or that I would give a commencement address when a granddaughter graduated from Campbellsville,” explained Heilman. “Arriving at unanticipated places and positions has afforded an exciting, stimulating, and challenging life for me and I recommend it to others no matter their present path.”
  • Apply your accumulated experiences and impressions. “In paying attention to my observations of the strengths and weaknesses of presidents with whom I served [prior to becoming president of Meredith College, in Raleigh, North Carolina],” said Heilman, “I was able to recruit new and capable administrative staff. We doubled the enrollment, significantly increased compensation of staff and faculty ... and set the college on an upward trajectory from one that many believed would take it out of business.”
  • Remember that budget and finance officers make great presidents. “If you're attracted to the top spot,” said Heilman, “your CBO position qualifies you well. As Wendy Libby, president of Stetson University, stated in a recent EACUBO newsletter article: 'As a chief business officer, you have a comprehensive understanding of how the pieces fit together. As president, you have a measure of control and the opportunity to impact those pieces.'”
  • Keep your head when all about you are losing theirs. “I've known presidents who lost their heads over athletics, conflicts with faculty, power struggles with the board, battles with students, disagreements with alumni, and on and on. Whatever your position,” advised Heilman, “remember that a law of leadership is that things are always easier to get into than out of. Be sure that you know where you are headed and that the important power brokers of the institution are with you.”
  • Don't try to please everyone. “At the same time,” said Heilman, “the formula for failure is in trying to please everyone. I consciously sought not to unduly play up the rightness of a particular action nor put down the actions of my adversaries. Rather, I tried to move forward in such a positive fashion that my detractors might choke in the dust of our progress.”

In concluding his remarks, Heilman urged business officers to “stand up and be heard” on the issue of organizational leadership. “In your professional development activities and in other venues in which you represent such a high level of professional administrator, make the option of becoming president a top priority for those who have never considered the possibility of being the top leader at their institutions or elsewhere.”

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