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Business Officer Magazine

Welcome Aboard. Now What?

The onboarding process may be as important as the hire itself.

By Karla Hignite

College and university chief business officers have in essence become the "chief competency officer" for his or her institution, when you consider their increasingly broad portfolios and aggregate roles, says Ken Kring, co-managing director of Korn Ferry's Global Education Practice. As the CBO position has become further removed from much of the day-to-day technical proficiency, what Kring has witnessed are more nontraditional candidates coming into higher education from outside the sector. And, they are not at the CBO level so much as at the next level down, says Kring. For CBO succession, he believes there may be a broader mandate for a search committee to look across the sector. That said, a smooth transition into the CBO role—whether from within or outside higher education—should not be taken for granted, argues Kring.

In terms of onboarding, understanding the concepts of shared governance and the slower pace of decision making—and how it takes place—are very important, says Kring. "While corporate hierarchical structures are becoming more flat, they are not nearly as flat as within the higher education sector, and that will take some getting used to for many."

Karen Goldstein concurs. "An external candidate really needs to grasp the fact that faculty members are integrally involved in institution decision making and that the sector is not top down-that even the president can't make a declaration and make it be so," says Goldstein, a search consultant with Witt/Kieffer. Likewise, candidates must appreciate the necessity of committee work and the multiple layers of meetings and discussions that occur before decisions are reached. "It takes a lot of patience to wade through that process," says Goldstein.

Onboarding Basics

While Goldstein has witnessed a willingness among more higher education search committees to hire candidates from outside the sector, what can sometimes happen is that a significant number of committee members might express concern about the learning curve required in bringing someone on board who hasn't previously worked in an academic setting. This concern may be alleviated in part if the candidate at least has an industry connection—perhaps hailing from an audit or consulting firm that has higher education clients, notes Goldstein. Even so, the onboarding process takes on greater significance for search committees and institution leaders who want to accelerate and simplify the transition for those who lack direct experience in the higher education arena, says Goldstein. She suggests that beyond a solid grounding in shared governance principles, onboarding efforts should also focus on communication and board relationships.

  • Communication. There is no question that someone who is the finance leader in a college or university must have the willingness to be transparent about the finances of the institution and the budget planning process. In addition, he or she must be able to present this complex information to diverse constituencies—trustees, faculty, staff, students, and parents, says Goldstein. "More institutions are now calling for transparent budget planning processes where faculty and students are involved. Can this person work in that kind of broad team environment?"
  • Board relationships. The way a CFO from outside higher education works with his or her board of directors is not the same as working with college and university trustees who have a fiduciary responsibility and who look primarily to the CBO to understand where they need to focus their efforts, explains Goldstein. Furthermore, the CBO typically works closely with trustees in a substantive and ongoing manner, often with responsibilities for three or four board committees, notes Goldstein. "It is essential for the CBO to develop good relationships with board members from the start to earn their trust."

Onboarding for All

Diane Fennig, a senior consultant with The Human Capital Group, suggests that those new to higher education need a primer to understand the higher education alphabet soup. Likewise, those coming up through the ranks might not have been privy to the complexities of campus politics in their prior roles. For those and many other reasons, mentors and coaches are critical to the onboarding process, believes Fennig. A new executive leader needs more than one person by whom he or she can run ideas, with confidence that they will be honest and can help shed light on the culture of the organization. This may be a cabinet-level peer, but could also be a direct report whom the CBO trusts to tell it like it is, notes Fennig. "Sometimes there is a natural progression for a search committee member to become that transition mentor—someone who can observe and provide feedback about missed opportunities or appropriate action steps." In fact, Fennig suggests that beyond responsibility for selecting a new leader, search committees should have as a second charge to act as the transition team for the new hire.

For internal hires, often the biggest challenge is to move beyond their former role. "At first many will still view you in your former capacity and may not know how to respond when you begin sitting at different tables and engaging in different discussions," says Fennig. "One question an internal hire has to ask is how he or she plans to behave differently when assuming leadership of this group." So often in higher education when an institution promotes from within, leaders may not think that an internal hire also needs an onboarding and transition process. Yet, these individuals are still stepping onto a new stage. The onboarding process they need may be different, but they certainly still need help in the transition and deserve the same supports for success, argues Fennig.

Ideally, the onboarding process should also include preparing staff members to get ready for change when their new leader arrives. "Transition is important not only for the leader but for those who will need to support him or her in that role," says Fennig. "The more team members know about their new leader and his or her priorities, the better equipped they will be to help achieve a new leader's goals, and the faster everyone will feel at ease."

KARLA HIGNITE, Ogden, Utah, is a contributing editor for Business Officer.

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