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Business Officer Magazine
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To Move Upward, Look Outward

Aspiring to advance your career? While self-assessment is important, you’ll make additional headway when you build strong staff, mine your mentors, and listen up.

By Tadu Yimam

As the inaugural program unfolded, several key concepts emerged as vital to the pursuit of the CBO spot.

Build a Strong Team

Opening the workshop, Stan Nosek, vice chancellor for administration at the University of California, Davis, described his career experience as “completely off the beaten path.” NACUBO’s incoming board chair, Nosek has spent nearly three decades at UC Davis, with positions of increasing responsibility in areas that have included student housing, human resources, and business management. He credited his upward mobility to keeping his staff in mind. “I constantly ask myself,” he said: “‘How do I help my staff be successful?’”

Nosek offered these four tips:

1. Clarify each individual’s current role. Confirm that all employees know their jobs and are challenged by what they do.
2. Make sure staff salaries are on target. Do some homework, research annual salary surveys, and find out how to compensate staff fairly.
3. Always have necessary equipment available. Keep your budget open for additional resources to help staff do their jobs better.
4. Offer professional development and training. Dedicate yourself to sustaining staff excellence and supporting each individual’s growth.

Nosek explained that in situations where a supervisor does not provide proper tools and materials to staff, high productivity can rarely be achieved.

Think Big

In his discussion “Changing Perspective—From Functional to Strategic,” Dean Currie, vice president of business and finance, California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, explained the importance of “learning to embrace ambiguity.” Strategic thinking, he explained, not only focuses on finding and developing unique opportunities to create value. A process that enables a provocative and creative dialogue among your staff and supervisors—that doesn’t necessarily point to clear, definitive answers—can also affect an institution’s direction.

Currie encouraged participants “to find a great mentor” within their organizational teams. To tap mentors’ expertise, he recommended literally following in the mentors’ footsteps. “Check their calendars,” he advised, “ask about what they do on a daily basis, observe and listen to their meetings, participate with them in problem solving, and ask them for help.”

In more general terms, Currie suggested a professional style of “keeping your head down 80 percent of the time and up at least 20 percent.” Why? “It’s the input [listening] to strategic planning that uncovers potential opportunities for creating value and challenges assumptions about the institution’s value proposition,” contended Currie. “When the plan is created, it targets these opportunities.”

He then described several drivers of effective strategic thinking:

  • Consider the problems you are facing. Then, stretch your thoughts further to try and imagine your supervisor’s problems and how they might be solved.
  • Expand your time horizon for problem solving. Move beyond a 1- or 2-year time frame and broaden your thoughts to the 10- to 20-year range.
  • Look for patterns. Your problem-solving strategy must fit with your institution’s mission, vision, competitive situation, and operating strengths.

To further develop strategic thinking, Currie highlighted seven actions:

1. Listen. This holds true even if you think you already know the answer.
2. Articulate value. Learn how to incorporate the values of the institution into your communication.
3. Promote dialogue. Learn to solve problems with open discussions—not heated debates.
4. Strengthen staff. Hire employees that are smarter than you are. “They make you look good,” noted Currie.
5. Seek clarification. Never be afraid to say that you don’t understand something someone has said or presented. Keep asking questions until you completely grasp the meaning and importance of the communication.
6. Support ethical behavior. Learn to verbalize your ethical standards and those of the institution—and hold others to them.
7. Follow your aspirations. Be ambitious in setting goals for yourself and your institution.

With thoughts of future achievements in mind, attendees participated in a hands-on activity, “Extending Your Thinking,” directed by Connie Adamson, NACUBO’s director of education and workshops. Armed with flip charts and markers, teams of participants gathered at tables and used the techniques previously discussed to gather information from one another. They talked about current trends and offered their various perspectives on what the future holds for campuses nationwide. Adamson asked the teams to report some of their key discussion points and to incorporate this wider view of the future in their individual planning processes.

Leader of the Pack

While forward and strategic thinking are essential to the CBO’s role, leadership skills and effective communication rank just as highly. In the session “Know Yourself: Leadership Self-Assessment,” participants learned ways to evaluate their skills from Brent D. Ruben, professor and executive director, Center for Organizational Development and Leadership, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, New Jersey. He also illustrated the dynamics of interpersonal communication in the higher education environment.

Ruben began by reiterating the wisdom of the well-known adage “know thyself,” noting how vital that exercise is to the daily role of a leader and CBO. “Over the years, each of us develops our own approach to interacting with others,” he said. “One important aspect of this approach is how we influence—and are influenced by—others in social and work situations.”

Broadly speaking, said Ruben, this is what leadership is all about. He went on to explain that understanding our own leadership styles, and how we affect others, can be extremely helpful in increasing our social and professional competence. Ruben then directed participants in formulating personal plans for future leadership development, including a focus on ethical decision making for the CBO.

Learning one's strengths as a leader made for the perfect segue to Ruben’s follow-on session, “Communicating Strategically.” Attendees considered key success factors and techniques for becoming more strategic in face-to-face communication in the workplace. One exercise pointed out the importance of two-way communication, demonstrating that although dialogue takes more time, the personal interaction makes things much clearer and serves to engage all participants. Another group task helped attendees identify whether they were “internalizers” or “externalizers” and how to factor in those individual styles when seeking the most effective workplace communication.

Decisions, Decisions

“Critical Thinking and Decision Making,” a session led by Susan Jurow, NACUBO’s senior vice president of professional development, provided a snapshot of how the thought process can be deliberately tapped. With practice and discipline, leaders can clearly define problems and evaluate all the related data without allowing distractions to deter good decision making.

As Jurow explained, it all starts with the definition of “decision.” She said, “It’s a cognitive process by which we make a choice from many alternatives.” Jurow underscored the necessity of taking charge of the problem-solving process by diagnosing the priority issues and identifying simple paths to resolution. Illustrating a quadrant that could be used to organize and review options, she emphasized the need for collaborating effectively and formulating solutions that work.

Work Together

Participants received guidance on nurturing the kinds of interactions that benefit all levels of leaders in the session “Building Relationships in a Higher Education Environment,” led by Lisa Marie McCauley, vice president of business affairs and treasurer, King’s College, Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. McCauley emphasized the following:

  • Talk; disagree; talk some more.
  • Come to a cohesive agreement.
  • Intentionally build trust into the equation.
  • Acknowledge and discuss the “rumor mill” to avoid inferences and assumptions.
  • Don’t try to be everything to everybody. Focus on your staff’s strengths—your support will bolster their confidence and increase their credibility with one another.
  • Consistently demonstrate benevolence and empathy.
  • Take the time to think about and work on your relationships.

Learn From Each Other

The program wrapped up with “Leadership in Action: A Conversation with Chief Business Officers.” The panel of CBOs presenting the session described their career paths and the experiences and challenges they faced along the journey. Sharing “war stories” were Nim Chinniah, vice president of administration and chief financial officer, University of Chicago; Beth Cooksey, vice president, business and finance, Volunteer State Community College, Gallatin, Tennessee; and Jeffrey V. Bialik, vice president, finance and enrollment management, Dominican University of California, San Rafael. The panelists then opened the floor for participants to find answers to their questions and appraise their personal aspirations for the CBO position.

Chinniah began the discussion, identifying five key characteristics and actions required of his role:

1. Influence and persuade.
2. Have a thick skin and a sense of humor.
3. Work hard but smart—adapt to your environment.
4. Build a strong team.
5. Consider whether you are holding your position at the right time and place for you.

Cooksey shared some of the surprises she found with the position. One of the first: “It can be lonely at the top,” she admitted.

“Although you are working with many departments,” she said, “it’s important to make your role distinguishable.” Cooksey explained that she viewed her own role as being similar to the coach in the common basketball drill, in which one person stands in the middle of a group and the ball is tossed back and forth between alternating players without anyone dropping the ball to the floor. As the CBO, Cooksey sees herself as the person in the middle, with all her departments standing around her, tossing problems back and forth—usually back at her. She understands that it’s important for her to keep the ball from dropping and to delegate the problem to the correct person.

Bialik emphasized the importance of the planning cycle and “the empowerment nirvana.” As a CBO, he said, “you have to remain flexible and firm at the same time.” The planning process helps with that responsibility—by demonstrating a continuous cycle of improvement. He described key leadership characteristics in four categories: commitment, integrity, interpersonal communication skills, and competency—all coupled with an orientation toward results.

Do Your Homework

One of the overall messages of the career advancement program was the reality that aspiring leaders must take responsibility for planning their own professional itineraries. As is true for an institution’s students who aspire to earn a degree, the journey toward becoming a CBO begins by doing the necessary homework. The road to the CBO position includes stops to devise a deliberate plan; attend professional development workshops and meetings; learn about the intricacies of the field; and assess one’s personal aspirations, skills, energy, and motivation. With that comprehensive plan in mind, the corner office may come into reach much sooner.

TADU YIMAM is a policy analyst at NACUBO.