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Business Officer Magazine

Onward, Upward, and Out of the Comfort Zone

The transition from one business officer role to another of greater responsibility requires professional and personal assessment.

By Karla Hignite

Business Officer asked two CBOs to share their insights in connection with recent transitions they’ve made. In March 2004, Cynthia Teniente-Matson left her job as vice chancellor for administrative services at University of Alaska–Anchorage to become vice president for administration and chief financial officer of California State University–Fresno. Morgan Olsen, formerly vice president for business and finance at Southern Methodist University, Dallas, became West Lafayette, Indiana-based Purdue University’s executive vice president and treasurer as of October 2004. At the time of this interview, Olsen had been in his new role one week.

Teniente-Matson and Olsen reveal steps they took to become acclimated to their new environments as well as how they maximized transition time to wrap up duties on one campus and prepare for responsibilities at the next. There are bound to be bumps along the way when it comes to taking on a more challenging role, but finding the right balance between planning ahead and being open to learning from new colleagues helped both ease the move.

What type of position or change were you looking for, and what kind of assessment did you engage in to determine whether this opportunity was the right one for you?

Teniente-Matson: I was very happy at the University of Alaska–Anchorage, but my boss and mentor was retiring. With him leaving, I was ready to make a change as well—after 15 years. The kind of position I was looking for was one that would continue to build on the skills I had already acquired but on a more traditional campus with a greater breadth of opportunities. At California State University–Fresno, this includes several 501 3(c)s with which I am now involved, and I now also have greater responsibility for campus technology. In terms of a self-assessment, this included thinking about where my family wanted to be geographically. California put us closer to my husband’s family, my parents, and my extended family, which is something I believe is important for our children, who are 9 and 16, at this stage.

Olsen: While most of my background is in public higher education—this is my third job as CBO at a public institution—I had a great experience at Southern Methodist University (I was there for five years) and was not looking to make a change. Rather, I was sought out for the position at Purdue. There were several planned initiatives at Purdue where university leaders were hopeful I could help. Chief among them is an ERP system implementation, which is something that I’d had the opportunity to be involved with at SMU. In addition to being chief financial officer, I now have a broader range of executive responsibilities as executive vice president and treasurer at Purdue. My decision to accept the position came down to whether it would be a good move personally for my family as well as for me professionally. From a professional standpoint, I had to ask whether this was something I would enjoy doing and at a place where I thought I could contribute in a meaningful way. One thing I appreciated immensely was being able to talk openly with my president at SMU, whose advice I deeply trust. He made clear that what he really wanted was for me to stay. At the same time, he is a wonderful colleague who helped me think through this opportunity, analyze the pros and cons, and put those in context.

What kind of preparation were you able to do prior to assuming your new role, and did you receive any counsel from your predecessor about the institution or how to proceed?

Olsen: I decided to accept the offer from Purdue in mid-July 2004 and started mid-October. My predecessor was retiring at the end of August after a long and successful career at Purdue. He was very gracious and did all he could to clear the deck for me. Given the timing of my transition, I did find the opportunity to take some vacation days to come up to Purdue for some important meetings and to meet people ahead of time so that I could hit the ground running.

Teniente-Matson: I received the offer from Fresno State in July 2003 but did not start until the following March. I am extremely appreciative to my current boss, because he knew it was important to me to fulfill my commitment to my chancellor in Alaska during his final year. This additional time also gave me the opportunity to develop a road map for what I wanted to accomplish during my first several months. While my predecessor left before recruitment for the position began, I was fortunate in that my president helped make the connection between us. The most helpful counsel my predecessor gave me was to tell me the people he thought I should meet and get to know both on and off campus, including faculty leaders and key administrators. I called many people he suggested so that I could introduce myself and learn more about the institution. I also tried to meet and visit with as many of the deans and key faculty and staff as possible to tour their spaces. During all these conversations, I consciously listened for common themes that might signal issues I should be aware of.

What did you do to ensure that you left your former position in good shape for your successor?

Olsen: Once I decided to join Purdue, my staff and I tried to wrap up as many projects as possible where much of the work had been done or where decisions that needed to be made might be particularly difficult for a new person to make. I also tried to discern what would best be handled by my replacement. I essentially performed triage on what to deal with right away and what to leave undone. I spent a lot of time documenting initiatives and procedures and consulting my president in terms of how to handle the interim period. As requested, I provided my opinions about the search for new leadership, what kind of profile might be helpful, and how the position might be tweaked before bringing a new person on board. Something my SMU president specifically requested from me in finishing out my responsibilities was to get the institution through its September board meeting. Of the university’s quarterly board meetings, the September meeting is especially important because it is where the budget is finalized, and this particular board meeting coincided with the reorganization of the board, which happens every four years.

What specific actions did you take during your first several months on the job, and how did you go about establishing relationships and trust with colleagues and staff?

Teniente-Matson: During my first month I spent a lot of face time with my direct reports, asking questions and getting to know their issues so that I could better plan for myself what I needed to address. During my second month, I delved further into different levels of the organization. I asked my second-level managers five questions about the division and their departments so that I could then share their insights with my directors. Then on the heels of my first 100 days, I planned and held a retreat for my 10 direct reports. My goal was to focus on our divisionwide mission, vision, and values and to drill down to our campus priorities. I worked with a consultant who helped me plan the day to make it valuable and fun. As I was preparing for the retreat, I also met with the staff member here at Fresno State who has primary expertise in organizational development and psychology. One key piece of advice he gave me was to share about myself—things my staff otherwise wouldn’t know or easily find out—since it was as important to let others get to know me as it was for me to get to know them. So I developed a top-10 list that included some lighthearted items, such as my favorite candy, as well as more serious insights, such as how I make decisions. In initially establishing relationships, I also held one-on-one meetings with my staff and asked each person to give me a short bulleted agenda ahead of time so that I could prepare for what each person wanted to talk about. At the same time that I provided an overview of what I expected, I also let my work preferences be known about using e-mail versus a phone call, for instance.

What was your greatest challenge during the early part of your transition?

Olsen: Since I’m still early in the transition process, there is quite a learning curve to address. My first week happened to coincide with Purdue’s homecoming. That was good in that homecoming is always a time of renewal and return for an institution, so it provided an opportunity for me to learn a lot about Purdue’s traditions and history. On the other hand, it was a real challenge, because homecoming is also a week filled with events, and since Purdue is in the midst of a capital campaign, rolling those activities into homecoming events made for a very hectic first week on the job. A challenge of another sort had to do with leaving SMU. I have always found it to be intellectually challenging to make a transition. Yet, there is a certain amount of trauma that goes with leaving. When you develop a sense of pride and ownership in an institution, you often don’t realize how difficult it can be to leave a community that you have come to know and love.

Teniente-Matson: Many issues within higher education and issues facing you as a chief business officer are the same from one campus to another, whether these have to do with resources, enrollment challenges, technology updates, or homeland security. What is different are the organizational dynamics or the politics within your particular community. One issue that is of much greater magnitude for me here than it was in Alaska is utilities management. For this and other concerns, once I understood the issue, I then had to make sure I understood campus policy, state policies, and operating rules, and that took extra time. To get up to speed as quickly as possible, you have to be prepared to work long hours. I started this position at the end of March, but my family did not arrive until July. While that was extremely difficult in many respects, their absence did allow me to put in those long hours at the beginning and help me concentrate on building relationships with colleagues. During those first several months, I accepted all invitations to attend cultural events and recreational activities. And I was able to achieve my personal goals for exercising and not skipping meals. During such a stressful time, you have to be intentional about taking care of yourself and your family.

Transition Tips

According to organizational consultant Pat Sanaghan, president of The Sanaghan Group, CBO transition success hinges on three key actions:

  1. Understand the issues and culture of the institution. Do your homework. Research the issues of the institution in the greatest detail possible and determine how you will respond to those issues once on board, says Sanaghan. Find out how the wider community views the college or university. Analyze the institution’s Web site to see what it projects as most important and what it portrays about the traditions of the institution. “Tap into your CBO network, and if appropriate, reach out to your predecessor to see what he or she can tell you about your role or the institution,” says Sanaghan. It’s also helpful to have a sense of a basic plan before you come on board.
  2. Develop trusting relationships. Before accepting a position, make sure that you have a connection with the president on a personal, values, or intellectual level. “Without connecting on at least one of these levels, you may be in for a bumpy ride when it comes time to communicate your ideas,” says Sanaghan. Seek strong relationships not only with the president, staff peers, and direct reports, but also with faculty. “Faculty are key. If faculty don’t trust you, you’ll have a tough time being truly effective,” says Sanaghan. One way to connect to the academic side of the house is to ask your president to name 10 faculty members who are deeply respected by peers and who are influencers within the institution. Then reach out to those faculty members—not to pump them for information but to build relationships.
  3. Record your progress. Spending even 15 minutes a week to note who you are talking to and what you are learning will allow you to look back after 30 days, 120 days, and six months and better understand the complexities of your role. And that will enable you to chart future progress goals, says Sanaghan. Create mechanisms for anonymous feedback so you get staff input on your progress as well.

Once in your new position, how did you strike a balance between taking time to observe and learn versus offering your opinions and a plan of action?

Teniente-Matson: Because I started at the end of March, I felt I had much of the summer as a grace period. At the same time, because I do have a role in a variety of committees, I did try from the start to strike a balance between listening and participating. While you don’t have to know everything at the start, you are expected to contribute, so it’s important to determine where you can contribute right away. When specific issues emerged on which I was expected to contribute, I tried to drive discussions by asking critical questions that would help guide others in making decisions.

Olsen: The expectation for anyone in a position of leadership is that you ought to have learned something along the way from which the institution can benefit by virtue of having you on board. In that sense, the honeymoon is relatively short. At the other end of the continuum, people want to feel comfortable that you first understand the fundamental tenets and beliefs of the organization before you draw conclusions about where the organization needs to go. Usually that’s done through a lot of listening to and learning from your new colleagues. Each business officer at each institution has to figure out for himself or herself what is the appropriate balance.

What advice would you offer to other business officers who are considering or preparing for a transition into a role of much greater responsibility?

Teniente-Matson: As you consider your practices and procedures, it’s important to maintain certain routines that others are used to or that are important to them. As much as possible I have tried to fit into existing routines. I think it’s also important to remember that during your first year, you are not yet at a point where people understand your shorthand or lingo. You have to be conscientious and clear in your communication while you are still establishing working relationships and friendships.

Olsen: While I’ve been a CBO long enough to have a knowledge base and an understanding of campus financial concerns, I know I have a lot to learn about Purdue itself and its organizational culture. Ultimately, facilities are facilities and computer systems are computer systems, but the people and each place have their unique features. I think it’s most important to be open to people, to listen a lot and give folks an opportunity to share their sense of a situation, tell you what most interests and concerns them, and explain how you and your office can help them in their role. It’s also important to remember that business cycles do not cease and that you are parachuting into an ongoing operation, so you need to take time to observe and respect the existing business culture before you try to make big changes.

Author Bio Karla Hignite is a writer and editor based in Tacoma, Washington.