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Business Officer Magazine

Back Story

Profiles of individuals in roles that support the work of the chief business officer—and who represent the majority of the Business Officer reading audience

By Margo Vanover Porter

Sara A. Reed
Executive Director Shared Services Center
University of California, Davis
4 1/2 years in higher education

When she transitioned from the military to higher education 4 1/2 years ago, Sara Anne Reed admits that she had a whole lot to learn. "I really tried to be a sponge," she recalls. "It was scary. In my first job, I was the chief administrative officer running four academic departments. My first week, I was in meetings where I had no idea what people were talking about. I avidly took notes and went back and asked my mentors, "What is this? Why does this matter?"

Fortunately, the assistant dean who hired her at University of California, Davis, also introduced Reed to colleagues who offered to be her mentors. "They made it safe to ask questions," she says.

A quick study, in July 2014, Reed was offered the position of interim director of the UC Davis shared services center, and has since been promoted to executive director of the center. "In my military history, I rarely stayed in one place for more than a year," she says, "so I learned how to come into a situation, learn quickly, and adapt, because every single organization's culture is different, whether you're in higher education or the military."

How would you compare the cultures of the military and higher education?

Some elements are the same; others are drastically different. For example, how you get things done is definitely different. I am a huge fan of leadership through influence versus position, which is why I could argue that I never really fit as a military leader. For me, it's always been about what I can get accomplished by partnering, not about the position or rank.  

Why did you choose to join the military?

To figure out how to pay for college. In high school, I was selected for various officer training scholarships. At the time, the Air Force gave me a year to try it out with no commitment. It didn't take me long to decide, "Yes, this is a good fit for me." I could work hard and do good things. Today, I'm still a reserve officer.

As the executive director of the shared services center, how many staff members now report to you? 

I have 77 career staff and 16 students.

The Peter J. Shields Library on the campus of the University of California, Davis.

What services does the center provide? 

We are a multifunction service. We offer financial transactional support, human resources transactional support, and payroll and timekeeping support to about 200 departments. We also have an operations team with a customer service function that services the entire campus community. 

Will shared services eventually take over 100 percent of these functions for UC Davis?

Maybe in an ideal world. However, UC Davis and many other large campuses have a strong campus culture. We are trying to build and create services that people want to use. As our reputation gets stronger, we can offer our services to the entire campus.

Is there a mandate to use your services and has this approach saved money?

No, there's no mandate. I've been at the shared services center for 2 1/2 of its five years. The initial business case had it averaging about $4 million a year. We haven't gone back and validated that.

I will say that a comparison of our operation to a standard department operation indicates that we are doing anywhere from two, to four, to 10 times the load, depending on the service. The efficiency is there. 

What lessons have you learned from the process?

There's no magic formula. Shared services look different in every organization. Every institution has to assess its appetite for change, or you end up with unhappy people doing the work and unhappy people who have given up the work. 

You have to think through the client engagement model. You can't run a shared services center without listening to feedback, particularly the hard stuff, when people are not happy. Only then can you figure out how to make it better. 

You have to be agile. A shared services center cannot be stagnant. You can't build it and say, "Now we're done." We are process mapping or improving something just about every week.

You recently spoke at a WACUBO conference on rebuilding a reputation. Was that about this experience?

Yes. When the shared services center launched here, it didn't turn out as planned, resulting in angst and unhappy people, so much so that a strategic pause was put on the operation. It's a hard business transition to make and a huge culture change. I haven't found a case yet where it hasn't been painful. 

When I came in as the director, our entire leadership team went out and just listened to people. We joked that it was like therapy. By listening, we were able to hear how often people wanted to interact with us, what methods of interaction they wanted to use, and where we needed to focus efforts. We instituted regular feedback surveys so that every quarter we could get a snapshot of how we're doing, which we use to improve our services. We then go back to our clients and say, "You wanted us to change this process. We did. How are we doing now?" 

We also developed a new client engagement strategy. We had a habit—I don't think we're unique in this—of reacting to people. If we found out you were not happy, we would say, "Margo, let's meet." Now we say, "Margo, how about we set up some regular meetings? We'll just check in and see how things are going." By being proactive in our interaction with clients, our relationship with them has changed.

Bad or good, we want to hear what our clients think. The only way to know how we're doing is if they tell us. We have to be vulnerable and learn what people need.

Is being vulnerable necessary to make progress?

It is. You have to be willing to hear what you don't want to hear. You have to be willing to engage your harshest critics. When you do that, you build credibility. Most things are fixable, if you know about the problem.

If you could choose another profession, what would it be?

Leadership development. I started studying leadership as a freshman at the University of Minnesota. I have a passion for it. Within my own organization, I try very hard to make sure that we are coaching front-line supervisors and managers to be leaders. We all need to be able to develop people into what our institutions—and our world—need.

Which is?

Leaders who are willing to work together in collaboration and not be worried about position or credit, but who are concerned about the people they are trying to lead and the mission they are trying to accomplish.

Tell me about your family.

My husband Brodie is a Delta Airline pilot, and we have 6-year-old twin girls, Paige and Avery. We have plans A, B, and C for every situation. When I go on military leave, either my mother or his mother comes in to be with the kids. Every year, we pretend that in the following year life will get simpler.

When you have spare time, what do you do? 

I'm a big believer in taking care of myself, so I run and do yoga. I also like photography and travel. I have some amazing photos of St. Petersburg, Russia, and Florence, Italy, that remind me that the world is a lot bigger than I am. As you walk through our house, our memories are everywhere.

So how far do you run?

I try for 3 to 5 miles, four or five days a week. For me, it's how I process and problem solve. During "aha" moments, I stop and write on my notepad.

How would you describe your personality?

I like to make things better, and I openly admit that I'm not good in a place if I'm supposed to keep things the same. 

I'm also a bit of a nerd, so I like to read. When I took the job with the shared services center, I read anything that I could find. I strongly believe that this industry needs to be looking at concepts like shared services to keep higher education affordable. That is why I do what I do. I'm 2 1/2 years into it, and I'm still growing and learning.

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

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