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Business Officer Magazine
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Side By Side

When the chief financial officer and the chief academic officer are seen as a strong, committed duo, the entire institution stands to benefit.

Edited by Carole Schweitzer with an introduction by Peter D. Eckel

*At one time chief academic officers relied on their financial counterparts to support and fund their efforts, while chief financial officers relied on academic officers to advance the core mission of the institution. Leadership that occurred in parallel was sufficient.

But this is no longer true. The intersections of these positions have multiplied in number and significance. One leader cannot be effective without the other. Yet, CFOs and CAOs come from dissimilar backgrounds, fulfill varying ranges of responsibilities, respond to separate constituents, and have differing understandings of the levers and constraints of their respective positions. CFOs and CAOs even speak different languages. For example, a "discipline problem" in the CFO world is the fact that someone is not following the budget. In the CAO's realm, such a problem occurs when the Keynesian economists on the faculty are publicly fighting with the supply-side economists, or the counseling psychologists won't speak to the educational psychologists.

Hence, to remain strong and robust, colleges and universities need leaders in these significant positions who-as riders are advised in the London Underground-can "mind the gap." That's not so simple, particularly when you consider that, in a national survey by NACUBO and the American Council on Education (ACE), 34 percent of CFOs noted that they find the relationship with the deans as most challenging. And, while only 9 percent of CAOs noted a similar issue, they still report that their greatest challenge is with other vice presidents, including the CFO.

Given the current environment in higher education, CFOs and CAOs find themselves face-to-face trying to bridge their differences. Together, they must seek ways to be financially prudent while taking advantage of opportunities for innovation and improvement. Innovation, strategy and its execution, and institutional change require an effective partnership between these two key leaders.

For the past four years, NACUBO and ACE have collaborated on a workshop to help CAOs and CFOs partner effectively. What we've learned about obstacles to collaboration is perhaps even more useful than identifying characteristics that bring the two leaders together. Here are some impediments to establishing a team effort:

  • Time moves differently for CAOs and CFOs. A "quick" decision may be made in an hour in business units or it may take "only" a year or two in academic affairs.
  • For the CFO, "seeking approval" may mean bringing the decision to the cabinet or the president; for the CAO, it may mean negotiating faculty governance.
  • A focus on the bottom line may be about the institution's financial resources, or it may be about the student experience.
  • External constraints shape what is and is not possible. For a CFO, "generally accepted accounting practices" mean something; for most CAOs they do not. For CAOs, disciplinary and accreditation standards mean something; for many CFOs, they may not.
  • Working well together means working effectively with the president, both individually and in partnership. Since the CEO strongly shapes the relationship context, that dynamic is sometimes good, sometimes bad.

What is required today is much more of a symbiotic partnership than parallel or even shared leadership. Such collaboration is possible, but it can be difficult work. For some CAOs and CFOs, it is love at first sight. However, for most, a solid team approach requires intention and effort.

As we note in the workshop, CAOs can be from Mars and CFOs from Venus, or perhaps it's the other way around. The following essays highlight how three pairs of CFOs and CAOs "mind the gap," forging effective partnership practices and working side by side to achieve the best for their institutions.

PETER D. ECKEL is director, Center for Effective Leadership, American Council on Education, Washington, D.C. CAROLE SCHWEITZER is senior editor of Business Officer at NACUBO.