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Business Officer Magazine

Can't We All Just Get Along?

A close-knit leadership team explains how actions and attitudes allow them to stand united.

By Jo Allen and Joseph J. Baker

In many institutions, the relationship between the chief academic officer and the chief financial officer is notoriously contentious, for which there are some common reasons. From the academic's perspective, financial officers see where all the money is, while academic officers typically see only their part of the budget. This view results in suspicions that the financial officer may know about (and, thus, have access to) unspent or ill-spent monies. That suspicion sometimes leads CAOs to overspend, which makes CFOs, well, crazy.

On the other hand, financial officers may feel that academicians talk in circles with them or, worse, talk down to them. And because they have a more business-minded perspective by the very nature of their jobs, the financial officers may also feel the academicians just don't get it—that they are out of touch with financial reality. Chief academic officers frequently characterize their roles as being advocates for the faculty; and, in that role, they may make increasingly adamant demands for resources, sometimes even enlisting the unrest of the faculty as a rallying point against the financial officer.

We have found great value in occasionally attending one another's conference, with Baker going to an ACE meeting and Allen attending the NACUBO annual meeting.

Such characterizations of academe versus finance would not be nearly so painful were it not for the fact that the two worlds must intersect for an institution to survive. But we are fortunate, for the two of us (Allen, the CAO, and Baker, the CFO) have forged an exceptional working relationship, born of genuine friendship, which has helped move Widener University, Chester, Pennsylvania, to new heights of recognition and sustainability. Here, we pass along our best advice, culled from our seven years of working together.

Consider Attitudes

Recognizing that our perspectives on university finances can vary greatly, we made considerable efforts to bridge those divides, in the following ways:

Acknowledge the differences between the academic and financial cultures. A financial officer, for instance, can fire a nonperformer and then shift the vacated position line to another area. The chief academic officer has a far tougher time removing a tenured (or even tenure-track) faculty member, much less shifting a tenure-track line from, say, biology to literature or even marine biology to molecular biology.

Practice some humility. One critical sore spot in this relationship can stem from the academician's role as a faculty member—as an expert, so to say. Owning up to ignorance on any topic, therefore, is not typically done. On the other hand, the chief financial officer's expertise is also being called into question when these two officers find themselves in conflict. We'd suggest that before proceeding with any teaching and learning: Practice some humility. At the very least, be willing to test the strength of your knowledge by seeking some clarifying details.

Take Action

We've deliberately looked for opportunities to work together and learn more about one another's strengths and areas where we can improve.

Take advantage of team-building exercises that introduce you and your values to one another. Most team-building allows participants some opportunity for openness, giving each a chance to see how the other thinks and what he or she values.

Be a resource for each other: Teach and learn. A couple of areas in which we have enjoyed learning from each other are Baker's teaching Allen about financial restrictions, compliance legalities, and other regulatory requirements; while Baker has appreciated learning more about institutional accreditation requirements and professional presentations and publications as an outlet for professional development. Allen teaches Baker why some class sections are, by necessity, small; and Baker teaches Allen why capital funds cannot be spent on salaries.

Look for, and even design, joint projects. As co-chairs of Widener's strategic planning process, we used the experience as a vehicle for creativity and accountability. For example, we designed each phase of the 10-year implementation to engage faculty, staff, and administrators in new ways. Because we have well over 75 percent of the university's population reporting to the two of us, we could encourage buy-in and acceptance from those with different areas of expertise, giving life to an evergreen strategic plan that also integrated some of our professional skills.

Copresent, copublish, and coconference. It is all too common for academics to go only to academic conferences, while business officers attend only business conferences. Unfortunately, that tends to reinforce some of the strains on the CAO-CFO relationship, since common themes at these conferences are the difficulties in working with the other officer or in establishing the correct priorities (typically one's own area, of course) for the institution. We have found great value in occasionally attending one another's conferences, with Baker going to an ACE meeting and Allen attending the NACUBO annual meeting or even a workshop at one of the regional associations for business officers. We have also enjoyed making joint presentations and even coauthoring materials about our processes, working relationship, and shared successes. These efforts also contribute to Widener's reputation and profile.

Share Your Personal Side

Our relationship has become trusting enough that we aren't afraid to call things as we see them.

Be generous in sharing resources when possible and appropriate. While it is typical to be fearful that unspent funds mean cuts in the next budget cycle, we have found it far more advantageous to have honest talks about our needs and how we can help each other. Three years ago, Baker gave up a position for a top-priority faculty line. Later, Allen accumulated additional operational funds because of a few faculty members' unspent internal grant funds—money she gave to Baker's facilities operations to help recarpet the library.

Balance advocacy and loyalty with open-mindedness. Both of us feel distinctive loyalty to our direct reports and staffs. That said, when our two worlds engage, there can be misunderstandings or even battles over processes and personalities. We have found it helpful to talk about situations rather than people—"naming names" only when necessary. For instance, as we coordinate the reporting procedures between student affairs and campus safety, we try to focus on the tasks, not the people involved, recognizing that clarity of task typically relieves friction among the people involved.

Share your family. In Allen's first months on the job, she brought her mom, sister, and niece to Pennsylvania, hosting a weekend brunch for the executive team and their families. Baker's wife and Allen's mom have gone to a couple of the nicer conference sites with them, and Baker even celebrated Allen's mother's 80th birthday while at a conference.

Nurture your friendship. Just as you do with other friends outside the office, confiding in each other builds trust. A tough day on the financial side, like a rough one on the academic side, is better when you get to vent a little with a friend. Similarly, celebrating each other's successes is equally paramount in nurturing that friendship. The practice of being in each other's corner also provides a critical foundation for tougher times when conflicts might erupt. Gaining experience in knowing each other's values and ways of operating can reinforce trust, even during conflict. Acknowledging and nurturing a strong working relationship prevents the "divide-and-conquer" mentality that exists on some campuses.

Perhaps most important of all is our unspoken but firm commitment to paying attention to each other's priorities. Baker knows that Allen needs complete and timely financial data in order to prioritize her own plans and decisions. Allen recognizes that Baker needs timely responses about decisions, contracts, and processes—and a well-managed budget that does not bleed over the edges. We don't put each other off, we clarify our needs and expectations, and we follow up with our own staffs whenever necessary. We are fortunate in the good-heartedness of our relationship. But, as in any high-functioning relationship, we work at it—and that work has paid off.

JO ALLEN is former senior vice president and provost, and JOSEPH J. BAKER is senior vice president for administration and finance, at Widener University, Chester, Pennsylvania. Allen assumed the presidency of Meredith College, Raleigh, North Carolina, on July 1.