Ready to Step Up
New chief business officers from within and outside higher education bring fresh perspectives as they assume their strategic roles. What are the essential qualities they will need?
By Randy Roberson and Maryann Terrana
Increasingly, chief business officers are taking many different pathways to their position. While many come to the role from that of controller, assistant or associate vice president, or director of budget or other finance positions on campus, others have served as faculty, and still others have worked for accounting, health-care, or consulting firms, or have prior experience in governmental or other nonprofit organizations. In fact, according to NACUBO's 2010 Profile of Higher Education Chief Business and Financial Officers, about one third of survey participants held a position outside postsecondary education immediately prior to becoming a higher education CBO.
If there is a "typical" CBO, the 2010 survey indicates it would be a married man with children who is 55 years old, has been in his current position for about seven years, and has spent most of his career in higher education. He perceives himself—and is perceived by his president and other institutional colleagues—to be the primary guardian of his institution's financial resources. He also enjoys a great deal of job satisfaction.
But what the data present as typical may not reflect what is happening in reality. In years past, if one were to look out at the attendees of a NACUBO annual meeting, the audience would have appeared much less diverse than today. Now the trend toward diversity extends beyond the visible demographics of age, gender, race, and ethnicity; the new generation of chief business officers is bringing experiential diversity to the role.
Being a mentor to junior staff is one way CBOs can help their institutions identify and advance new talent.
No matter how they come to fill the job, what do higher education chief business officers perceive as the sector's greatest challenges, and what do they consider the most salient advice for those who are joining their ranks? A blend of new and experienced CBOs share their observations for the next generation.
Credentials and higher education experience are important, but are not everything. Of the nearly 1,000 CBOs who participated in the 2010 survey, nearly all reported having at least a bachelor's degree and 76 percent have an advanced degree—the most common being a master of business administration. More than one third of survey respondents indicated they hold a certified public accountant credential.
While more than 60 percent of survey participants indicated they have spent at least half their career in higher education, increasingly the participants who attend NACUBO's annual New Business Officers Program are entirely new to higher education. As newcomers, their off-campus experience can prove highly beneficial, since at the CBO level of one's career, these professionals have consciously decided to make a career move into higher education.
Larry Goldstein, president of Campus Strategies LLC, facilitates the Next Generation Chief Business Officer workshop offered by EACUBO and other regional associations. He observes that coming to the CBO role from outside the industry can afford people a more-rounded perspective. They often create or bring new ideas based on an outsider's perspective that will ultimately benefit higher education.
University of Texas at Dallas Vice President for Administration Calvin Jamison is a prime example. In addition to his varied career within higher education-working at a land-grant university, an urban university, and a historically black university-he has worked within the private sector and as a city manager. "Individuals who will be successful in the future in the CBO role will understand and share exposure to a diversity of experiences, because even though the bottom line remains the focal point, how one reaches the bottom line will continue to involve different ways of thinking," says Jamison.
Broad Experience Matters
The CBO role is a complex one. More than half of the CBOs who responded to the 2010 survey indicated that they oversee endowment, internal audit, public safety, physical plant, auxiliaries, and human resources in addition to overseeing budget, controller, bursar, and purchasing operations. Not only do their duties extend far beyond budgeting and accounting, but the responsibilities of CBOs often encompass concerns outside campus boundaries, including economic development and town-gown relationships. Most CBOs also have at least an informal reporting relationship to their board of trustees in addition to reporting directly to their presidents. All this suggests that diversity of experience can indeed be solid preparation for higher education administration.
Current CBOs say that getting experience with many different areas of the campus can lead to new opportunities for professional growth. "Broaden your experience as much as you can, filling out the gaps, and don't be afraid to take detours to gain administrative or project experience," says Ben Hammond, vice president for finance and administration and treasurer at Mount Holyoke College, South Hadley, Massachusetts. In between his careers as a management consultant and a higher education business officer, Hammond volunteered in the Gambia, West Africa, to help the polytechnic institution there strengthen its economic model.
Randy Greene, vice president for finance and treasurer and chief financial officer at Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, New Jersey, adds: "Volunteer and ask to get involved on projects in areas for which you are currently not responsible, so you have a better sense of those functions and can help others address their issues. The more you know about faculty governance, academic offerings, development, student services, financial aid, facilities planning, and other areas, the more desirable it will be for you to be part of the executive team of an institution."
Greene's extensive background prior to joining Stevens includes experience at major research, medical, and land-grant institutions. While at Cornell University, he explored new areas that took him from management responsibilities in the endowed accounting office to the research foundation and the medical college.
Expanding your perspective by pursuing different experiences can likewise help you engage other institution leaders in the kind of strategic discussions that will be necessary for the industry as a whole in the coming years. In addition to understanding how issues are addressed at your own institution, get to know the many different types of institutions, suggests Hammond. "There is huge variation, and you may find great opportunities at institutions outside your base of experience. In my case, leaving the administration of a major research university to be the CBO of a small liberal arts college has been hugely rewarding for me, and I discovered that I am even more committed to our mission."
Margaret Tungseth agrees. CBOs who wish to excel in the field must get involved beyond their own campuses, advises Tungseth, vice president for finance and administration and treasurer at Central College, Pella, Iowa. "You can do this by taking advantage of continuing education, networking within the profession, and getting involved in higher education associations like NACUBO," she says. Prior to becoming a CBO, Tungseth dedicated a portion of her career to university risk management. For seven years, she served as a board member and officer of the University Risk Management and Insurance Association, including a term as president. As a CBO, Tungseth benefits not only from her knowledge of risk management but also her past leadership roles with URMIA.
Continuous Learning Is Critical
Beyond leadership skills, curiosity, and an eagerness to learn are common characteristics among high-performing CBOs. Deb Moon, vice president and CFO at Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, credits her inner drive for continuous learning and her interest in areas beyond her immediate responsibilities for helping her reach the CBO position. "I never have two days that are the same," says Moon. Her previous experience as a higher education consultant and in various financial positions with a research foundation exposed her to diverse funding models and challenges across a broad spectrum of institutions and functions.
The variety in her role as CBO not only attests to the complexity of the job, but also ensures that she will always be involved in problem solving and professional development on a near-daily basis, notes Moon. Adds Hammond, "The breadth and pace of issues I am dealing with at any moment can be daunting, but mostly I find it fulfilling, and relish the opportunity to keep learning."
Many CBOs and experts agree that continuously improving your skill set is important to the institution as well as for personal success. Part of a CBO's learning curve and ongoing information-gathering efforts should include direct engagement with faculty and students to gain a better understanding of their issues and concerns, says Goldstein. Greene adds, "The CBO can play a part in facilitating all other areas of the institution. Understanding that you are part of the team that will make a big difference in the future of the institution is both exciting and great motivation to get it right."
Before joining the University of Chicago as vice president for administration and CFO, Nim Chinniah held a variety of positions during his 16 years at Vanderbilt University, Nashville, that exposed him to myriad operational areas including dining, traffic and parking, bookstores, and university registrar. Chinniah encourages those who want to become campus business leaders to challenge themselves to be more broadly engaged.
"Actively find ways to be part of the fabric of the institution and its plans for the future. Do not be someone who sits on the sideline and watches the action," urges Chinniah. In part, this requires an ability to evolve with the times. "I see a lot of my peers trying to do the job the same way it was done 15 or 20 years ago," says Chinniah. "The industry has changed, and the role has changed. Looking forward, I think there will be an even greater requirement to be nimble and flexible."
Tackling Tough Challenges: Required
Anecdotally, CBOs describe their roles as broad in scale and scope, requiring a critical balance between technical capacity and strategic leadership. In fact, colleges and universities have grown increasingly reliant on the CBO for strategically positioning the institution for the future while simultaneously managing a broad range of daily administrative operations. The many challenges—from talent management to process redesign to IT expansion to exploring the newest global opportunities—provide the chance to lead with impact and to leave a unique legacy.
For instance, hiring and retaining employees who can bring expertise you don't have is a skill in itself. "Retaining human capital in light of revenue cutbacks, and competing with the private sector for employees will be a challenge going forward," predicts Tungseth. Chinniah concurs: "Talent management involves a complex process of almost daily re-recruitment of the highest performers. You have to make time and devote attention well after the hiring process is complete."
As for what the future holds, most current CBOs agree that the funding model of higher education remains one of higher education's greatest quandaries. "We are in two lines of business that both inherently lose money-research and education," says Moon. "With pressures on tuition and the incredible competition for tight research dollars, these challenges are only going to increase over the next decade." Jamison adds that accountability for every aspect of the enterprise—academic, administrative, research, student affairs, and community relations—will continue to be challenging.
The fact that the CBO's responsibilities intersect so many facets of campus life requires that the individual in this role be open to the creative and innovative ideas of others and to have some tolerance for risk-taking, suggests Patrick Sanaghan, president of the Sanaghan Group, who cofacilitates the Next Generation workshops with Goldstein. In essence, the successful CBO exemplifies the consummate "cultural traveler," says Sanaghan-that is, he or she has an ability to travel across the many cultures of a campus and to help build bridges among various constituencies, fostering broad trust and appreciation.
Getting There, Giving Back
Whether they are veterans or are new to higher education, professionals at the CBO level exhibit keen awareness of their own skill set and the competencies required for the job. These senior administrators are well-equipped to coach up-and-comers in their midst, says Sanaghan. He advocates that leadership development is absolutely essential to the future of higher education and that a key component of a successful program is having CBOs who take the time to help nurture tomorrow's business officers.
Being a mentor to junior staff—or even staff from other areas of the campus—is one way CBOs can help their institutions identify and advance new talent. "I have a list of about 30 to 40 people that I or my principal deputy mentor," says Chinniah. "Once per quarter, we invite them to lunch or introduce them to key contacts, committees, or other broad-based teams to give them exposure to the senior leadership of the university." Hearing directly from senior leaders about plans and initiatives connects people to the mission of the institution, notes Chinniah.
Most business officers will tell you that having strong mentors helped them aspire to their current roles. Returning the favor of providing professional guidance and career support to others, and finding ways to give direct reports hands-on experience with key aspects of the job, is yet one more characteristic of a successful CBO.
"I recall how I wanted to help strengthen the institution and help the college confront the many challenges facing higher education and navigate a highly uncertain future," says Hammond. "I was fortunate to have wonderful mentors who helped me see firsthand the joys and challenges of this role, and who helped me realize I was ready to step up."