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Business Officer Magazine
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Cultivating Your Career

Even if you’re at the top of your game, you likely can benefit from some professional development. New study results identifying key business officer competencies can help you play to your strengths, pinpoint areas for improvement, and enhance your job performance.

By Susan Jurow

 The question of what it takes to be a highly effective business officer in higher education today was not on the list when the Associations of College and University Business Officers commissioned a project to understand the professional development needs of higher education administrators. ACUBO designed a curriculum development project to help the five partner organizations—which include NACUBO—better understand what workshops, webinars, and conference sessions would best meet the needs of their members. Through the project, ACUBO planned to develop a framework for creating professional development programs that respond to administrators’ unique needs. It turns out that the most effective way to do this is to first identify the competencies that are important to the work (see tables). 

What follows are results of the ACUBO study that reveal the important ways that these competencies differ by job type. The findings can be used to determine the areas in which you excel or need improvement as you develop your career plans. ACUBO partner associations will use the findings to help you by enhancing professional development offerings and better tailoring programming to specific job functions.

What Is a Competency?

Job competencies are the behaviors people exhibit or the actions they take when performing the complex tasks that make up their job. Competencies are built over time through experience, and they are the principal elements required for high-quality performance. They are different from the knowledge, skill, and abilities needed to perform a job. Those are the basics that people bring to a job at an entry level. 

What Is ACUBO?
The Associations of College and University Business Officers represents a coalition of five associations—CACUBO, EACUBO, NACUBO, SACUBO, and WACUBO—that work together to strengthen member services through collaborative projects.

Dennis Kravetz uses golf as a great example in his article “Building a Job Competency Database: What the Leaders Do.” To play golf, you need knowledge of proper grip and stance, general hand and arm dexterity, and motor skills such as swinging and twisting. These are the knowledge, skills, and abilities that serve as a base. To be considered competent at golf, you have to be able to play a wide variety of shots with skill, adapt to different conditions depending on the course, and score well based on the proper selection of clubs. These are learned over time through experience, success, and failure.

Fleshing Out the Specifics

At the start of ACUBO’s curriculum development project, a team reviewed the literature and team members used their specialized knowledge to draft potential competencies. Groups of chief business officers, staff in college and university business offices, and administrators with business and finance responsibilities in academic and other units participated in focus groups to review the draft. From those efforts, the project team developed lists of competencies that were used as the basis for three surveys, one for each of these three population groups. The surveys asked participants to rate how important each listed competency was to their job and whether they needed professional development programs at a basic level or for complex issues and situations.

Competencies were divided into four categories: core, technical, organizational, and leadership. Core competencies are those needed by all individuals working within the business operations of a higher education institution. Technical competencies are those related specifically to the business arena such as tax compliance or responding to audit findings. Competencies related to performance management and organizational oversight fit into the organizational competency category, and the leadership competencies are those associated with determining institutional directions and encouraging or enabling others to achieve those directions.

NACUBO distributed the e-mail survey during summer 2005. More than 900 individuals ranked the description and importance of the competencies and advised on those for which they could use professional development. The response rate was about 10 percent for the three groups of respondents.

Table 1 Top Competencies for Chief Business Officers

Competency Area Topic Area Competency

Leadership

Ethics

Adhering to ethical business practices and promoting ethical behavior

Technical

Budgeting and Planning

Having budget models and techniques

Leadership

Trust

Fostering an environment of mutual trust including personal credibility and trust between and among stakeholders

Leadership

Ethics

Possessing business ethics principles

Organizational

Relationships

Demonstrating effective interpersonal relations (e.g., integrity, trust, diplomacy, negotiation skills)

Organizational

Communications

Demonstrating effective written and oral communication and presentation skills

Leadership

Board and Committee Relations

Working with governing bodies and advisory committees (e.g., board of trustees, visiting committees)

Reading the Results

The surveys validated the competencies that had been identified. In the survey of chief business officers, out of 71 competencies, only two proposed competencies were rated less than 2.0 on a 0 to 4-point scale. In the survey of staff in the business office, 6 out of 69 competencies received lesser ratings. The response rate from those who work in academic and other units was too small for statistical purposes.

Table 1 shows the seven competencies that were rated most highly for chief business officers (3.6 or higher).

The picture that these results reveal is the critical importance accorded by the chief business officer to ethical behavior, creating a trusting environment, and personal credibility built on effective interpersonal skills. At the heart of the chief business officer’s job is the ability to communicate that he or she oversees a capable and principled operation.

Table 2 shows the nine competencies that were rated most highly for business office staff (3.25 or higher).

Table 2 Top Competencies for Business Office Staff

Competency Area Topic Area Competency
Technical Use of Computer Technology Using desktop applications (e.g., database, spreadsheets, query tools)
Technical Accounting Being familiar with accounting reporting standards (e.g., FASB, GAAP, GASB)
Technical Accounting/Auditing Understanding internal control procedures (e.g., separation of duties, fraud prevention, risk assessment)

Leadership

Ethics

Demonstrating and modeling ethical behavior, integrity, and trust

Technical

Accounting

Understanding financial reporting concepts (e.g., cash vs. accrual basis, fixed assets)

Technical

Administration

Presenting financial information effectively

Organizational

Communications

Applying various communications techniques (e.g., listening skills, written communication, group interaction, presentations)

Leadership

Communications

Communicating effectively with diverse individuals and groups

Technical

Use of Computer Technology

Knowing how to use spreadsheets (e.g., advanced functions—filtering, macros)

These competencies present a different picture. The staff in the business office must administer and protect the key fiscal functions of the institution. In the process of managing these operations, individuals must be able to communicate financial information to many audiences in ways that inspire confidence in their work and in the institution.

Disparate Programming Preferences

In the area of professional development requirements, the survey found that few respondents were interested in programs on basic concepts and applications. This finding also validated the significant nature of the competencies that had been selected. In both the chief business officer survey and the survey of business office staff, only 10 to 20 percent of respondents were interested in basic programming on any of the competencies. It was a different story for the desire for programs on complex situations. In the chief business officer survey, 40 to 65 percent of respondents indicated a need for professional development on almost every competency. With staff in the business office, 40 to 60 percent of respondents indicated a need for programs on complex topics for three quarters of the competencies.

Further analysis of the survey findings is pending. In the business office staff survey results, there is sufficient data to break out six separate groups: accountant, budget officer, bursar, comptroller/controller, financial reporting manager, and tax compliance and specialty manager. Initial review shows significant differences across these groups in terms of competencies and professional development needs. An early review of responses sorted by the four primary types of institutions—small institutions, community colleges, comprehensive and doctoral institutions, and research universities—reveals some small but significant differences, especially between community colleges and the other three constituent categories.

Applying the Findings

Access the Complete List
Do you have what it takes to do the best job possible and to advance in your career? The Competency Survey Results for Professional Development Planning from the ACUBO curriculum development project can help you figure out where you’re strong and where you might need development; what additional competencies you may need to advance in your career; and how to map out your professional course.

The survey results will be used by the ACUBO partners in a variety of ways. The partners are reviewing their current institutes and workshops to identify areas of overlap and gaps in programming. ACUBO is also using the results to identify high-impact issues for which professional development programs can be created. Two workshops are being developed around communication: one on communicating financial information effectively and another on applying communication techniques to more effectively work with diverse individuals and groups.

ACUBO is working on a curriculum of programs to be developed over the next two to five years to support the professional development needs of NACUBO members and the members of the other four partner associations. These developments may result in certificate or certification programs in areas of specialization.

Meanwhile, these findings provide a tool for you to identify your areas of strength and weakness and to chart your course across your professional life. Plus the competencies can help you provide a road map for young professionals within your institution. The technical knowledge and skills required for an entry-level position are well-articulated in most job ads and job descriptions that employers create. But the competencies identified through this survey provide a more complete picture of the multifaceted world in which you operate and of the complex issues you must know how to address. Watch for further developments to come from NACUBO and its ACUBO partners.

SUSAN JUROW is senior vice president, professional development and communications, at NACUBO.