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Business Officer Magazine

Pillars of Trust

Despite their different vantage points, chief academic and chief financial officers hold an institution’s vision in healthy balance. That’s reason enough to create common ground.

By Barry H. Corey

As an academic dean, I sometimes envy the measurability of my CFO’s focus on finance. I served Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, South Hamilton, Massachusetts, as its lead development professional for 10 years, before I was asked to make an unexpected shift to become the academic dean. The fact that I had come from a numbers world (where I handled budgets and understood finance’s role in the life of the seminary) was probably to my benefit in working with Robert Landrebe, Gordon-Conwell’s executive vice president and CFO. This is not always the case within higher education. However, because of my experience, I also know it’s a myth to think that CFOs deal only with numbers and deans deal only with ideas. When institution leaders allow the art of deaning to meet the science of financial planning, we all become more courageous and effective change agents, building an alliance to better serve our students and our constituencies in a complex and changing landscape.

One of the joys of writing this article, explaining the keys to a healthy working relationship between an institution’s CAO and CFO, is the opportunity to reflect on the enjoyable experience I’ve had working alongside Robert. In many ways, I am a better academic dean because of the leadership lessons that I have gained by observing him. Together, we have learned to confront challenges knowing that trust undergirds our relationship as colleagues—a trust that is neither incidental nor an afterthought.

How to Bond With Your Dean

A CFO’s Response
By Robert S. Landrebe

The reality of organizational life is that we don’t choose our senior-level colleagues. We are selected and then assembled into a team. I write as the beneficiary of a superbly competent chief academic officer, Barry Corey, who has consistently taken initiative in the area of relationship building. As a result, through the ups and downs of institutional life stretching more than a decade, we have developed a partnership built on trust.

The trust between a chief financial officer and a chief academic officer is tested during times of change and during seasons of financial pressure. At these times, the investment accumulated over months and years in developing a relationship that each can count on becomes an intangible asset of remarkable value.

During our most recent budget planning cycle at Gordon-Conwell, we had a 5 percent gap between our anticipated revenues for the next fiscal year and our realistic cost projections. Based on our assessment work and our longer range planning, some of the agreed-to, priority improvements needed on the academic side—including the addition of new faculty positions—were no longer feasible. The most favorable allocation of resources towards this goal would leave the school vulnerable in other areas, causing either unrealistic forecasts of donation income or deferral of key maintenance projects, which simply would not be prudent. Within an atmosphere of trust, Barry could ask any questions he needed to better understand the financial constraints, and there was no inclination whatsoever on my part to hold back information. The bottom line: Each of us had the enormous benefit of knowing that the other’s intentions were good. We had a natural desire to see the issues from each other’s perspective so that solutions could be tested and debated for the overall good of the institution.

Barry’s article does an excellent job in describing seven ideas that can help forge a stronger, trusting relationship between an institution’s CFO and CAO. I urge you to implement this list of practical suggestions toward building a stronger relationship with your senior academic leader. As you apply these concepts, the long-term investment that you will make for your institution will certainly pay dividends. As with any investment, the sooner you act, the sooner you reap the rewards. And if you’re as fortunate as I have been, the chemistry may be such that you develop a lifelong friendship beyond your institutional roles.

ROBERT S. LANDREBE is executive vice president and chief financial officer, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, South Hamilton, Massachusetts.

Let me offer seven practical suggestions to you, as chief business officers, for building a healthy, complementary, and exciting alliance with your CAO.

1. Give the gift of knowledge. Give your dean a birthday or employment anniversary present: a book that will offer insight into your world. This should be something easy to read and be a welcome break from the academic journals, reports, and publications that consume a dean’s reading time. Then invite your academic counterpart to lunch to talk about the book. Ask your CAO to do the same for you so that you can better understand what life is like sitting in the dean’s chair. (One easy read that I recommend to business officers is The University: An Owner’s Manual, by former Harvard University Dean Henry Rosovsky.)

2. Do your research. Get acquainted with some of the current research interests swirling around higher education. In addition, put a line item in your budget for every new book that a member of your faculty writes. If you don’t have the time or interest to read the entire book, read at least the introduction and the acknowledgments; then make a point to ask that faculty member several questions about what he or she wrote.

3. Tell your institution’s financial story. Ask your dean for time at least once a year, if not each semester, to give faculty a state-of-the-institution financial update. Make the presentation short (no more than 30 minutes) and provide handouts summarizing the financial forecast. Even if times are tough, be an agent of hope. Above all, shoot straight and don’t assume that faculty aren’t interested. They are. Often, some of the more spontaneous applause following a report to our faculty is for our CFO’s semi-annual presentation.

4. Share your pain. Take time regularly to share with your dean some of the challenges that you are facing in your work, and allow your dean to share the same with you. The more each of you understands the pressures the other bears, the better you can support each other and think creatively together to develop solutions.

5. Present a united, active front. Work together to convince institutional stakeholders and other important constituencies that you are not only preservationists, but also progressivists—that is, that you are open to change. Often where deans want change, CFOs don’t, and vice versa. Yet, consider the power exhibited before faculty, alumni, and trustees when key administrators put their heads together to argue from an academic and an economic posture that a particular program, building, or policy must be envisioned or re-evaluated. Despite the assumption that most people resist change, I have seen that people embrace change when they are convinced it’s a good thing.

6. Team up to help the boss. Together, you and your dean need to be a voice of history and balance for your president, honing your combined argument that faster is not always better and helping your president perfect the art of persuasive leadership. When your president sees the wisdom in your combined counsel, his or her leadership is greatly enriched. In your two voices the academic and the administrative arenas of the institution are integrated and decisions are never made without fully considering both contexts.

7. Teach and mentor. Teach a business or finance class, hold a seminar for students on personal money management, or take part in the orientation of new faculty members to discuss their retirement and financial planning. The more you are present and visible in the life of students and faculty, the better they will come to understand and appreciate the role of management.

The CFO’s Academic Role

Although many business officers may not feel part of the academic core, let me remind you of those honorary titles you hold that are not listed on your business cards.

Economist. You are institutional economists who understand the finances you manage, the budgets you balance, the policies you advance, the audits you oversee, and the accountability you hold in trust. You look to the future and do the kind of economic planning that leads to informed decisions and accurate forecasting, keeping the rest of us from making decisions based on hunches or trends. As economists, you speak in truth and not through alarmism. You are our trusted voices. This economic leadership is essential to the credibility and vitality of a healthy institution.

Ethicist. As we deans go through our annual audit periods, we know you work diligently to make sure that the institution’s financial standards weather the highest levels of scrutiny. When there is a temptation for others to inflate reports on income or deflate reports on debt, you are the corrective voice they need to hear. You guide us carefully to do what is right and make the hard choices based on integrity and not on convenience.

Historian. You do not provide information to make decisions based on where we are now; you look back to where we’ve been. Your graphs and tables provide a picture of our past so that we know better how to navigate the future. Your historical research and statistical chronicles of previous years and your careful record keeping is essential for our institution’s leadership to know how the past will inform our future. In so doing, you embody the axiom, “Whoever does not study history is bound to repeat it.” Your important financial archival role helps us to know better our future role.

As the economist, the ethicist, and the historian, you oversee disciplines that are vital for higher education’s health. Yours is a mission of stewardship, which is no less important than the mission of scholarship to which we on the ledger’s academic side have been called. Together, these two pillars hold in balance the institution’s capacity to fulfill its vision. The fact that these two positions carry so much weight is reason enough to continually strive toward collaboration.

BARRY H. COREY is vice president for education and academic dean, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, South Hamilton, Massachusetts.