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Business Officer Magazine

Prep Your New President

Help your incoming boss hit the ground knowing.

By Katherine L. George and Karla Hignite

Along with a new leader to plan for and eventually educate about the finances and culture of the institution, the CBO faces the probable reality of a new set of expectations and a different management style with which to contend. Your next leader may currently be in the top spot at another type of institution or in another state, or your incoming president might be plucked from the private sector and have no higher education experience at all. Regardless of a president’s background, what is the specific role of the chief business officer in prepping the new arrival and orienting the campus for change?

Provide a Balanced Financial Perspective

Of the six permanent and two interim presidents Pete Parker has welcomed to Paul D. Camp Community College, Franklin, Virginia, where he has served since the institution’s founding in 1970, most have advanced through the academic track. He has found that this lack of operational experience is often accompanied by a difficulty in making unpleasant decisions, since individuals with these backgrounds are generally used to a more collegial or consensus-oriented environment. “Part of my responsibility is to help the president feel comfortable in this new role as decision maker,” says Parker, vice president for finance and administrative services.

Since good decisions start with good information, one of the biggest challenges for a chief business officer can be figuring out the depth and breadth of detail to provide to the new boss, says Richard Norman, senior vice president for finance and business services at Miami University, Oxford, Ohio. While the specifics you provide will vary based on background, a solid grasp of basic financial components and processes is something every president must possess.

Adopt a phased approach. How you frame your financial overview may be as important as the information you present, says Janet Cunningham. She became president of Northwestern Oklahoma State University, Alva, in 2006, after serving the institution as vice president of administration and then executive vice president. “Financial information can be a bit intimidating for a new president who may be transitioning from the academic side,” says Cunningham. One approach she found helpful was offering to set up meetings to walk through the most critical items, namely, the budget and financial statements and audit. “At the very least, you want a president to know and feel comfortable with those documents and processes,” says Cunningham.

Not every new president is going to understand the technical nuances of budgets and financial statements, says Mohammad Qayoumi. He is certainly the exception. Before his inauguration in 2006 as president of California State University East Bay, Qayoumi was vice president for administration and finance and chief financial officer at California State University, Northridge. “While you don’t want to overwhelm a new president with tons of information all at once,” he says, “you can have conversations in stages to identify the various sources of financial resources and their specific purposes, to discuss the role of auxiliary enterprises and other entities, and to explain capital outlay and construction status, the process of a financial audit, the role of internal controls, basic risk management and compliance issues, and any pending legal situations.”

Miami University’s Norman also provides information in layers. “Your first discussion about the institution’s long-range facilities plan can provide an overview, saving for subsequent conversations the in-depth details, time frames, and how various projects fit together.” John Palmucci, vice president for finance and treasurer, Loyola College of Maryland, Baltimore, finds it helpful in initial discussions with a new president to talk through trends—where the institution has been and where it is heading in terms of budget, endowment growth, tuition discount rate, and so forth—to give a solid snapshot of institutional activities.

Establish priorities and context. Another effective approach is to develop key summaries as a tool for getting the president up to speed quickly and providing the basis for strategic discussions about priorities moving forward, says Joseph Grasso, vice president for administration, Washington and Lee University, Lexington, Virginia. In the past, he has asked each of his direct reports to document all current and projected initiatives along with a list of benefits, costs, and suggested time frames. This allows two things to happen, explains Grasso. “First, you clearly identify what you consider priorities and what you think should happen now versus a year from now. Second, this lets you test whether the initiatives you and your staff have identified are congruent with what your president thinks.” Where you have differences of opinion, says Grasso, you then have a basis on which to re-evaluate priorities together so that you both are clear on how you will go forward.

Beyond discussing specific budget components, you can place the budget in context by giving a new president a sense of how the institution approaches the budget process, says Jan Legoza, vice president for finance and administration at Whittier College, California. “Do we budget conservatively or do we pre-allocate every dollar that comes in? What does it mean to be maxed out in terms of debt? What will happen if we don’t hit enrollment targets? Where is there flexibility to respond to particular financial challenges?” This kind of information will help the president approach decision making more confidently, says Legoza.

It is always best to err on the side of providing too much information, making adjustments as needed based on what level of detail the president wants, says Cunningham. “Financial information is the institution’s information, and the president should never have to come begging for that.”

Culture Review

In addition to presenting the financial big picture, you can provide helpful insight about important cultural nuances of the institution. That might include specifics about the board or its individual members and any compliance issues particular to your type of institution, says Qayoumi. Such an overview can also identify, from the CBO’s perspective, the major issues that will likely confront the new president in his or her first 12 months, says Michael Roy, vice president for finance and administration, Northern Michigan University, Marquette. Adds Grasso: Providing at least some basic background on the practices that have preceded the president gives important context for why a new initiative was started and what you consider the consequences of discontinuing that initiative if the president expresses a desire to move in a different direction.

“One critical cultural connection for the business officer to observe is how a new president approaches decision making—specifically, how things get done and who gets asked to participate and at what stage,” says Larry Goldstein, president of Campus Strategies, Crimora, Virginia. The implications are far-reaching for how quickly the new president may gain acceptance based on what the campus community is accustomed to. Explaining what work style others are used to does not mean that the person at the helm will or should change his or her modus operandi, says Goldstein, but it can provide insight for the president about how others may react. In the end, any major differences may require you to help others on campus adapt to an alternate style of leadership.

One way to help a new leader gain acceptance and visibility on campus is to plan for an early win to let the larger campus community capture a sense of the individual’s vision, says Cunningham. That might mean leaving something undone until the presidential post is filled. In one instance, her institution delayed finalizing a bookstore agreement to develop a cyber café in the student center. That project was then promoted as an early initiative of the new president.

Qayoumi allows that, while the cultural transition might appear easier for those coming from another institution in the same state system, there can be disadvantages to that scenario. A major one is “feeling under pressure to produce, to do things immediately,” says Qayoumi. The result may be the failure to look at all aspects of a given issue. “Normally,” he says, “people say to hit the ground running, but I believe in hitting the ground knowing, so you know which way to run.” The implication for the chief business officer: Assist your new president in whatever ways possible with exactly what he or she needs to know—financial, cultural, and otherwise.

Been There, Learned That

Serving as interim president provides insights that chief business officers can later convey to the incoming president—or apply to their own strategies should they, in fact, be selected for the top job.

Nurture Relationships

Twice Pete Parker has served as acting president of Paul D. Camp Community College where he has worked since the institution’s founding in 1970. The first time was in the mid-1980s, the second in 2000. His tours of duty as interim convinced him of the importance of a good relationship between the president and the surrounding community—especially for a community college, says Parker, vice president for finance and administrative services. Yet, a close-knit connection doesn’t develop overnight or without effort. In his role as CBO, he has helped broker the relationship from both ends. In one instance, a new president was upset that the community wasn’t embracing him. “I had to explain to him that in a small community like ours, strangers don’t often get accepted right off the bat,” says Parker. Several months later—as community leaders got used to the idea of new leadership—his president began receiving invitations to attend and speak at community events.

In another situation, the personality of the new president often left a negative first impression. “He often came across as pushy and arrogant,” says Parker. “As you got to know him, you found just the reverse to be true, and you would walk off a diving board for him.” So, when Parker got a call from an important leader in the community who was upset about the type of president the college had hired, Parker invited the individual to lunch. “I felt it was incumbent on me to set the record straight. And when the president was moving on, that same community leader called to ask if we were hosting a reception, and, if so, could he come. He had grown to have nothing but high praise for that president,” says Parker.

Prepare for Crisis Management

Michael Roy served as interim president at Northern Michigan University, Marquette, in 2003. Between the state legislature and consequences of severe weather, he was getting hit from all sides during his 13-month stint. “Within a week of becoming the interim, I had to testify at a state house meeting on higher education and then testify before the state’s house and senate subcommittees on higher education appropriations,” says Roy. With a flagging state economy, Michigan’s appropriations were high stakes for an institution fighting for a balanced budget. At the same time, enrollment had to increase, and the university had to look outside its traditional area of service. Add to that the fact that much of the campus dates back to the mid-1960s, and infrastructure issues were becoming obvious.

At least Roy’s regular job as vice president for finance and administration had prepared him well for responding (as interim president) to serious floods and the rupture of two nearby dams that threatened the safety of the campus. He made the decision to evacuate nearly one third of the institution. “As a campus we responded very well,” says Roy. “My working relationships with the public safety director, facilities staff, and academic leaders helped a lot.” His lesson learned? In today’s higher education environment the possibility of a new president facing a campus crisis early in his or her tenure is relatively high. “Regardless of whether that crisis may be caused by natural forces or man-made,” says Roy, “the working relationships you have in place can be leveraged to help a new president get the campus back to a normal state much sooner.”

Steady and Stable

With all the focus on attending to what your new chief may need, says Grasso, preparing the campus community for the transition can get lost. “Boards and senior leaders must be mindful about what may change in leadership direction and communicate how those changes may affect current processes and programs.”

Ready the institution for change. Legoza made transition planning a priority when she served as interim president for the 2004-05 academic year, during which Whittier College conducted a search for its new leader. She joined her senior staff colleagues and faculty leaders to turn that year into an opportunity to build a welcoming environment. Activities included a retreat involving faculty leadership and senior staff. “We brought in the former president of a small liberal arts college to help us understand, from a president’s perspective, the things that would allow a new leader to be successful. We also brought in a facilitator who helped the group come up with ways we could support our new president,” says Legoza. This same group met periodically throughout the year to continue the conversation. Progress about the search was shared regularly with the campus community. “By the time the new president came on board, we had developed a good collegial relationship across the campus, and senior staff had developed a team spirit.”

Focus on continuity. Communicating the institution’s solidarity is essential during a state of flux, says Cunningham, who helped her institution move through a succession of leaders in a short time period. “In times of leadership upheaval,” she notes, “faculty, staff, and—to some extent—students look to the chief business officer for some stability. They want to know that the institution’s finances and its future are secure.” During such times, it is critical to reassure others that even though the institution is in transition, it will endure and survive, says Cunningham.

Operational stability is also key. As priorities shift from president to president, the chief business officer must strive to provide continuity of projects and programs, says Grasso. “Every presidential transition can temporarily reduce institutional momentum as you wait to understand the priorities of a new leader.” On the other hand, Grasso points out that a great deal can be accomplished with an interim president who can seize upon new or expanded opportunities to accomplish certain goals and to signal a clear agenda for the campus community during the transition period. While the administrative and academic management teams may need to shift emphasis, instead of dropping initiatives, leaders should try to ensure a certain level of consistency to keep the institution moving forward and employee morale intact, says Grasso. “Once a new leader is in place, it may be the job of the CBO to mediate between what the new president wants to accomplish and what employees have come to expect.”

Continuity can be especially important when dealing with an unanticipated transition. When a campus is thrust into a sudden change, as happened in January 2005 when Loyola’s president died unexpectedly, senior leaders may need some reassurances of their own. Ironically, John Palmucci joined Loyola in 1994, just after its president of 31 years had died. The challenge for the senior team of that time was to “move the institution not necessarily in a different direction but by means of a different leader,” he recalls. Most recently, Palmucci had to deal with the same shock as everyone else over the loss of a president who had led the institution for a decade. While anyone taking on the successor role will want to make his or her own mark, the CBO can encourage sensitivity and appropriate timing for making any dramatic changes, says Palmucci. Especially helpful to those assuming leadership under tragic circumstances is to make sure that they are aware of any outstanding issues or institutional goals established by the former president and the specific roles and relationships the predecessor may have had with the institution’s foundation and other key entities.

Building a President’s Network

Pat Sanaghan, president of the Sanaghan Group, Doylestown, Pennsylvania, has consulted on numerous presidential transitions. He champions the concept of a learning network: a team of trusted advisors who, individually or collectively, will have two goals. First, the network can help teach the president the “real story.” That is, what he or she needs to know about the institution that goes beyond the briefing books and other transition documents (strategic plans, self studies, and board minutes, for example). Second, the learning network can help teach the complexity of the culture, aiding the president in developing connections and relationships.

The chief business officer should know who belongs in the learning network and work with the provost to put together the best advisory group possible, says Sanaghan. “The chief business officer can be the ‘honest broker’ during the transition process,” he says, “because he or she is trusted, understands the institution, and has authentic relationships with key people in the institution.”

Sanaghan also counsels CBOs to protect the president’s back. Sometimes that involves performing the gatekeeper role for the first 60 days or so of the new presidency, to keep the president from becoming overwhelmed. A common issue, brought about by the pressure to fundraise, is the president’s frequent absence from campus, says Sanaghan. “If the president can’t connect with the campus in the first year, he or she won’t be able to lead.”

Larry Goldstein, president of Campus Strategies, Crimora, Virginia, sees a role for a transition coach during the first year. Working in concert, the coach and the transition team can keep the president from, for example, instituting a policy that has failed outright in the past. This transition coach—an external person, and often a former president—serves primarily as a sounding board, listening to the president and raising key issues for consideration, says Goldstein. “While still a relatively new phenomenon, transition coaches are becoming more common and can be especially helpful for a first-time president who is also new to higher education.” While it is typically the place of the institution’s board or search committee to determine what outside assistance might be useful for a new president, Goldstein has seen occasions in which a chief business officer raises the option of a coach.

RESOURCE LINK: Sanaghan and Goldstein—along with Kathleen Gaval, vice president for planning at Saint Joseph’s University—are couthors of a forthcoming book on managing presidential transitions, due out from the American Council on Education ( later this year.

Missteps and Musts

To ensure a strong, trusted relationship with your new president, avoid certain obvious mistakes: embarrassing your president by action or comment, undermining the president’s authority, or second guessing your leader behind his or her back. Grasso warns against other less-obvious missteps: “Never be defensive. You may have started a program, for example, that your new president wants to alter or eliminate; or he or she may have suggestions about an area of operations that you believe is running well. [In these situations], you need to be open to scrutiny and a fresh evaluation of programs.” Going into a transition knowing that such re-evaluation likely will happen—and being ready and willing to engage in that process—is critical, says Grasso. “Often as chief business officers we will get a lot of questions, and we need to be able to answer in candid, clear ways, without being defensive.”

Inflexibility is another no-no. “You have to develop a capacity to break away from the past,” says Qayoumi. “No matter how much you liked your former president or how well you got along, that is gone now.” But if you can’t see eye to eye? Within that first year, if not before, the CBO should have a good idea of any new directions and how he or she will fit into the president’s vision, says Palmucci. “If you can’t get on the president’s bandwagon, it may be time to leave.” At the same time, recognize that your president has inherited you, says Palmucci. “Don’t leave your new leader guessing about your intentions. Make sure you have a frank discussion up front about your career plans, your expectations of your job, and what kind of commitment you have made to the institution.”

In conjunction with establishing your role with the new leader, realize that your relationships with other senior leaders may also change, says Parker. “When a new president comes on board, everyone is starting at point A. The environment you had before and the hidden infrastructure—and there always is one—are no longer valid.” Part of establishing your credibility is to participate with integrity in defining a new paradigm, says Parker.

That new structure may mean you will be asked to cooperate more with some senior leaders and less with others with whom you’ve been accustomed to working closely, says Grasso. Those altered relationship dynamics may extend to board members. “Your new president may want to work with the board in a different manner than the way you have worked with them in the past,” says Grasso. “You must remain open to change as new relationships are formed and old ones are redefined.”

The Foremost Policy

As for the single most important element of building a lasting and effective relationship with a new president, honesty gets the final word. Only with good information and analysis can effective decisions be made, says Legoza. Being forthcoming, particularly with regard to the challenges facing your institution, will help you and your president accomplish your established goals.

While one of the CBO’s responsibilities is to advance the vision of the president, the inability to accomplish one of the president’s goals is not failure, says Cunningham. “The only real failure [comes when] you don’t provide a realistic picture—and the input and advice—that a president needs.”

No matter how bad financial or operational news may be, it is the responsibility of the chief business officer to always tell the truth, says Campus Strategies’ Goldstein. He advises having a serious discussion with your incoming president to establish an understanding up front that you will always say what must be said. “Most business officers are not proactive in having that conversation early,” says Goldstein, “to clarify expectations about what the president needs to hear and how it will be communicated.”

With his president, Miami University’s Norman follows the advice that he has set as an expectation for staff: “If it’s good news, you don’t have to run to my office to tell me. But, if it’s bad news, you better bring it as fast as you can to give me more time to work with you and evaluate what should happen.” Norman is also careful to inform his president of any communication that he has with board members or leaders in the community. “More so than other senior administrators, the CFO often has a close working relationship with trustees,” says Norman. “If a board member calls me directly, I make sure I let my president know what the conversation was about, even if it may seem insignificant.”

For Parker, the basis for a mutually beneficial relationship with a new president boils down to three words: credibility, adaptability, and honesty. “The beginning of any new relationship,” explains Parker, “is a blank slate, so you have to first establish your credibility.” You also must be willing to adapt your management approach to align with the preferences and needs of your new president. Most importantly, says Parker, “You need to be brutally honest, so that when your president asks your opinion of a situation or of specific personnel, you say what you think, even if your assessment may be negative or critical.” It’s best to be honest right from the start and not restrict your opinions because of personal friendships or other factors. If your president follows up and then comes back and tells you that you’re wrong, your credibility is gone, says Parker. “Honesty is always the best policy.”

KATHERINE L. GEORGE is president of Catalina Communications, Fredericksburg, Virginia. KARLA HIGNITE, principal of KH Communication, Tacoma, Washington, is senior editor of Business Officer.