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Gained in Translation

Backgrounds and roles of chief financial and chief academic officers create distinct perspectives for each that are often hard for the other to interpret. Collaboration can help.

By Susan Jurow and Marlene Ross

The e-mail marketing piece read: “At no time in the recent history of higher education has the relationship between the chief academic officer (CAO) and the chief financial officer (CFO) mattered more. These two key campus leaders must help their institution steer a course through an unpredictable economic environment while advancing the core mission. Together, they must seek ways to be financially prudent while taking advantage of the opportunities for innovation that present themselves during such challenging times. These individuals who must work so closely together often come from different backgrounds, have different experiences, and have different understandings of the levers and limits of their jobs. In many ways, they speak different languages. As a result, they often find themselves face-to-face trying to bridge different cultures.”

This message highlighted the compelling issues that motivated the American Council on Education (ACE) and the National Association of College and University Business Officers (NACUBO), both located in Washington, D.C., to develop a special program to bring together teams of senior administrators to discuss the challenges they face on campus and in dealing with each other. ACE and NACUBO leadership began initial discussions in 2007, well before the current financial crisis began to emerge. The unfolding economic and financial events of 2008 clearly added to the relevance of the subsequent program, “The CAO/CFO Collaboration: Building an Effective Partnership,” held in late summer 2008. Since then, further urgency has called for CAOs and CFOs to pool their talents and skills to deal with what have become campuswide and nationwide issues affecting daily and long-term operations and strategies.

The program, which was developed collaboratively by ACE and NACUBO senior program staff, opened with a presentation on the importance of communication as a tool to better align differing perceptions. Because institution presidents play a key role in the relationship between the CAO and CFO, a panel of presidents was invited both to comment on their relationship with these two key lieutenants and to focus attention on the critical challenges that these leaders need to address for contemporary colleges and universities to survive and thrive.

The remainder of the program was devoted to candid conversations between CAOs and CFOs about their perceptions, expectations, needs, and requirements of each other and the articulation of strategies to improve their ability to work together. A team of four CAOs and CFOs served as facilitators of these discussions. Thirty-six attendees from all types and sizes of institutions participated.

Cultural Context

In his presentation “CFOs and CAOs: Common Goals, Uncommon Cultures,” Charles R. Bantz, chancellor of Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis and an accomplished scholar in the field of communication, set the context of the program by explaining the similarities and differences of experience, responsibility, and expectation that create the respective and distinctive “cultures” in which the CAO and CFO live.

Although both are employed by the same institution and work to improve the educational experience of students, CAOs and CFOs often view the world through different lenses and therefore may have varying approaches to the problems that confront their college or university. They can have different goals and frequently use different language to describe a situation that they face in common.

One has only to look at their educational backgrounds and preparation for their work, noted Bantz, to understand why.

CAOs come almost exclusively from the faculty ranks. They understand the institution from the perspective of one who has studied a discipline, conducted research, and taught. The drive to support these activities is central and paramount. Shared governance as an approach to management is a value and core belief. At the same time, CAOs may be unlike their faculty colleagues in their more nuanced understanding of higher education as an industry and their expectations of the institution in fulfilling their aspirations. The latter thinking arises because the CAO position is more likely to be the path to becoming a college or university president.

Career paths of CFOs are more varied. Finance professionals may have risen through the ranks of college or university business offices or served in a business or financial capacity outside higher education. Anecdotal evidence shows that this second path is becoming more prevalent. Those who come to the CFO position from other industries are most likely to have worked in a public agency or for a public accounting firm, although many come from other not-for-profit organizations or banking. A CFO's concept of administration is likely to be pragmatic and grounded in traditional management theory.

Clearly, misunderstandings can easily occur if CAO-CFO partners are not able to explore concerns in ways that acknowledge and appreciate these many variations in background and perspective. Underscoring the differences that often divide the two roles, CAOs at a recent ACE program, “The Institute for New Chief Academic Officers,” indicated that their most challenging relationship is with the chief financial officer.

Learning a Second Language

Digging deeper into the differences resulting from background and role, Bantz suggested a framework for consideration of the issues involved in communicating across cultures—in the case of this audience, the academic and the business and financial environments that the CAO and CFO represent. He provided attendees insights from his book, Understanding Organizations: Interpreting Organizational Communication Cultures (University of South Carolina Press, 1993), as a way to visualize and understand the elements of the respective cultures. Bantz also invited participants to look at the institutional “messages” they convey and receive every day and to consider how the institution's expectations of them might differ.

Based on Bantz's study of a number of research reports, he observed that the CAO-CFO populations were quite similar in demographic terms, primarily white males in their 50s. CFOs tend to have been in their positions longer than their CAO colleagues. He pointed out that these two individuals spend their days looking at different materials. CAOs are reading research articles and scholarly books, reviewing grants budgets, and preparing for periodic talks with the board of trustees about academic affairs. CFOs, on the other hand, are more likely to be looking at accounting and audit reports, reviewing institutional budgets, and speaking about fiscal matters with the board of trustees. The focus and vocabulary of meetings the two officers attend will be, for the most part, quite different.

Bantz divided institutional expectations into three parts—norms, roles, and agendas—and contrasted them for the two roles (see figure for key points).

He emphasized the importance of understanding differing expectations, pointing out that unmet expectations are often what lead to our disappointment with others. Bantz urged attendees to consider what they anticipate as appropriate behavior or as differential rights and responsibilities for themselves and their counterparts. He suggested they reflect, for example, on what they think is appropriate in terms of how time is accounted for and structured, and how people should interact with each other. Bantz believes that these key issues are often at the root of organizational misunderstandings. (See sidebar, “Culture Cues,” for Bantz's advice on ways to interpret the cultural context of counterparts.)

Discussions among participants about bridging differences in cultures and expectations brought out the importance of open and steady communication between CFO and CAO. While formal communication mechanisms are essential, informal forms of verbal interaction play a critical role. Conversations in a casual environment, over breakfast or lunch for example, help to build a solid foundation for relationships. One participant observed that it's rather telling if you only talk with each other when there's a problem.

Culture Cues

Author of Understanding Organizations: Interpreting Organizational Communication Cultures (University of South Carolina Press, 1993), Charles R. Bantz, chancellor, Indiana UniversityÐPurdue University Indianapolis, suggests that leaders from different disciplines can get past some of their cultural incompatibilities by listening and learning. In the recent conference, “The CAO/CFO Collaboration: Building an Effective Partnership,” sponsored by the American Council on Education (ACE) and the National Association of College and University Business Officers (NACUBO), Bantz offered some specific actions leaders can take to work better together.

To understand the perspective of others whom you believe operate from a different cultural context, Bantz suggested that you listen carefully and watch for visual cues, analyze what you are seeing and hearing, and try to infer the underlying beliefs and norms. He suggested that conference attendees try the following:

  • Look at what topics are repeated.
  • Listen to what people complain about.
  • Record particular vocabulary.
  • Note the time frame that anchors the individual's work.
  • Notice what is emphasized in documents.
  • Pay attention to how arguments are structured.
  • Watch how the individual structures his or her environment.

Two Voices, One To-Do List

It's the institution president who is tasked with getting his or her leadership team in sync to tackle the tough issues of the day. A panel of three presidents identified the biggest higher education issues and challenges that the CAO and CFO, in particular, would need to address and solve together.

Resources and accountability. William E. “Brit” Kirwan, chancellor of the University System of Maryland, Adelphi, identified resources and accountability as the top two future-focused issues based on his 13-institution system that serves more than 140,000 students. It is Kirwan's belief that “there will be even less money available to do everything we believe needs to be done for our institutions”; using tuition increases as the escape valve will no longer be a viable option. Institutions, he asserted, will have to identify priorities and focus more on cost-containment strategies to manage costs. In addition, institution leaders must be prepared to respond to the increased calls for accountability that are likely within this cost-sensitive environment.

Changing models for building institutional programs. Debbie L. Sydow, president, SUNY Onondaga Community College, Syracuse, which has 11,000 students, told the group that the traditional model for building institutional programs by accretion has become too great a burden for most colleges and universities. She noted as the top challenge for the future the need to develop and use new models to manage institutional size and growth. Constantly “planting seeds and never weeding” as a strategy for developing an institution of higher learning, said Sydow, must be replaced by a process that focuses on optimal utilization of resources for student success.

Creating greater transparency. Charles R. Middleton, president of Roosevelt University, Chicago, with 7,600 students, identified the cost issue as critical, but he approached the idea from a slightly different perspective. He said that higher education institutions need mechanisms for creating greater transparency to help the public better understand what the true costs are for providing a college education. He also believes that the issue of access will shift from “getting them in” to “getting them educated and out.”

Tutoring the Talent Team

College and university presidents have a unique perspective on the CFO-CAO dynamic. In addition to setting institution priorities, the president can help facilitate a positive working environment for the CFO and CAO—in fact, for the entire leadership team. (While this organizational culture is generally driven by a combination of the president's vision and the institution's history, CAO and CFO can often accomplish positive relationships on their own, if so inclined. For a case study on an effective partnership, see “Pillars of Trust” at www.nacubo.org/x1835.xml.)

University System of Maryland's Kirwan used the image of the “golden triangle” to describe the triad relationship of the president, the chief financial officer, and the chief academic officer. Each has a critical individual role to play in the leadership of the institution, and when they act together they provide a powerful unifying force.

That concept resonated so strongly with the participants that they returned to it repeatedly during the conference. Drawn together by their roles as the most senior and powerful leaders in their institutions, president, CFO, and CAO feel a tension, derived from their differing priorities, that simultaneously holds them together and pulls them apart. Kirwan believes that managing this tension is at the heart of a successful leadership team in higher education.

Kirwan admitted that he most understood the perspective and needs of the CAO because he himself served in that position at one time. As president, he's been inclined to give CAOs more responsibility, assisting them in meeting their own aspirations. At the same time, he has expected the CAO to be loyal to him and his presidential goals and ambitions for the institution. Kirwan thinks that the president and CFO are likely to have a less competitive relationship. His expectations of the CFO are to be creative, be on top of everything, and be willing to provide guidance that will bring the institution to the leading edge.

SUNY's Sydow told the group that she sees the job of the president within the executive team as keeping the focus on goals and mission, and facilitating and mediating as needed. Her key expectation of the CAO and CFO is that they avoid crisis management by using good planning. In her institution, the CAO has the responsibility to meet quality standards and maintain the reputation of the institution by managing facilities and the academic master plan. The CFO's role is to maintain the physical environment and ensure that the administrative master plan aligns with the academic plan. She expects the CFO and CAO to work together on resolving their differences before involving her. Her greatest challenge is to resist the urge to meddle in academic affairs. Sydow also noted that integrity is the critical element in relationships, because rebuilding trust once it has been lost is too difficult.

Roosevelt University's Middleton recognizes that it is the president who must think holistically about the organization. He or she is often knowledgeable about the widest range of operations. Middleton expects the CAO and CFO to be effective and knowledgeable leaders in their own areas, and, at the same time, capable of looking at broader purposes of the institution. He wants to see them spending more time together than with him.

Instant Application, Enhanced Communication

Soon after they attended “The CAO/CFO Collaboration: Building an Effective Partnership,” the provost and senior vice president for academic affairs, and the vice president for administration and finance for Shippensburg University of Pennsylvania, learned that the university had to set aside 4.25 percent of its current budget in preparation for returning the funds to the state. As a result, the value that the conference added for Provost Barbara Lyman and CFO Denny Terrell was situated squarely in the context of the budget cuts they faced.

Following are perspectives of this leadership pair in collaborating to meet their budget goals.

Consider the Academic Core
Timely Teachings

Advice for New Partnerships

The president's panel had lots of advice for new CAO-CFO partnerships, starting with the fact that the relationship is important to the effective functioning of the executive team, and it requires work. The discussion highlighted the following ways to get the relationship off to a good start:

Begin early to strengthen and nurture the partnership. Because trust is at the core of all successful working relationships, get to know each other on a personal level. A number of the teams at the workshop were new partners, and they said one of the most valuable aspects of the program was the opportunity to spend time together away from campus and day-to-day pressures and concerns.

Work together and look for opportunities to help each other. Make collaborative efforts visible to others on campus by cosponsoring a project, working together, and publicly complimenting each other's work in meaningful ways. Colleges and universities have a number of planning processes that would be strengthened by greater collaboration. For example, before embarking on strategic planning, the CAO, who often leads this effort, should engage and involve the CFO. Likewise, before beginning a facilities planning process, the CFO, who generally takes this on, should invite CAO input.

Find ways for each leader to talk to those who work with and for the other. Interacting with staff in the other's area helps build trust and collaboration. There are many opportunities for such cross-pollination and for being a willing translator who helps illuminate and clarify ideas and actions. It is essential that different audiences all hear the same story from both individuals. Hence, the CFO should ensure that the CAO talks to business staff to help them better understand the academic perspective, and the CAO should create similar opportunities for the CFO to talk with faculty.

Don't let egos get in the way. When a problem arises, it is critical to focus on the difficulty, not to obsess about who calls the meeting or in whose office discussions occur. Conflict is to be expected, but the senior executives in the institution must manage between themselves and not involve the president, who needs partners who know how to focus on solutions, not place blame. Leaders must also learn to admit when they are wrong, so they can clear the air and move on together.

Don't Miss This Year's Conference

An effective response to the economic crisis is dependent upon a common understanding of the situation and mutually agreed upon goals and strategies. Together, the chief academic and chief financial officer must seek ways to be financially prudent while taking advantage of the opportunities for innovation that present themselves during such challenging times. Join other CAO and CFO pairs at the “The CAO/CFO Collaboration: Working Effectively in Difficult Economic Times,” July 29-31, Washington, D.C., for guidance in forging a leadership partnership to guide collaborative decision making. For more information, visit www.nacubo.org.

Establish an environment of “no surprises.” No one is comfortable being caught off guard. The group agreed that it is important for partners to keep each other informed, regardless of whether the issue is in either's particular purview. And, when information does arise in either the CAO's or CFO's area, they will each want to hear about significant issues from their counterpart before learning of them in another way.

In concluding the conference, attendees summarized key content points on a flip chart. One of the entries captures the meeting's core message: We are all on the same team. By improving our ability to understand each other's perspective and communicate, the CAO and CFO strengthen the ability of the entire institution to perform its mission. Through our work with the faculty and the staff, together we create an organization that is able to serve all its stakeholders.

SUSAN JUROW is senior vice president, professional development, at NACUBO, and MARLENE ROSS is senior adviser, Center for Effective Leadership, American Council on Education, Washington, D.C.