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Business Officer Magazine

A Professional Sharp Turn

Steering from the corporate sector toward higher education represents an unconventional career path. Several trailblazers tell what they’ve learned from the work culture differences they’ve encountered.

By Anna Jackson

In this article, individuals who recently transitioned to higher education recall what happened at the fork in the road and how it has made all the difference.

Serendipity and Synchronicity

The business sector has its appeal: strong career growth potential, high salaries, and an environment driven by competition. Yet, a transition to higher education can provide more of the stability that’s sacrificed in business, doing so without compromising the potential for challenge and fulfillment. For some, the transition is serendipitous.

William Duncan worked for Wachovia Bank in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, for more than 20 years. He served as chief financial officer of the Treasury Services Division in the corporate branch of the bank, transferred to Atlanta for several years, and had returned to North Carolina when Wachovia was acquired by First Union. When First Union’s corporate headquarters relocated to Charlotte, Duncan elected not to make the move. He notes, “Because I was relatively senior at the bank, finding a comparable position in the local market was a challenge.”

The next step for Duncan was director of administration at Centenary United Methodist Church in Winston-Salem. Several years later, a colleague at the church encouraged Duncan to meet with the recently appointed president of nearby High Point University, who was leading a dramatic transformation of the institution. Duncan jokes that the introduction was a case of divine intervention. Nine days after meeting with the president, Duncan was offered a position he didn’t know existed—that of chief financial officer. A year later, Duncan calls his new role “the highlight of my entire professional career.”

Synchronicity brought Sue Redman to higher education. After 19 years as an audit partner with PricewaterhouseCoopers, she moved on to a publicly traded pharmacy benefit company, AdvancePCS. For five years, Redman served as the vice president of finance and corporate controller. The same day it was publicly announced that AdvancePCS was being acquired by one of its major competitors, a former colleague told Redman about a position at Texas A&M University-College Station. With no background in higher education, government, or nonprofits, Redman wondered: “Why would I go? And why would they want me?” She decided not to apply, but her colleague persisted and Redman relented. In February 2004, she joined the university as senior vice president and chief financial officer. Redman is pleased with her transition, especially the “warm environment.” She recalls, “I felt welcomed immediately.”

Accounting Is Accounting

While some aspects of a job may differ substantially depending on the sector served, many day-to-day functions are transferable. Individuals making the switch from companies to colleges and universities may encounter a new nomenclature, but in turn they often contribute valuable experience with issues that haven’t yet fully affected higher education. One area in particular where this is the case is Sarbanes-Oxley compliance.

Sarah Garcia believes that one reason she was selected for the controller position at North Idaho College in Coeur d’Alene three years ago was her public sector accounting background. Garcia had worked for several high-tech corporations and sought a career change when she grew worried that she might be laid off. She wanted to work someplace where she could help people, and she had knowledge of higher education since both of her parents worked at community colleges. Because Garcia was already aware of the impacts of Sarbanes-Oxley, she was able to prepare the college for new guidelines and its first audit following the implementation of GASB 34 and 35.

At the same time, Garcia faced the challenge of adjusting to a fund method of accounting and learning many new rules. And as she learned about government funding and student financial aid, she was surprised by the complexity of the college’s accounting process. While Garcia describes the first two years of her transition as difficult, she now characterizes the move as one of the best she’s ever made. At times, Garcia had to trust her accounting background and remember that, regardless of her position, she is charged with fiscal responsibility. “Sometimes you have to take the attitude: Accounting is accounting,” she says. “You just follow the same rules in a new situation.”

Matthew Hall brought a varied background to his current position at Vanderbilt University in Nashville. He’d spent more than a decade in various positions in technology and global corporate investment at Bank of America, broken by a stint with the Petroleum Trading Group at Koch Industries. Hall was content at the bank, but a long-standing desire to work in higher education ultimately prompted his move to Vanderbilt. He was able to leverage his background to compete for the position of assistant vice chancellor for information technology services and associate chief information architect for enterprise infrastructure. Since taking the job at Vanderbilt in April 2004, Hall says that his basic functions are “absolutely comparable” to those in his previous positions.

Friends Who Know Your Transition Pain

Changing work worlds may require a new support network. Sue Redman says her former colleagues were of no real help to her professionally when she joined Texas A&M as senior vice president and chief financial officer. Thankfully Redman was introduced to the CFO at the University of Texas, Austin, who had made a similar transition two years before. Having a colleague in a comparable situation has been helpful for both and has provided a good support structure, she says.

Sarah Garcia has benefited from an understanding boss and good training from the incumbent controller at North Idaho College. She also has a friend who made a similar transition who mentored her during the interview process. Although Garcia has not done as much networking as she would like, she has attended WACUBO conferences, participated in listservers, and visited other institutions to learn from their experiences.

Richard Waksman, Mercy College vice president for finance and administration, likewise attends conferences and participates in a CFO listserver. Waksman knows that networking opportunities have been an important element of his transition and advises other professionals who are transitioning to higher education to try to understand how management operates and to be prepared for major culture shock.

According to Hall, expectations for a higher education administrator and a corporate professional are similar. He has been challenged to grow professionally while at Vanderbilt and has been impressed by the caliber of his university colleagues, who do the same quality of work as his co-workers at Bank of America, if not better, he says. In many corporate situations, says Hall, some employees live year to year, remaining at a job if they receive a bonus and moving on if they don’t. He believes the tendency for people to stay put in higher education jobs for longer periods creates a different atmosphere in terms of conflict resolution. As one colleague summed up the difference: “Folks in higher education are of the mindset that they will be living here for 10 to 20 years. It’s like a family; people are here for the long haul.”

Richard Waksman knows something about longevity. He enjoyed an extensive corporate career before moving to higher education, working for more than 30 years in finance at IBM, including serving as chief financial officer of IBM Consulting. Waksman then became CFO at a start-up company that went out of business a year later. With years of experience as an adjunct professor under his belt, Waksman began his job search again, this time focused on nonprofits--higher education in particular. About a year ago, he joined Mercy College, Dobbs Ferry, New York, as vice president for finance and administration.

While Waksman was warned that the method of accounting would be quite different in higher education, this has proven less problematic than he expected. He argues that the differences between working in a nonprofit and a for-profit organization are often greatly exaggerated. The overarching structure may differ, but the day-to-day financial functions of running a business or an institution are more similar than many believe, he says. Waksman encourages higher education leaders to expand job searches to individuals with nonacademic backgrounds because he believes there is little risk that such an individual will not know how to do the job. People should focus less on the structural differences and more on the work culture differences, suggests Waksman: “It’s the non-accounting aspects that are difficult to adjust to.”

The Great Divide: Decision Making

One significant cultural divide that many who made the transition note is the organizational decision-making process. The slower pace on campus may alarm individuals who are accustomed to corporate urgency. Also surprising may be the number of individuals who want, or expect, to be involved in routine decisions.

According to Hall, within Bank of America’s structure, key corporate decisions were made by a small group of people and others were charged with executing decisions, not debating policy. Things are much different at Vanderbilt, says Hall, who believes the more hands-on decision-making approach of higher education has actually helped his career. “I’m a much better manager today than I ever was in my corporate positions. In executing a policy directive, I must bring people in and explain why a change needs to be done.”

At High Point, Duncan is one of several vice presidents who report directly to the president. By contrast, at Wachovia, multiple layers of reporting occurred above Duncan even though he was in an upper-middle-management position. While the reporting structure at the university is more simplified, it is not without its challenges. Duncan notes that, as in other academic settings, faculty and staff positions are not considered equal. Working through the decision-making process with each group can be quite different. While not eager to challenge the tradition of faculty status, Duncan does strive to work with all employees—faculty and staff—in a consistent manner.  

Waksman describes his transition to higher education as a “dramatic change, with culture shock on a daily basis.” Even with years of experience as an adjunct professor at another institution, Waksman says the concept of shared governance was a radical difference and recalls his first meeting with the faculty senate as being very strange for someone with his background. The need for consensus at Mercy differs from the essentially bureaucratic system Waksman faced at IBM. He’s also had to adjust to an involved board of directors, which can be disruptive at times. “At Mercy, we have a very active board. It is not unusual for a board member to call a mid-management employee. At IBM, this never would have happened.”

What About a Government Switch?

After serving as secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources for nearly two years, Darrell Bazzell found himself out of a job in 2003 when the governor’s seat changed political parties. Bazzell’s government career consisted of 18 years in various positions with the state of Wisconsin, including as deputy secretary of the Department of Natural Resources and a position with dual roles at the Department of Agriculture.

Bazzell’s foray into higher education came when university administrators at the University of Wisconsin-Madison asked him to apply for the position of vice chancellor for administration. He says that many aspects of his transition have been smooth because of his knowledge of the inner workings of state government. Even so, the ways that universities and states make decisions are radically different, particularly because of the dynamics of shared governance and entities at the institution that have veto authority, says Bazzell. “It’s much more challenging to enact change at the university,” he says; “you can’t just mandate it.”

These opposing decision-making mindsets are, in part, a result of different cultures, notes Bazzell. The hierarchical structure of state government typically does not allow for engaging multiple employees in decision-making processes. “At the university, when we get directions, the first reaction is to question, then resist,” he says. Bazzell appreciates how the university’s structure fosters creative thinking about ways to adhere to state policies.

One project that highlights the university’s collaborative decision-making process and takes advantage of Bazzell’s policy experience centers on a topic close to his heart: job security. Bazzell recently convened a group of campus representatives to address how to reshape the use of limited-term employee appointments and develop a long-term strategy for converting some LTE appointments to full-time positions. The university sought input from the campus community and has plans to reach out to city and state groups for feedback—further utilizing Bazzell’s experience and connections from his former career.

An analogy helps Redman grapple with the different approach to decision making at Texas A&M versus her corporate background, where decision-making processes were established and the players clearly defined. Shortly after her transition to the Texas institution, she had lunch with the university president, who was also new to higher education. The decision-making process of shared governance is like a swamp, Redman’s president told her. It does not represent the most efficient way to travel, and there are friends and foes along the way, but it is necessary to forge through the swamp before reaching a decision. Redman admits that she still has difficulty at times fully understanding the concept of shared governance. She advises others to take time to corroborate and gain consensus while developing solid relationships with the provost and speaker of the faculty senate. “One thing I’ve definitely learned,” Redman says: “The end never justifies the means. It’s all about the process.”

An Alternate Timetable

At most corporations, processes are inherently centered on cost-efficiency, time-efficiency, and returning shareholder value. With an approach driven more by the concept that “time is money,” individuals with a corporate background find that their sense of timing changes upon entering a profession in higher education, where a higher rate of participation in the decision-making process inevitably slows the process, as do pressures brought about by an academic calendar versus a financial one.

At PricewaterhouseCoopers, one of Redman’s core competencies was based on a sense of urgency. She has since had to recalibrate what she considers timely. Her attempts to balance the slower process-driven environment of higher education with the timeliness of the results-driven corporate world is evident in meetings, where Redman finds herself asking participants, “When?” She has also tried to bring more structure about time commitments to some of the work processes at the university.

Hall echoes the sentiment that the speed-to-execution time at institutions is noticeably slower than at corporations. Whereas he was accustomed to policy decisions that could be enacted a week after development at Bank of America, at Vanderbilt the time it takes to get a policy decision implemented can be 6 to 12 months. On occasion things do move more quickly. Shortly after joining the university, Hall realized that one router supported the university’s large telecommunications network. He received support from his CFO to upgrade the system and recommended a security scan for the campus, which had never been done. He was shocked by the amount of time and consensus needed to put the policy in place. “It was a six- to eight-week process, which was very quick for Vanderbilt but it was a painfully long time by corporate standards,” says Hall.

Joining the Team

No matter the time frame for achieving results, corporate transplants have found teamwork essential for implementing change. Shortly after Duncan arrived at High Point, he learned an important lesson after diving into the middle of a project. “I did it out of enthusiasm,” Duncan explains. “But it was not necessarily perceived in the same way.” He had not yet earned his “right to be involved,” says Duncan. In addition, Duncan says that because he does not have a background in academics, some faculty members were initially hesitant about him. He has since learned to approach issues in a different manner. “I try not to come in with too many preconceived notions,” he says. “I try to approach everything in a collegial manner.” That can be difficult at times. After decades at a bank where the emphasis was to constantly improve, Duncan says that he has noticed a potential tendency in higher education to stick with the status quo. Like others, Duncan has learned that if you take the time to first engage individuals, even the status quo can be changed.

That has held true for Redman. She has managed to initiate changes to institutional business processes since joining Texas A&M, including some critical modifications of succession planning. Because many of her colleagues have been in their positions for a long time, the university is very people-dependent, says Redman. As a result, she found that some staff were not fully aware of the duties of a retiring colleague who had worked at the university for more than 30 years. While she believes that some perceive her as pushing hard for change, she has tried to make others aware of the importance behind implementing certain changes.

Garcia has made headway in that arena. When she arrived at North Idaho College, the institution was implementing a new software system for student records. Because she brought to her position previous experience with multiple systems integration projects, she jumped in to help. Garcia’s approach to solving problems, getting processes moving, and finding ways to provide tools that people need in order to proceed has surprised and ingratiated some of her institutional colleagues. “The way I see it, we’re all in this together,” she says.

Enacting change at Mercy College has been one of the most rewarding aspects of Waksman’s career. He absorbed a plethora of ideas and proposals at IBM that have proven useful at the college. At IBM, his chances of seeing a proposal implemented were 1,000 to 1. Now, for the first time in his career, he can see his ideas implemented, even if the process takes time. Overall, Waksman says he has encountered little resistance from colleagues at Mercy, who have been very receptive to his contributions to policy and procedure proposals.

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Hall has enhanced the reception of his ideas by following through on what seemed an intimidating suggestion.  When he arrived at Vanderbilt, Hall was presented with a list of 184 people at the university he should meet. While the task seemed overwhelming, it was enormously useful, Hall believes. He has learned that his success in enacting change depends on the comfort level of his colleagues. “Familiarity breeds contentment,” notes Hall. “You must establish good, long-term relationships to establish trust.”

Hall believes that the university’s culture is similar to other institutions’ and says that learning to navigate social buy-in is a necessity. His advice: Get to know as many people as possible, attend as many meetings as you can, and strive not to come off as arrogant.

Cutting a Trail

While most higher education administrators may continue to come up through the ranks, a college or university can benefit from bringing in the fresh perspective of someone from a different background. It appears certain that more people will be entering higher education positions through nontraditional avenues. A 2004 study of the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics found that baby boomers on average held more than 10 jobs between the ages of 18 and 38. Today’s graduates are frequently given similar statistics about the number of careers to expect within a lifetime.

As the “transplants” interviewed for this article can attest, such transitions may invite significant growing pains for individuals and institutions alike. Duncan recommends that those making the transition from the corporate sector approach their new position without preconceived notions. “The best opportunity for success is by being totally open to being inundated with a variety of projects,” he says. In the end, individuals just entering higher education should treat their new position like any other job by learning about the institution, its people, and the rules, says Garcia. Redman emphasizes patience. Get to know students, and take advantage of the wonderful learning environment that working at a higher education institution affords, she says.

Understanding key cultural differences will give external recruits a leg up in higher education and help them appreciate the rich complexity of their new roles. Ultimately, colleges and universities can also reap the rewards of an outsider’s experiences and help turn this road less traveled into a more established route for future generations of institutional leaders.

ANNA JACKSON, Chicago, covers higher education business issues for Business Officer.