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Business Officer Magazine

Insights: Candace Corvey on Human Capital

By Michele Madia

Now a senior consultant with KublerWirka Inc., Corvey advises leaders and boards of higher education and cultural institutions. Her insider’s knowledge of managing the financial and human resources of a campus makes her an ideal spokesperson on the topic of human capital challenges faced by higher education.

What do all chief business officers “get” about institutional HR concerns even when the CBO isn’t directly responsible for this function?
I think most CBOs understand that there are deeply technical aspects of HR that, if not well done, can have seriously negative financial, legal, and quality consequences. For example, some institutions are still struggling with how to classify athletics and admissions staff under the revised Fair Labor Standards Act. There are a lot of tricky issues in the benefits realm, and legal issues remain around employee relations.

How is HR best moved to the agenda of the president?
I don’t buy the argument that for HR to have the proverbial seat at the table, it has to be a cabinet-level post, although in many places that model works well. What is required is that the chief HR officer be highly respected by the president and VPs, widely viewed as a management-oriented problem solver, and seen as capable of leading complex organizational change projects.

What do you see as the central role of HR for an institution?
The fundamental business of higher education is the labor-intensive delivery of services both in and out of the classroom. Recruitment, development, and retention of high-quality faculty and staff are the name of the game.

How does higher education score in these areas?
Recently I saw an article in the Boston Business Journal about a survey conducted by Maguire Associates, a higher education consulting firm. It offered a sharp contrast between higher education, where 81 percent of presidents come from outside the institution, and the business world, where 70 to 75 percent of chief executive officers are promoted from within.

It is a bit ironic that higher education is not known for its high level of investment in the training and development of staff. Higher education in general seems not to believe the old adage that “the devil you know is better than the devil you don’t.” A fresh perspective is often good for an organization, but there is a high cost with turnover and a cultural price to pay for institutions that don’t nurture their own.

Why do institutions fail to nurture their own?
Part of the challenge is cultural. For instance, the academic arena places high value on finding the best person for a particular role from candidates throughout the nation or internationally. Internal candidates who are very strong professionals may have a hard time in a search because along their career path at the institution, they’ve had to make hard and perhaps unpopular political decisions that can linger. Someone from outside the institution doesn’t have that baggage.

At the same time, I have seen many outsiders not get a job because of lack of prior experience in higher education. I don’t have a magic solution. If preconceived notions about the value of internal versus external candidates or the value of prior higher education experience could be set aside, that might help. Certainly senior managers have an obligation to develop their people to ensure there is bench strength.

For your own professional growth, what have you learned from mentors and applied in your various roles?
That it is necessary, but not sufficient, to be very smart. The added key to truly successful leadership is the human factor—kindness, honesty, and respect for everyone in the workplace and their contributions at all levels.

What principle has guided you professionally throughout your career?
Early in my career, Tom O’Brien, who was then the financial vice president of Harvard, told me to never work for a jerk. Nothing affects your work environment more than the person who is your boss. Over time, I incorporated that advice into my own eight guidelines for career development. The other seven are: 1) don't plan too far ahead—allow for unexpected turns; 2) don't foreclose your options; 3) listen to your gut as much as your head; 4) find good career advisors and stay in touch with them; 5) if you make a major change, don't be timid about it; 6) if you make a major mistake, don't be afraid to admit it and fix it; and 7) if you work in a place where people don't laugh at least once a day, leave.

MICHELE MADIA is a senior policy analyst at NACUBO.