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Fostering Strong Teams and Seeking Challenges: Katie Walker


[Kara] Hello and welcome to Career Conversations, a podcast from the National Association of College and University Business Officers. I’m Kara Freeman, president and CEO of NACUBO, and I’d like to thank you for listening. In each episode, you’ll hear higher education professionals share their personal experiences, career advice, and nuggets of wisdom. You can find resources for today’s episode, as well as a wide variety of research and tools, at

[Christine] Thanks for tuning in to Career Conversations. I’m Christine Simone, your show host and NACUBO’s director of leadership development. I’m so excited to be here today with Katie Walker, assistant vice president, Financial Planning and Analysis, at the University of Virginia. Welcome, Katie.

[Katie] Thank you, Christine. Nice to be here this morning.

[Christine] Yeah, this is so great. So, I have actually had multiple people recommend you for this show, so I'm very excited to be sitting down with you today to hear some of your career path and how you ended up at University of Virginia. Would you share some of that with us?

[Katie] Undergraduate me, we all work in higher ed, so if you think of undergraduate me would've never guessed that I would be here today. So, I grew up in Phoenix, Arizona, went to Arizona State in hometown, enjoyed my time at Arizona State and majored in history, anthropology, and got a minor in geography. So here I am in higher ed budget and finance now. So, I guess the path in between was really interesting. I kind of always knew that I wanted to work in higher education. There was something about it that I really liked. Had no idea despite interacting with any number of people in undergraduate education that there are a whole lot of roles. There's a whole myriad of job possibilities in higher education. So, I thought the only way to be in higher education is to be a faculty member and so therefore you need a PhD to be a faculty member. But a lot of PhD programs wanted you to have a master's degree and so I actually did my undergraduate thesis on the history of education, so I decided to go get a master's in teaching and given my emphasis on history, got it in social studies, did my student teaching and ended up getting hired not by a school division, but by the School of Education at University of Virginia, worked in their outreach programs. That was my first foray into budgeting. It's where in an outreach program you're very focused on do we have the right course sizes? Are we opening and closing courses? Do we have the staffing available for those courses? What's the budget available for hiring adjuncts or hiring a part-time faculty member or hiring another full-time faculty member? And that's when I got into the data behind the budget and eventually made my way into the budget in the school of education. I've been fortunate to reside there ever since.

[Christine] That's so interesting. What a unique start and path to get where you are now as you took that path through. What are some of the things that maybe surprised or delighted you about your switch to higher ed? You said that you really always thought that you would enjoy something like that. Is there anything that stood out to you as you really got to dig in a little bit deeper?

[Katie] Maybe the biggest thing is there's so much good work to be done. There's work available in higher education that is people focused, that is data focused, that is for anyone who's really interested in the work of the heart or the work of the mind. I mean, there's all different types of jobs that can go across that whole spectrum. And because of that, you get to work with really interesting people all day every day. Institutions are also generally pretty large too. So you're interacting with a lot of people and I think the best part is you're interacting with a lot of people who really care about the work of the institution. For most people, at least most people I've interacted with, this doesn't seem to be just we're there to punch the clock. There's relationships inherent in the work we do.

[Christine] You've had to make a shift obviously from where you started focus wise within academia. What are some things that helped you to really focus in on the business aspect?

[Katie] I think the biggest thing for me was just the ability to explore in the data. We have endless data in higher education, and it's all really interconnected and at the end of the day, it's all connected to a dollar, whether it's a student enrollment, whether it's pay information for a faculty or staff member, at the end of the day there's a dollar connected to it. I was lucky that I was given access to the data and the time to explore in it. And that's really where you come up with the insights and you can help shape the strategy of your department or your institution. The other thing that's been really helpful along the way is the opportunity to take advantage of professional development, both offered by my institution as well as organizations that operate in higher education like NACUBO, because those opportunities give you the chance to learn not just about what other people do, but about the content that's relevant to your work. So, you build your network and you better understand how to do your day-to-day work. So, some of those opportunities include leadership development, but they also include, I was able to get my PhD while I was working so you can actually get additional credentials as well as really build those connections with the people you work with.

[Christine] Since you mentioned some of those additional opportunities and your rise, I want to take this opportunity to congratulate you on a recent award that you received this past year NACUBOs Rising Star Award. So that's really a wonderful accomplishment. Congratulations to you on that. Sounds very well deserved.

[Katie] Thank you. I was very pleasantly surprised and honored and it was great to go celebrate with colleagues and with friends at NACUBUO at the annual meeting last year.

[Christine] You mentioned the opportunity to get your PhD. Can you tell me a little bit about what that dissertation topic was?

[Katie] The best part about a PhD is you're going to take a lot of courses, meet a lot of people, there's a whole lot of credits involved, so you're going to take a lot of content, but at the end, for good or for bad, you're on your own and you're going to write your dissertation. And so, I had the opportunity as I was coming up through the PhD program, the University of Virginia was implementing an RCM responsibility-based budget model, and I decided that was what I wanted to focus my dissertation on. So, what I actually wrote on was picked a sample of institutions that had recently implemented our CM budget models, looked at the materials they published and what they said their model was, and then actually surveyed hundreds of members of their institutions about did you actually do it? And what was interesting is we struggle implementing those types of budget models, and there were quite a few people who either didn't know about it at all or knew about it and didn't think that it was accomplished. And so, it's an interesting story if you're pursuing a budget model implementation is how are you going to be sure you actually did what you thought?

[Christine] A very timely topic still too. I think that's something that institutions are going to continue to investigate and deal with, particularly in the change management aspect, but also as it applies to the budget models. So, what would you recommend for institutions that might be looking to implement a budget model? It sounds like you probably have some outcomes that you would recommend based on your research. What would you recommend to them?

[Katie] I think the hardest part is figuring out why are we doing this in the first place and connecting the why to how we're going to do it. A lot of times we all look to each other and that's great. There's a lot of examples out in the marketplace, but ultimately the budget model needs to work for each individual institution, both where they're situated in the market as well as where they want to go. And that's the hardest part because you're trying to predict behavior and potentially predict behavior in a very decentralized environment and do it through financial incentives, but also say that our finances don't drive our strategy. So, it's a really tough balance and I think the best way to do it is to ensure that leadership, including academic leadership are plugged in throughout the process, have a good understanding of it, and that everyone is being flexible in their approach to meet the desired ends.

[Christine] I want to pivot maybe a little bit and talk a little bit about some leadership. You obviously supervise in your current role. I know that you've supervised previously. I told you before we started recording that I had the opportunity to meet some of your former supervisees who had recommended that you be on this show. And one of the things that they talked about in recommending that I get you on is the way that you built trust among a team and really made people feel included. So, a compliment to your leadership approach, but could you tell us a little bit about how you build that rapport and maybe what some of the real key tenets of your leadership style are?

[Katie] I think for good or for bad, a team member would say they always know where they stand with me and I try to foster high performing teams. So, in general, that means that they know they're doing really well. It makes it a little tougher if there's some performance issues, but at the end of the day, everyone knows where they stand. And I also try to communicate as much information as possible to my team on a regular basis. To the extent that I miss, I let 'em know that was my miss. And I think that makes them feel like that they're included, that they have enough information to do the work that they need to do. I think the big thing for me, and it's a lesson learned over time too, is everyone contributed to the project. And so ensuring that they know what the outcomes were at the very end, even if they were only involved in the middle or the beginning of the project, is really helpful and making sure that they get that recognition that, by the way, thank you Christine, for producing this great analysis when we send it along to the president and that ensures that that person feels like they're known and they were recognized. I think those have been the most helpful. And at the end of the day, CCing people on emails is not a difficult thing, but it keeps them apprised of what's going on. So, thinking about those little things constantly.

[Christine] Are there mentors you've had along the way that helped shape some of that approach too?

[Katie] I think so. There's always good and bad examples throughout your career, and I think just trying to pull the good from the good and stay away from the bad when there's a lesson learned. But really what I think my mentors have given to me the most is trying to make me feel like it's a comfortable place to say yes to a lot of things because that's when the doors really open. Also coaching me on when it's better to say no so that I don't get overburdened but being open to saying yes to things. And that's probably what's led me most to where I am today, is just feeling like, yes, I can do that. Yes, I would like to have that conversation, yes, put me on this thing that I have no idea how to do, but I'll figure it out because I'm now in charge of it. And that's been very helpful.

[Christine] So now that you've taken some time to reflect, what is it that you really want to make sure that you leave our listeners with? Is there an important note or a bit of advice? What do you want to make sure they definitely take away your story?

[Katie] I think the biggest thing for me is giving yourself the opportunity to grow. And sometimes it's going to feel uncomfortable. As I said, maybe you're assigned a project that you have no idea how to approach, and that's where you either leverage your networks or you start creating some networks to help you figure out the way forward. But I think it's also, and I shared this when I was receiving that Rising Star Award, it's getting comfortable with living in gray areas because those gray areas are where you're stretched just a little beyond maybe your comfort zone, and that's when you actually learn and you grow. But if you just stick to what you know all the time, you're not learning anything new. There's a world out there to know. And often higher ed is a bit behind other industries, so we're playing catch up. There's plenty to do. So, I would encourage people to just seek small or large challenges every day in their work.

[Christine] That's a great takeaway to leave us on. I really appreciate that. Katie, thank you so much for being on Career Conversations.

[Katie] Thank you. This was a pleasure.

[Christine] Career Conversations is a production of the National Association of College and University Business Officers. Audio engineering by Andy Nelson and TruStory FM. Music by Alon Peretz. Post-production support by Jenelle Dembsey. And I'm your host, Christine Simone. Thanks for joining this conversation. We'll see you next time.



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