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Back Story

Balancing Work With Life

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Her role as a busy professional and mother of two boys leaves scant time for Gina M. Cregg to pursue hobbies, let alone pick up the saxophone that she played all through her teen years.

I used to be a professional musician, she says. “I played saxophone and sang in a country western band with my family. I started when I was 11 years old and continued for 15 years.”

But that was a long time ago.

Now, Cregg spends her days—and sometimes her nights—finding financial solutions for the University of Kansas Office of Research, where she was just promoted to the executive director of fiscal affairs, and at the KU Center for Research Inc., where she is now the CFO.

Prior to joining KU Research, Cregg was the senior associate director for KU Continuing Education, an entrepreneurial professional education organization at the university.

KU has undergone fairly large transformations in the past several years. It’s one thing to change procedures, but how do you change the culture?

When dealing with cultural change, you have to have buy-in. It’s important to communicate information so that people understand why the change is necessary and its long-term benefits. Getting people involved is the key.

How does KU Research operate within the broader sense of the university mission, and how has your background prepared you for this role? 

KU Research is an affiliated corporation that is responsible for research compliance issues and is also an entrepreneurial business organization. Within KU Research, we feel the constant give-and-take between the management controls instituted for compliance and the demand to be financially innovative. We are always competing for funding and working with industry leaders to engage them in university research.

Having experience with organizational changes, and having developed professional educational programs for the industry, has helped me to adequately respond to the demands of this job. Moreover, previous experience has given me the ability to see how the mission of KU Research fits into the larger mission of the university.

You’ve now been promoted six times in 16 years at KU. What strengths do you offer the institution?

I view myself as a change agent. I tend to keep my hand on the pulse of the university and corporate management, and I exploit the opportunities to ensure that KU Research remains relevant. My focus is always on what’s next and determining the organization’s needs to prepare for the future. This is a trait that I learned from my father.

I try to help my team to understand that we are one part of the whole and how we all fit into the overarching goals. One of my responsibilities is sharing knowledge so that they can be prepared to become the next level of leaders.

An aerial view of the historic east district of the KU Lawrence campus, showing Jayhawk Boulevard with Spooner Hall, Fraser Hall, and Dyche Hall (clockwise in foreground from lower left).

How would you describe your personality?

Given my accounting background, it is not surprising that I’m analytical and logical in how I approach things. However, from my experience with developing educational programs, I am also creative and innovative. I like to plan and prepare, so that it’s easier to endure during the tough times.

What’s the biggest change that you have seen in your field?

Efficiencies. As budgets get tighter, universities are expected to be much more efficient. We are challenged to be more creative in how we use our administration resources. Since it’s difficult to make cuts in academic programs, most of them occur in administrative support, which challenges us to be more creative with our resources and find initiatives that make us more efficient.

Also, technology drives so many of the processes that we do on a daily basis. Benchmarks and metrics are essential to support decisions. One of the biggest challenges is obtaining data compiled in ways that allow you to easily review information, especially when you need to make pertinent decisions.

Describe an important professional lesson that you have learned.

When you’re faced with making a decision, obtain input from the various stakeholders. Sometimes we rush through options without getting enough input to fully understand the situation and its ramifications. It’s important to slow down and make thoughtful and informed decisions.

What if you disagree with the input? What then?

I try to understand why we disagree. Maybe I’m looking at the issue from a different perspective. We all have different frames of reference in how we approach a problem. I try to understand where the various stakeholders are coming from so that we can have a win/win outcome, and we can both walk away from the process feeling good about the end result. That’s not always possible, but we should strive for that.

Any personal challenges?

I grew up in western Kansas in a family of six girls. My parents did not have a higher education background. When I wanted to go to college, it was kind of unheard of at the time. I worked my way through college to earn both my bachelor’s and master’s degrees.

Also, as a single mother of two active boys, ages 11 and 15, that presents its own set of challenges.

Explain a significant risk that you have taken sometime during your career.

I have always been in central administration, first working for the State of Kansas and then here at the university. I realized that I needed to get outside of the central office and obtain a different perspective, so I left the comptroller’s office and moved into the continuing education department, which was removed from the central activity.

At times, I was on the periphery of what was going on financially at the university. It was a bit of a risk, but the decision has paid off. I have since learned so much about business and organizational management skills. By serving in positions such as chief operating officer and director of professional educational programs in continuing education, I was able to experience an entrepreneurial atmosphere within the university that did not exist in the central administration.

I am also very appreciative of the mentors and opportunities that I have had along the way. I am in the position I am now because of them.

What is the best business advice that you have ever received?

Keep your eye on the mission. Solutions may not fit the standard process or they may differ from approaches that were used in the past. However, being creative allows us to complete the mission, while staying in compliance. I challenge my staff to be creative and think outside the box.

How do you unwind from the pressures of the job?

I love to travel and go on new adventures with my sons, it re-energizes me.

We enjoy everything from amusement parks (Walt Disney World is one of our favorites) to museums to national parks. When my boys were young, we would explore new places and learn about history and nature. They love getting involved with trip planning, and they enjoy researching the areas we want to visit next. Their excitement about our vacations inspires and renews me.

With all that you do, how do you manage the work/life balance issue?

Probably not very well. Outside of work, I’m very active in my sons’ Boy Scouts, sporting, and extracurricular activities. In the evenings, I do find myself catching up on e-mail. Technology certainly has made it possible to do more at all hours.

However, I try to never sacrifice my family time unnecessarily. I do also enjoy the work that I do, and I feel an obligation to my organization and my staff.

Being an active mother while having a demanding professional career creates some work/life balance challenges. I have not yet discovered the solution to finding the right mix; however, enjoying what I do with both my family and work drives me forward.

MARGO VANOVER PORTER, Locust Grove, Va., covers higher education business issues for Business Officer.