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Leader's Edge

Challenging Yet Rewarding

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Everything that we do as business officers matters—that’s one of the greatest lessons that I have learned from my professional life. As the senior vice president for administration and finance at California Polytechnic State University (Cal Poly), San Luis Obispo, and the former vice president for business affairs at the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP), I’ve had experiences that have helped me realize the importance of a CBO’s work and the impact that it can have on others.

Many years ago, while overseeing the student business services office at UTEP—when we still did in-person registration and payments—our system crashed during class registration. During the outage, I helped a young woman who seemed flustered as she waited with her two—seemingly restless—young children. My staff and I offered her assistance and took her phone number so that we could follow up with her. Subsequently, we were able to register her for classes over the phone. After we finished, she shared with me that she had thought about returning to school for quite some time but hadn’t had the courage. When the power outage occurred, she had begun to think it was a sign that it wasn’t the right time for her to enroll and was about to leave. If we hadn’t intervened, she would have left and might have never returned to resume her studies.

Everything that we say and do in this job has an impact, and I tell this to my staff often. Our words and actions have the potential to impact our institutions as well as those around us in significant ways.

A Passion for Higher Ed

I started at the University of Texas at El Paso when I was 27 years old. My first position was assistant director of budget and payroll, and I only expected to work at UTEP for three to five years. I worked for an extraordinary vice president who turned out to be one of the greatest mentors of my career.

His management style and mentorship inspired people to work as hard as they could because they wanted to do right by him and the team.

I also found that I loved higher education, and I went on to serve UTEP for 28 years, eventually becoming the chief business officer. After 12 years of working as the CBO and thinking about my future goals, I began considering the move to another university. When the opportunity at Cal Poly presented itself, I knew that it would be a great fit because the institution, leadership team, location, and community all felt right to me. And since being here, I have been able to fulfill the personal and professional goals that I had envisioned for myself in the next position.

Setting Priorities

Transitioning to a different institution has taught me that—while our campuses may be different in size, student demographics, and how they are funded—CBOs have many of the same challenges, no matter what institution they work for. Some persistent challenges are how to: (1) diversify revenue streams, (2) deal with diminishing state support, (3) develop capital improvement plans for campus facilities and infrastructure, (4) maintain faculty and staff retention through competitive compensation and benefit offerings, and (5) address deferred maintenance.

Many CBOs would agree that diversifying revenue streams is a strategy that we should pursue. We have to come to terms with the fact that states will not fund higher education at the same levels as they did 10–15 years ago. This is the new normal.

As CBOs learn to do more with less, finding ways to generate and diversify revenue streams is a priority. Considering public-private partnerships, maximizing opportunities through our auxiliary and commercial operations, and developing other innovative approaches are essential.

We also need to be as efficient and creative as possible within the current higher education business model. We need to challenge our own models, not only as they relate to classroom instruction, but in all aspects of service delivery and operations. We need to ensure that we are forward thinking and agile, and not entrenched in approaches that will not serve our institutions or students in the future.

Ultimately, we have to establish our priorities within the framework of institutional mission and goals.

Key Leadership Skills

These challenges and priorities, and how we respond to them, help define our success as CBOs. The issues that we need to fix on any given day are endless, and over the years I have been able to add these successful practices to my leadership toolkit.

Maintain a positive work environment. There is little that can be achieved without a strong, skilled, and motivated team. We need to prioritize talent acquisition, skills, and professional development, and create a positive work environment in which employees are inspired and motivated.

Build a network. Develop a cadre of trusted colleagues who you can call on when you want to share your frustrations, discuss problems, and brainstorm to find solutions. One of my most useful professional networks is an informal group of 15–20 business officers. We serve as a resource for one another by discussing our challenges, and sharing ideas and solutions.

On a larger scale, the NACUBO annual meeting and regional meetings offer informative and meaningful programing. Intimate conversations with a small group of trusted colleagues are also invaluable. They create opportunities for a more in-depth and detailed discussion of topics.

Find someone—or multiple people—who you trust to be your mentor. You will need guidance from others to grow as a professional and as a person. It is incredibly valuable to have those people who you know, trust, and respect who will provide you with candid counsel and feedback.

Work on interpersonal skills. Relationship-building and interpersonal skills are vital in the CBO role. Consider the following:

Do you have the emotional intelligence to understand and comprehend someone else’s perspective?

What do your interpersonal skills and relationships look like? Do you cultivate trusting relationships with your team, colleagues, leadership, and constituents across the campus? It is important to build these relationships. Our role as the CBO requires that we make hard decisions, communicate difficult news, and challenge the status quo. Our effectiveness will be limited if we have not developed a level of trust and respect on our campuses.

Work hard and play hard. There’s no substitute for hard work or doing your homework. This is not a traditional eight-hour workday position, and we must do what it takes to get the job done.  However, it is important to periodically set aside time to get away so that you can rest and renew.

An Evolving Role

The CBO role has changed significantly over the last 30 years, morphing into a position with entrepreneurial qualities. Today, a CBO is a leader who must be creative and able to take risks.

When I first started in higher education, the CBO role was primarily focused on the financial aspects of the institution—financial management, financial stewardship, budget management, and similar areas. Chief business officers at the time were very conservative in nature and fiscally focused. Now, the role is more multifaceted and complex. Instead of serving in a single capacity as the steward of an institution’s financial and physical resources, the CBO also serves as a facilitator, problem solver, strategist, innovator, and deal maker.

Even though the work we do as CBOs can be tough and sometimes overwhelming, it is rewarding to be part of a campus community. It is also gratifying to work directly with students and witness the impact of what we do—in conjunction with education—to shape and transform their lives.

CYNTHIA VIZCAINO VILLA is senior vice president, administration and finance, California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, Calif.

Related Topics

We need to ensure that we are forward thinking and agile, and not entrenched in approaches that will not serve our institutions or students in the future.