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Essential Expertise

March/April 2020

By Karla Hignite

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Today’s CBOs must have the ability to help presidents, cabinet members, and boards of trustees embrace the changes needed to further institution missions and help students thrive.

What makes for a truly exceptional chief business officer?

During the past decade, higher education CBOs have assumed a more prominent voice and a larger role in the strategic decisions and activities of their institutions. From developing new business models in the aftermath of the Great Recession to harnessing big data to maximize operations, the role of the CBO has grown increasingly complex. As colleges and universities continue to weather enormous disruption on multiple fronts, many stakeholders look to CBOs not only to maintain financial viability, but also to forge productive ventures and partnerships that can give their institutions a competitive edge.

In 2019, NACUBO conducted a series of focus groups to gather input from a broad swath of higher education leaders across the country about the specific skills and expertise that colleges and universities need most in their CBOs. One question participants addressed was whether it is time to rethink the title of this pivotal position. While no clear consensus emerged, the suggestions that participants offered on how to refer to these top financial professionals revealed the importance of today’s CBO to all institution stakeholders.

For instance:

Based on input from the focus group, what follows is a compilation of the multifaceted roles that reflect, in broad strokes, the acumen identified as core to being a successful CBO. These skills are not merely nice, but necessary for those charged with helping to strengthen institutions of higher learning in the face of financial stress, public skepticism, changing demographics, and fast-moving competition—a tall order, but an expectation of today’s CBOs nonetheless. Combined, these areas of expertise offer an aspirational road map for becoming the exceptional CBO leader every higher education institution needs.

KARLA HIGNITE, Fort Walton Beach, Fla., is a contributing editor for Business Officer.

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