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Ground Control

February 2015

By Karla Hignite

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Shaking up your career path with a transition to, or within, higher education? To remain on course, apply the advice of others who’ve been there. College and university leaders can help ease the culture shock and get the most from their new colleagues.


Easing the transition for new CBOs—especially those who are moving into the collegiate environment for the first time—requires keen awareness of conditions on the ground. This article package includes (1) tips from college and university CBOs who have successfully made the switch from other industries, (2) a description of the reasons why state government leaders may make good candidates for the transition to higher education, and (3) a CBO’s primer on where to focus those first 100 days in the new role. 

Whether you are brand new to the sector or to the CBO role—or a CBO in training—you’ll want to take note of the wisdom of others, which can help you make that role shift with greater confidence.

Smooth Landings

Apply these proven approaches to make your career transition a bit less bumpy. 

By Maryann J. Terrana

Building a high-functioning executive leadership team sometimes includes bringing in talent from outside the higher education sector. Critical to this effort is seeking ways to help these newcomers connect with other individuals of diverse backgrounds who can work together and learn from each other. 

Business Officer recently asked CBOs from a variety of institutions—and who were new to higher education when they came to their positions—to share their transition tips. While each faced adjustment challenges, their positive experiences appear to outweigh the difficulties that can surface when trying to adapt to a new workplace culture. Compiled here are their collective insights. 

Embrace the Mission

Belief in the value of postsecondary education and its benefits to individuals and communities attracts a variety of professionals from outside the sector. The opportunity to support an institution that educates future leaders and makes a difference in the lives of students appeals to many finance professionals whose careers to date in the for-profit sector might not have provided such a noble mission. John Nixon, chief business officer at the University of Utah, Salt Lake City, who came into his position from state government, puts it this way: “There is a lot of intrinsic value in higher education. We are creating knowledge and educating the leaders of tomorrow. Not too many places exist where you can have this kind of impact.” 

Likewise, Dave Henderson, vice president for finance and operations at Linn-Benton Community College, Albany, Ore., had long recognized the benefits of community colleges to local populations in general, through the wide variety of career technical training, midcareer job changes, and continuing education classes they offer. These are reasons why he says he “jumped at the chance” to join LBCC when the opportunity arose. His background at the state legislature and in county government provided what he considers the most important skill for his transition: “Dealing with people.” No matter the specific subject area of where you are working—whether education, local government, or private enterprise—you need strong people skills to thrive, argues Henderson.

Apply Skills and Abilities

CBOs who have transitioned to higher education say that some of the most transferable skills they brought with them include communicating financial information, managing vendor relationships, negotiating contracts, providing direction to others, and—especially for CBOs with prior state government experience—analyzing higher education policy and funding. (See sidebar, “Foster—or Find—a Good Fit.”) 

For example, Ron McBee joined the University of the Southwest, Hobbs, N.M., as vice president for financial services after 20 years of experience as a CFO in Texas state government. As he experienced the change in industries, McBee found the most value in these nontechnical transferrable skills: communicating with others, listening, being honest, having a positive attitude, and asking questions. 

McBee had been intrigued by the campus CBO role when he came across the vacancy. He had taken a position as a middle school teacher upon moving to Hobbs, with no intention of returning to an administrative role―until he met the university’s president and saw that the institution was in need. In hindsight, he says, “I happened to be in the right place at the right time.” 

While possessing strong interpersonal skills is a trait most CBOs might expect to put to use in any setting, less expected by some new to higher education is the variety of critical constituencies they must serve (faculty, trustees, government officials, and prospective and current students and alumni); the surprising number and level of capital needs; and the myriad regulations with which universities are required to comply. The position calls for prioritizing an abundance of objectives to meet strategic goals and working with complex business systems and people at all levels of the organization. 

J.J. Wagner Davis, who transitioned from a role in state government to become senior vice president for administration and finance at George Mason University, Fairfax, Va., thrives on these challenges. “I simply love my job—which I would compare to an ultramarathon. I get the honor and opportunity to work with smart, talented, and dedicated faculty, staff, and students every day to solve complex issues. I see the value of collaboration, integrity, teamwork, and hard work as the key ingredients to success,” says Davis, who also admits that “prioritization and work-life balance are always a challenge, given the demands of the position.” 

Read Between the Lines

Sue Rosenthal joined Barry University, Miami Shores, Fla., as the vice president for business and finance following a career as CFO with the Miami Herald. She found that higher education industry jargon and her lack of historical knowledge made for a steep learning curve. “But after six months on the job, I am thrilled with my decision to make a change and very confident that I can make a difference at Barry University,” says Rosenthal. 

In fact, the terminology used throughout the sector is a nuance that challenges most newcomers. Industry-specific language around federal grants, student loans, endowment funds, donations, and restricted and unrestricted revenues—in addition to learning which metrics are most meaningful—are typically all part of a new CBO’s learning curve. Additionally, auxiliary services, human resource management skills, risk management, or facilities maintenance roles that might have been part of a CBO’s responsibility in a former job outside academia take on a unique dimension within a higher education setting.

Build Bonds

Karen Davis previously held a number of financial leadership positions in the health-care industry. Now serving as vice president of administration and finance and treasurer, California Lutheran University, Thousand Oaks, Davis strongly suggests that CBOs new to higher education get to know the key leadership across their campus. “Make a point of staying in tune with what is going on in every area of the university so you can support their endeavors,” she says. Following this practice has served Davis well, especially through a recent merger with Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary in Berkeley, Calif. Fortunately, the merger came about after Davis had five years of experience navigating the campus culture.

As for establishing credibility with faculty, Bob Shea found honesty, transparency, and candor to be necessary traits for the job. Shea was vice president for business affairs at the Community College of Rhode Island, Warwick, before he joined the NACUBO staff in 2013 as senior fellow, finance and campus management. He landed the position at CCRI following a related career in the Navy. By accepting the invitations of CCRI faculty to guest lecture in their classes on leadership, management, and business, Shea felt he was better able to convey his belief in the mission of the college and in student success. He also found it inspiring to work with students who were so eager to learn and find their place in society. 

Connie Kanter, CFO and vice president for finance and business affairs, Seattle University, is also motivated by student interaction. She makes time to have lunch with students on a regular basis. “In addition to meeting with individual faculty and staff throughout the year, I find that talking directly with students inspires me in my work and allows me to better serve the university.” 

Kanter came into her role from the corporate technology industry. Her effort to increase transparency about the university’s finances has helped her gain trust and respect across the campus. “In my first year, I developed a ‘road show,’ to provide an overview of the university’s finances, that I presented at school and college faculty meetings.” 

CBOs who have successfully made the transition to an academic environment concur that taking an interest in faculty members’ scholarly efforts can help break down any barriers of mistrust. When challenging times call for increased faculty input and support, those shared interests can hasten the process to find common ground and move forward.

Adjust Your Pace

For Karen Davis, one of the hardest parts of her transition was getting used to the length of time it may take for decisions to be made or changes implemented on campus. Rather than become overwhelmed by her frustration, Davis learned to adjust her own approach and attitude. “I had to learn to take more time to explain things; start proposing ideas earlier in some processes so that people had time to think about them; provide more options for possible decisions; and focus on getting smaller decisions made more frequently, than larger decisions all at once,” says Davis. “You have to appreciate the little steps along the way as you keep moving forward to reach those larger goals.” 

Like many new to the sector, Shea also found the slow pace of change frustrating. For him, finding like-minded change agents inside the organization was therapeutic. At the same time, says Shea, “You will never have enough data to be certain of outcome. Good decisions require the ability to both understand and to take risks.” 

In fact, the pace of change and tolerance for risk may vary substantially from one institution to another. Jeff Riddell, vice president for finance and administration, Cornish College of the Arts, Seattle, observes, “Amid disruption, heightened competition, and rising costs, many colleges are on the move.” That is the case at Cornish, where leaders have set a fast-paced change agenda impacting all areas of the college, notes Riddell, a former small-business adviser.

Understand the Culture

Many who have made the move to higher education note that the culture on college and university campuses is unlike that of other organizations in some significant ways. Leading the financial and administrative arm requires metacompetencies beyond traditional accounting, finance, and project management skills. “Higher education needs expert managers and, more importantly, leaders of character, because higher education is only going to become more accountable to stakeholders going forward,” says Shea. 

One thing that has become clear to Kanter is the significant change that will continue to shape the sector. “Technology advances, alternative educational models, new competition, and increased concerns about affordability and the value of a college education are all issues our institutions need to address.” For Kanter, a commitment to transparency about institution finances and a willingness to help stakeholders explore new revenue opportunities, cost-saving strategies, and financial models will become increasingly important for the CBO role. Another critical skill that must be underscored is the ability to provide the financial information to faculty and staff in ways that allow them to be effective partners for change, notes Kanter.

Help Shape the Culture

Calvin Jamison, vice president for administration, University of Texas at Dallas, arrived at the university as the CBO after serving as the city manager of Richmond, Va. Coming back into higher education with experience from the public and private sectors, he knew the importance of providing a high level of service to constituents. He also realized that it sets a successful tone for campus culture, and it becomes a competitive advantage for the university. “A college or university is one of the most important institutions in an individual’s life cycle. By improving efficiencies and services on campus, my team creates a ‘culture of caring’ that sets us apart.” 

Jamison’s experiences as a city manager and in the corporate sector might not have prepared him for the slower pace of shared decision making encountered by CBOs—although “it has been invaluable in the enhancement of town and gown relationships,” he notes. It also helped Jamison appreciate and understand the immense scope of the role, since managing a campus essentially entails many of the same issues as running a city, with responsibility for public safety and emergency management, facilities, transportation, environmental and regulatory compliance, human resources, auxiliary services, and economic development. 

Riddell has also navigated town-gown challenges, as Cornish moved its campus within Seattle to accommodate growth, including a new 432-bed, 20-story housing project that will open in fall 2015. Concurrent with campus expansion, Riddell has worked hard to ensure that faculty compensation is competitive. He works vigorously to keep faculty and staff informed and to openly consider all ideas and requests, despite the reality of financial limitations. “I hate to throw cold water on great plans,” he says. A plaque on his office wall reads: “Say yes as often as possible.” Together with the president and provost, Riddell is committed to a culture of high trust that will enable the college to maximize its potential.

Know You Are Among Friends

As noted, the intrinsic value of higher education draws well-intentioned CBOs from many different sectors. When successful, their passion and drive set a tone of collaboration and cooperation for the financial and administrative services staff who endeavor to support an institution’s academic enterprise. For John Sircy, vice president for finance and administration, Columbia College, Columbia, S.C., the challenges were fundamental: revenue growth, expense control, and keeping the workforce engaged and focused on mission. 

Sircy found that the 20 years he spent as CFO and chief operating officer within the commercial banking industry served him well for his new role, since he had ample experience with being responsible for human resources, managing vendor relationships, and negotiating contracts. To get up to speed for his higher education role, he simultaneously immersed himself in the metrics of the college while reaching out to the many constituencies, departments, and vendors to build relationships. “The numbers gave me a sense of where there might be opportunities; the faculty and staff provided the context and guided the way to seize the best opportunities.”

That spirit of collaboration often extends beyond the boundaries of one’s own campus. CBOs who have made the transition to higher education attribute a key part of their success to the open and collaborative nature of the industry as a whole, in which many institutions freely share operating information, performance data, and best practices. As Kanter knows from her own experience, “One of the greatest resources for new business officers is for them to reach out to their peers.” 

MARYANN J. TERRANA is director, member engagement, NACUBO.

First Steps to a Firm Foundation

Hitting the right stride with internal stakeholders requires a concerted focus on displaying qualities that build mutual trust. 

By Karla Hignite

After working in the corporate sector and for several public utilities, Eric Weekes joined Embry–Riddle Aeronautical University, Daytona Beach, in 2004, as its chief financial officer. Despite 10 years of experience within the higher education sector, Weekes still had to make the cultural transition to a different kind of institution when he became vice president and CFO of Saint Leo University, Saint Leo, Fla., in June 2013. 

While nothing can fully prepare you for the unique factors that may unfold during your transition to a new sector or to another campus, Weekes recalls the intentional choices he made in those first 100 days to ensure he got off on the right foot with campus stakeholders. 

Priority Actions

Weekes suggests several initial efforts you’ll want to make when you assume a leadership role in the academic community. 

While this would hold true for any leader transition, the need for Weekes to build a baseline of trust went well beyond establishing trust of him. “I had to help re-establish trust among team members, and that was huge.” His approach was to start with one-on-one meetings with each staff member, and then with his direct reports, to hear their concerns and find out what issues were on their plates. 

“I landed in the middle of this process, so I had some immediate catching up to do to flesh out tactics and measurable outcomes,” says Weekes. While he might have benefitted from more time to reflect on this exercise, being confronted with this early in his transition helped him sharpen his understanding of his role in the context of institution priorities, notes Weekes.

Proper Responses

Just as important as determining a course of action is figuring out how and when to respond to challenges. While campus constituents want to hear about how projects are progressing and what changes are ahead, they will also appreciate someone who recognizes when a situation calls for gathering input and slowing things down before implementing a plan.

KARLA HIGNITE, Ogden, Utah, is a contributing editor for Business Officer.

Related Topics

CBOs say that some of the most transferable skills they brought with them include communicating financial information, managing vendor relationships, and negotiating contracts.