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Listening Power

September 2015

By Marta Perez Drake

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For an institution to move forward, the first thing campus leaders need to do is take a step back and converse on relevant issues with staff from all areas, and then build that input as a basis for decision making. Gregg Goldman, NACUBO’s board chair for 2015–16, is a firm believer and follower of this approach. Using it as a guiding principle, he plans to interact with board members and NACUBO staff to advance the association’s strategic plan, while continuing to serve the membership’s needs.

Earlier this year, within weeks of his arrival at the University of Arizona, Tucson, as the senior vice president for business affairs and chief financial officer, Gregg Goldman was thrown into discussions involving about a hundred million dollars of reductions for several community colleges and other Arizona higher education institutions, including UA. The reason: The state budget had significantly scaled back funding.

In fact, UA’s first regent meeting, the biggest of the year where Goldman presented the strategic business plan, took place just 32 days after he was hired. In January 2015, Goldman joined UA, where he is responsible for the university’s budgeting, financial services, program design and construction, facilities management, business processes and functions, police, and relationships with university-related corporations. Prior to joining UA, Goldman was senior associate dean and chief financial officer at the University of Southern California (USC) Marshall School of Business, from 2003–15.

“Think of the adage of drinking from a fire hose; I had a chance to absorb a deluge of knowledge in a very short time,” says Goldman, describing the first few months of his current role at UA. “I sounded much like a four-year-old, continually asking, ‘Why?’ ‘Why?’ ‘Why?’ I’m really only now able to reflect on six to eight months of knowledge compressed into the first few months.”

Goldman, who became the 2015–16 chair of the NACUBO Board of Directors on August 1, now plans to take that knowledge, and talk and listen to people from various parts of the university as a basis to set his goals and aspirations. This activity of talking, listening, and interacting is what he believes empowers campus leaders to help make decisions that enable institutions to reach their goals.  

“The most significant accomplishment has been listening,” Goldman says. “It’s what I’ve been calling a ‘listening tour’ of the various parts of the organization, parts of the community—both internal and external—and meeting the regents and other stakeholders. That truly is the kind of activity that eventually enables us to get our jobs done.”

In an interview with Business Officer magazine, Goldman talks about what it takes to be an effective leader in higher education administration and describes his plans as board chair for 2015–16.

Talk about your listening tour. What do you mean by that? 

I can’t do my job and, more importantly, I can’t help lead a large diverse organization, without hearing what’s on people’s minds. I think of university administration as a kind of dial tone. No one is going to thank you for the right services being there, but people will start dialing when something is not working or not functioning right.

That’s not a simple task when you’re dealing with staff of about 1,300 people in business affairs, in departments from police, to facilities, to grounds, to buildings, to construction. I conducted three town hall meetings of 400 people each, and, very purposely, made sure that each of the different areas was represented. So, we had police sergeants sitting next to grounds people and auditors conversing with facilities and auxiliary folks. A lot of people who have been in the same group for 20 or 30 years didn’t even know each other. 

One of the most rewarding moments of this listening session occurred after one of the town halls. A plumber came up to me and said, “Mr. Goldman—oh, sorry, you’ve asked us to call you Gregg, because Mr. Goldman is your dad, and you’ll keep walking because you won’t know who that is.” I had also said that when I walked the campus, I’d likely ask him how things are going and what I can do to help him do his job better. Ultimately, my role is to help staff be on top of their roles. The plumber noted, “I’ve been here 22 years, and I’ve never met the CFO.”

And, to me, that’s the listening and communication that works. I can’t do my job sitting in my office on the seventh floor of the administration building, behind a desk. I need to be actively listening, talking, and synthesizing. And, then acting as the conductor to orchestrate and coordinate the different parts of the organization. You’ve got to understand all the different roles and be able to effectively lead them in a way that makes the business affairs organization really hum.

At another level, during one of my interviews with a panel of 24 deans, one asked, “What are you going to do in your first six months?” My answer was: “I’m going to come to each of your schools and spend three hours. I want an hour with you, an hour-long tour, and, then an hour to discuss whatever you’d like to, in whatever format you’d like.” 

Afterward, the provost said, “You might not have noticed, but the deans were picking themselves up off the floor. No CFO has ever offered to meet with them on their turf, in their place, at a meeting that they dictate.” When I said that I probably wouldn’t be right for the job if he didn’t want me talking to the deans, he said, “Quite the contrary.  You can’t do your job well unless you talk to them. And, that’s part of what you’ll bring to the table as a former dean, and someone who has worked with numerous deans on multiple campuses.”

The most important thing to understand is that a service organization is there to serve. And if our team is doing what it is supposed to do—the research, the instruction—then the experience for our students, our faculty, and our staff, will be that much better.

Some of what you said mirrors research that NACUBO has done with regard to CBO leadership competencies and also is in line with what CBOs say—that they spend much less time immersed in spreadsheets and numbers, and much more on the strategic nature of their work and engagement on a variety of different levels. What has your experience been thus far at the University of Arizona? 

We don’t get into these roles without having some comfort level with spreadsheets. But, if you have good people in place, you can become much more of the ambassador, the conduit that connects the numbers with real situations and circumstances.

As I was going through the interview process here, the president, the provost, and I spent quite a bit of time discussing natural skills and learned skills—and how that learning takes place. One thing that the president was intrigued with was the value of my WACUBO and NACUBO professional network in filling skill gaps. For example, coming to this role, I need to issue bonds, which I had never done, since my previous institutions did this centrally or at the system level. The president recognized that I could call 10 people who have issued bonds, synthesize the best of the responses, and figure out how to effectively handle a bond issue. 

On the other hand, she made it clear that she didn’t think someone could learn the academic enterprise as quickly. How do faculty members think? What is the perspective of the deans? She clearly felt that my experience on the academic side was necessary for her to move the university forward. Again, it’s a matter of building bridges between parts of the enterprise. 

And, that’s how I’ve spent my time—being that bridge, while getting my group to start thinking differently. With no disrespect to the people who sat in the chair before, we’re spending a lot of time thinking about policy, talking to the various administrative and academic groups on campus. We’ve created a policy review committee to focus on better ways we might do things—and how we might present information in clearer ways. 

For people who have been in roles similar to yours and are thinking about next steps, how have you been able to translate to your current role what you’ve done at the Marshall School, at USC, and at other campuses?  Conversely, how can people who are looking to find a replacement for their CBO look at the academic role on campus as a viable part of that pipeline or recruitment strategy?

I’ve worked at large public universities and at the Marshall School, a private institution with an undergraduate population of approximately 4,000. At UCLA, I served as director of finance for the library system. Spending quite a bit of time in an academic unit at the Marshall School helped balance my understanding of the academic and administrative sides of leadership. And, the collective experiences made me very aware of the challenges and complexities of running a campus. And, I’m able to bring to UA a meshing of experience in both public and private institutions. 

With regard to succession, as we see more CBO retirements, it’s not so clear that this is a career path to a specific job. Presidents and search committees are going to be looking into unique and different places that people come from. At UA, it happened that the president really wanted to focus on the academic side of the enterprise. During a yearlong search, she did not find the right person; it just didn’t click, and she was not going to settle. 

People in roles that are out in an academic or administration unit need to realize that the institution’s world is much greater than that, and it’s important that they expand their horizons professionally and personally. The more they can learn about the campus, the more they can understand both sides of the equation. 

I never go into a meeting without trying to think about the person I’m sitting with—what his or her position is and might become. The best way to grow is to spend the time to learn from your roles. For me, while Marshall was a large individual school, with a budget of $250 million, UA’s budget is over $2 billion. It’s a matter of size and scale really. If you look at the things you’re true to—effective management and leadership—you can then apply the same parameters to the other parts of the organization that you haven’t experienced. 

So, there’s a scalability piece?

I believe there is. And, that doesn’t mean I’ve managed a police force, or it doesn’t mean I’ve issued bonds, or had these people as direct reports. But, if you hold true to your values, your core principles, and your management philosophy, that’s scalable to other situations and environments. 

How significant is the public versus private institutional difference? As we think about people looking at professional changes or taking that next step, is there a true distinction in the skill sets or approaches?

Sometimes people make more of this than is actually there. Every institution has its complexities, uniqueness, and challenges. At USC, the largest private employer in L.A. County, it was actually harder for me to handle personnel issues than it was when I was part of UC, a public institution. Conversely, the purchasing function is much easier at USC than it was at the University of California. 

There’s no one general rule that one constituency is easier or more difficult to manage. However, with continued state disinvestment, we see public institutions moving in directions similar to private ones. As this evolves, we’ve got to find ways to be more nimble in what we do. But, the notion that managing public institutions is harder than it is at privates isn’t really true. Every institution has its own DNA.

Geography is another factor that people consider when they’re thinking about taking a professional leap. You spent a lot of time in California, and moving to a different state can definitely be a big change. But, sometimes, you have to move out to move up. What advice can you give to others about making that decision?  

The older we are, the harder geographic moves can be, and the greater the support structure you need to do it. Eight or 10 years ago, I had a job offer from Emerson College, in Boston. One of the hardest calls I’ve had to make was to the president, telling her that I wouldn’t be coming. It would have been a great step careerwise, but my partner and I were concerned about moving across the country to a place where we knew no one. I do know a few people who have successfully made such moves without a support structure. 

However, when you’re not in the top job, you can make a lot of friends in the school. When you move into the CBO role, initially, it’s difficult to know who you can trust, and to create a real support network of friends and colleagues. Even when you get to know the players and the people, you’re still the No. 3 on campus, after the president and provost, and in a very large role. And, while you may be able to handle all that in a mature, thoughtful way, there might be others who can’t. 

So, for me, it was, actually, location first. In this case, my partner is from Tucson; we have family there; and it’s a place we’ve considered for retirement. So, for us, it was an easy decision. 

I would caution that it’s easy to become so caught up in a search and being wanted, that we can forget that we have the option to say, “No.” Or we may think that if we say no to this, another opportunity will never come.  

It’s important for people to think about where they want to be, and perhaps identify two or three places that they think might work. Managing two careers, as a lot of people do nowadays, is challenging. 

Let’s say that a person considers a place that meets all his or her professional requirements, does not have family to consider, and accepts the position. What suggestions do you have for building a solid support network?

It’s a lot about doing your homework. When you move to a new city, don’t underestimate the effort it will take to build that network. It will require you to reach out. But, part of that effort is made easier by being involved with NACUBO and your regional association. These are people who understand what you’re going through and understand your world. You’re not talking Greek to them—it may be a different dialect, but they get the main language. 

Most cities also have a number of colleges and universities in which you can become involved. And, don’t forget the professional associations and societies in your particular professional function. These can be great sources of support and friendship.

What other advice do you have for people new to their positions? 

Listening is one of the best things we can do in these roles. I equate the process to those flat sponges you can buy at Williams-Sonoma that grow and expand when you add water. There’s so much knowledge out there that we can absorb and use in leadership and decision making. 

Of course, when you are new to the job, everybody has a great idea they’ll try to pitch to the new dean, the new financial officer. So, know that everyone is going to come to you, and every idea is going to be new. It’s okay to say that you’ll need to think about the proposal, but do listen. 

During the search process, understand that while you are being interviewed, you are also interviewing the leadership team and the institution. For example, while I was interacting at UA, I watched the dynamics of the leadership team. After all, we’re only as good as the people around us. For me, having most of my experience on the academic side of our world, discourse and dialogue are things that I believe truly help move us forward. I want to make sure I’m working with a team that’s good with different views and differing opinions. But, in the end, we have to come out as one team.

You mentioned WACUBO and NACUBO as key parts of your professional network and career development. Share the ways that those association experiences made an impact on you. 

I would not be where I am today, if it weren’t for the professional associations that I’ve been involved in for all these years. Not only are these members some of my best friends, but they’ve also become a critical network of people I can call to discuss issues both small and of immense importance. It’s a support structure that I’ll have been involved with for 23 years, when I conclude my year as board chair. That’s more than two decades of involvement, serving on a committee, task force, or voluntary leadership office—taking on a role each and every year.  

That’s not what got me the job at UA; clearly, the president decided to take a different path with hiring me, coming from the academic side. I was very transparent about what I knew and didn’t know. But, from our discussions, she developed confidence about the strength of my professional network, and recognized that I could easily pick up the phone and make contact with a number of colleagues and peers who were ready to provide advice and guidance. 

I’m fortunate enough to have been the first person in WACUBO’s history to be president of the organization from the academic side of our business. I’m similarly impressed with our NACUBO board. While I am now a CBO, as I assume the board chair role, I’m the first person ever to be nominated to vice chair from an academic background. That’s a huge step for our boards and our profession, understanding that there’s no one career path, and that we are an enterprise with a lot of different parts that collectively make it work. 

The best thing for someone new to higher education is to get involved professionally in WACUBO, in NACUBO, and in other associations that support his or her specific professional areas. 

Succession planning is a big part of our industry’s future, and NACUBO is doing more in that area to cultivate leaders, identify top talent, and create institutional pipelines. What ways would you suggest to help people in their CBO roles, or maybe even in other roles on campus, to think about succession planning?

It’s a difficult challenge. And, I don’t know of any institution that does it particularly well. As both private and public institutions have become leaner, we’ve become more siloed, and we have fewer layers. But, we do the best that we can, working with our networks to get people involved in committees and campus activities that will help them gain understanding and, perhaps, bring them to the attention of a department or division that notes that person’s potential. For example, I thought it would be a great experience for one of my directors to chair a search committee and gain that experience.

It’s hard to assume that, in every campus, in every place, there’s somebody who can move into your role when you leave. But, my guess is there’s someone out there who can. We have to give people opportunities, look at nontraditional paths, and avoid  pigeonholing people into a particular area. We should encourage much greater cross-pollination between the academic and administrative sides, down into where the real work gets done—not where the work is originally envisioned. And, I hope to be able to do that at the University of Arizona. 

I’m also hoping to show, in my role as board chair, that we can come from varying places on our campuses and still be effective and successful in our roles. 

What would you like to accomplish as board chair?

First off, I’m humbled and excited to be able to go into this role and spend more time with good friends, and have a chance to talk about what we do across the country. What’s great about becoming board chair is the amazing team in Washington, D.C., that’s able to take ideas and thoughts, and correlate them into a succinct mission, vision, and direction by way of professional development and advocacy. 

Something that’s been interesting for me in these past two years is learning more about advocacy, what we do in Washington, and public policy. It’s been a great growth experience.

I’d love to help NACUBO in furthering our profession even more—helping others realize that we’re much more than the CBO or CFO of our institutions. Our colleges and universities have varying parts, and there’s no one career path that will take us to point X. My president is on the cutting edge of what will eventually become the norm. NACUBO’s recent research shows that we are a shrinking work force when it comes to CBOs from a traditional path. More and more, we’re going to see presidents reaching to other parts. It would be great for NACUBO to be able to work with presidents this year to help them understand that there is not one model and there are different ways to think about what we do and how we do it. 

I’ll also bring a personal touch. Just as I can’t do my job sitting on the upper floor of the administration building for my UA responsibilities, I will need to get out and attend regional meetings, talk to people, and personalize what we do and why we do it. There’s sometimes a disconnect at the regional level as to what NACUBO really does. I’d like us to try to find a way to help people better understand the great work that the association and its volunteers do—the advocacy, the professional development—and to be that bridge to spread the word. 

What have you treasured most about being part of regional and NACUBO leadership? What should NACUBO members know about the board? 

It’s the people and the relationships for that 23 years of volunteer experience, when I complete my term as board chair. We all come from very different institutions: public, private, large, and small. But, we’re all focused on one mission. And, I don’t know any profession where such different types of institutions are so focused on a single mission. 

 We’re also building networks—both local and national—by attending the annual conferences of NACUBO, WACUBO, and other regions. 

NACUBO takes the siloed regional perspective and then adds that national perspective to it for members to be able to network and learn about the bigger trends. People should not underestimate that we’re a connected country and a connected world. 

MARTA PEREZ DRAKE is vice president, professional development, at NACUBO.

Credit: Kristen Hanning

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There’s so much knowledge out there that we can absorb and use in leadership and decision making.