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Office Takeover

May 2015

By Nancy Mann Jackson

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New generations of employees see work in a whole new light—more flexible, collaborative, rewarding, and sometimes short term. See what that means for your institution’s professional development and succession plans.

With turnover at the chief business officer level continuing at a pace heralded by results from NACUBO’s 2013 National Profile of Higher Education Chief Business Officers and other studies, a large number of campuses are scrambling to fill not only the top position in the business office but other spots in the leadership pipeline. 

With today’s multigenerational workforce, that means not only passing the torch to a successor, but also passing leadership on to the next generations. With different work ethics and approaches, demands for work-life balance, and other expectations, future leaders don’t follow the typical paths of the workforce of the past.

“Filling the shoes of retiring leaders is a widespread challenge for most industries,” says Sarah Sladek, author of Knowing Y: Engage the Next Generation Now (ASAE Association Management Press, 2014). “We’ve moved away from an era in which you pick a career and stay in it until retirement. Now, people change careers regularly and are very restless, and it leaves organizations wondering, ‘What’s our succession plan?’” 

As baby boomers age out of the workforce, they are leaving big shoes to fill. While Generation X is the next oldest generation, it is a much smaller cohort: Xers represented only 16 percent of the workforce in 2012. But, Sladek notes, Generation Y, also known as the millennial generation, includes the nearly 80 million Americans who were born between 1982 and 1995. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, by 2015, baby boomers will cede the majority workforce to Generation Y, marking the largest shift in human capital in history. 

With not nearly enough Gen Xers to step up to the positions vacated by retiring baby boomers, organizations will need to look to younger professionals to take on leadership positions.

For members of Generation Y, that’s good news: These workers are motivated by new challenges and largely believe that promotions should be based on skill and performance rather than longevity. But they’re also less likely to stay in one place for several years, so colleges and universities may have to look further than the office next door when it’s time to replace a longtime CBO. In fact, few millennials are interested in waiting around for older workers to vacate their positions, in order to get a chance at a top job. 

As a result, colleges and universities will need to rethink how to fill their pipelines with up-and-coming leaders. That starts with understanding how young workers think and the value they bring to an organization, and ends with creating the type of workplace that will attract and retain talented millennials.

Changing Expectations

Shifting economies drive shifts in values, and members of Generation Y have watched their parents go through a massive recession. They’ve witnessed many layoffs as well as rapid growth in startup companies and entrepreneurship. They don’t believe the 40-year career in one organization exists anymore—and they’re largely correct. As millennials have watched and experienced economic changes, they have developed workplace expectations that are quite different from previous generations. 

As with senior leaders in many types of organizations, when today’s current CBOs entered the field of higher education, it was common for employees to begin their careers with one organization and remain there until retirement. Many of them were prepared to pay their dues for decades before eventually landing in a top leadership position. But today’s workforce is quite different: For instance, Sladek’s research indicates that job turnover for members of Generation Y is about double that of older generations.

Generation Y workers want to work in an organization that has a strong and meaningful workplace culture, opportunities for career growth, and a sense that the employer will support and invest in them for the long term. “The No. 1 reason that young people will leave an employer is a lack of positive relationships at work,” Sladek says. “And the No. 2 reason is a lack of opportunity.” 

In addition, younger workers strongly believe that employers should evaluate people for their skills and performance, not for experience or tenure, Sladek says. Older workers often place value on loyalty, dedication, and wisdom, but Generation Y values speed, service, skills, and a competitive advantage. 

For instance, Jonathan Dudley has worked in progressively responsible higher education positions at three different universities over the past 8½ years and currently serves as budget and fiscal officer at the School of Arts and Sciences at Tufts University, Medford, Mass. When he met with an executive search firm at a NACUBO conference, he was told he needs another five years at his current employer in order to be a candidate for the next level, a statement he found both “disheartening and ludicrous,” Dudley says. “Fortune 500 companies go through CEOs and CFOs like candy; they make changes to get fresh outlooks. It seems shortsighted for higher education to still expect people to stay in the same job for 20 or 30 years waiting to get their turn to move up.” 

Today’s “mobile” generation also expects to have a mobile career. Whether they’re changing to new organizations or moving to new tasks or assignments with the same employer, they expect to be trying new things, developing additional skills, and enjoying fresh experiences on a regular basis. Dudley, for instance, spent six years with his first employer, American University, in Washington, D.C. “And that’s a really long time for someone my age,” he says. 

Amanda Nguyen, director of student financial services at Oregon’s Portland State University, spent 10 years in private industry before coming to higher education. With six years under her belt at PSU, she expects to eventually move to another institution for her next opportunity. “It depends on the circumstances, but just to develop professionally, I will probably look outside, because all my higher ed experience has been in one place,” Nguyen says. “I think my peers recognize that having a variety of experience in different places can be good to have on your resume.” 

Benefiting From Younger Generations

Although they have expectations and work habits that may be quite different from those of their older colleagues, members of Generation Y and other younger generations bring great value to college and university business offices. These younger workers are known for their technological prowess and can be relied on to take organizations into the future by comfortably leading innovation. As digital natives, they have never known life without technology, so they are well positioned to lead in technology endeavors. 

A valuable byproduct of technology is the ease of collaboration. And millennials have grown up with a focus on teamwork and collaboration—their school desks were arranged in pods rather than rows, and they were largely raised by “soccer moms” who spent time keeping them involved in various team activities. Their collaborative mindset makes them valued members of professional teams who are interested in continually learning, listening, and building a shared understanding among their collaborators. 

For instance, Dudley has worked in both academic and business offices in his eight-year higher education career, and his goal is to become a business officer with key insights on academics, he says. “I hope to become a liaison between finance and academics,” Dudley says. “Through my experience with faculty and deans, I realize that they know what they’re trying to accomplish, but trying to communicate that to the business office often doesn’t work. CBOs understand the financial side, but may not understand enrollment trends and admissions goals and how those academic priorities affect the business model.” 

And while employer-provided professional development and training is expected, many millennials are self-directed learners who go after the growth opportunities that interest them. For instance, Nguyen plans to pursue a doctorate degree in order to reach her goal of becoming a chief business officer. She also regularly attends industry conferences, where networking and interaction help her get to know people at other institutions. To become more familiar with other areas of the university, she recently volunteered to serve on a committee, where she worked closely with the vice provost, registrar, and a number of faculty members. “It’s on us to form those relationships and seek opportunities that will lead our careers where we want them to go,” she says.

Creating an Environment That Works 

Higher education institutions can benefit from the strengths of younger workers, but they must learn to create the types of workplaces where those workers can thrive. The first step is to simply examine the office culture and make sure it is an environment in which people want to work. “It should be a positive environment where people of all generations feel there’s an opportunity to make a difference and a chance to move up,” Sladek says. 

An important part of that ideal environment is flexibility, especially for many younger workers. Jennifer “JJ” Wagner Davis, the 44-year-old senior vice president for finance and administration at George Mason University, Fairfax, Va., says one of the characteristics that attracted her to GMU was the culture of flexibility. “They really focus on employees’ well-being here,” Davis says. “They strive to give people balance so that staff can be their best at work and in life.” 

But flexibility has to be more than just a buzzword. “Leaders need to actually demonstrate flexibility, providing opportunities for employees to volunteer, have flexible work schedules, or telecommute,” Davis says. “We do very important things, but we’re not running a trauma center. If people need time off to spend more time with their families, we should be able to make that happen.”

For instance, one mother of four who works on Davis’s staff wanted to switch to a 30-hour workweek in order to spend more time with her family. Davis immediately agreed to the arrangement, because she knew the employee would give 100 percent during those 30 hours. The arrangement has worked well for that employee and demonstrates to others the employer’s commitment to flexibility, Davis says.

Along with creating a welcoming workplace culture, colleges and universities that want to attract and retain the best and brightest young workers must also rethink their approaches to the traditional career ladder. Traditionally, business office workers might put in 10 or 15 years in one job, waiting for someone higher up to retire before they could move into the next position. But that model is unappealing to younger workers; they are entrepreneurial and innovative, and employers will need to move them into different jobs or assignments every 12 to 24 months. Sladek calls this model a “career lattice” rather than a career ladder.

Generation Y workers are willing to embark on short-term assignments, and appreciate opportunities to try new projects and opportunities that offer learning, growth, and skills, rather than waiting for the eventual chance to move up. “For the first time ever, organizations have to create a dynamic, ‘assignment-based’ career model to develop young high-potential professionals,” Sladek says. “For the first time in history, leadership isn’t related to experience or the length of time spent working in a job or at a company. Leadership potential is now based on skills, drive, vision, innovation, and the ability to naturally get others to follow you. Therefore, companies need to think less about time spent on the job and more about creating a series of assignments, each of which help young leaders improve their skills.”

A new approach to the traditional career ladder must include new attitudes about career opportunities. For instance, one supervisor told Dudley he wasn’t ready for the next step, while a new supervisor came in a few months later and told him he was beyond ready. Dudley attributes the inconsistency to “the culture of me” in higher education: Some professionals are focused only on their own career paths and are not interested in preparing the next generation of leaders. 

That attitude will not last in the workplace of the future. Instead, business office leaders should be continually looking for leadership gaps and creating dialogue about how to fill those gaps. “Succession planning begins with dialogue,” Sladek says. “In my work with various organizations, I’m always surprised at how many people work in silos. They say, ‘Nobody really knows what I do.’ If nobody knows what you do, how will anybody ever be able to take your place?”

An important way to start that dialogue is through mentoring. Sladek encourages workers at all levels to find ways to get others interested in what they do and share their successes and struggles. Corey Bradford, who now works as senior vice president for business affairs at Prairie View A&M University in Prairie View, Texas, says spending time developing relationships with coworkers and supervisors has been crucial to his career. “I have been fortunate to have worked for some outstanding leaders, and I used those interactions to learn the business of higher education,” Bradford says. “I would listen to every story of how these leaders were challenged, victorious—and unsuccessful. I have found throughout my career that good technical skills are not enough to be successful in academia, and that soft, people skills are just as important.”

Today’s leaders must begin to see leadership development for younger workers as an important part of their jobs. “Often, the top talent within an organization can be overlooked,” Davis says. “I feel like a major part of my responsibility is to make sure that doesn’t happen, and focus on growing future leadership.” 

NANCY MANN JACKSON, Madison, Ala., covers higher education business issues for Business Officer.

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Their collaborative mindset makes them valued members of professional teams who are interested in continually learning, listening, and building a shared understanding among their collaborators.