How to thrive as a CBO transplant

CBOs who transitioned from outside higher ed share advice

Chief business officers entering higher education face many challenges, but there are ways to ensure a smoother transition.

Maryann Terrana, writing for Business Officer Magazine, rounds up tips from leaders who have made the adjustment successfully.

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Terrana notes that bringing in executive leadership from outside of higher education can be an effective way to ignite fresh thinking in the C-suite. However, those not accustomed to the sector may need additional time to get acclimated to their new roles. In order to get a sense of how new CBOs can settle in quickly, Terrana asked several current CBOs for their insights.

Build a sense of mission: Many new CBOs acknowledge higher education's civic mission. "We are creating knowledge and educating the leaders of tomorrow. Not too many places exist where you can have this kind of impact," says John Nixon, CBO at the University of Utah, Salt Lake City, who previously worked in state government. Embracing that mission, Terrana writes, can smooth the transition.

Prepare for a marathon: Incoming CBOs should brace themselves for a very demanding job, Terrana writes, and take the long view. For J.J. Davis, who worked in state government before becoming senior VP for administration and finance at George Mason University, the challenge was a good fit. "I simply love my job—which I would compare to an ultramarathon," he says, adding "I get the honor and opportunity to work with smart, talented, and dedicated faculty, staff, and students every day to solve complex issues."

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Learn the language: College administrators work with a nuanced, sometimes challenging vocabulary unique to their sector. Even areas like human resources and facilities management are unique in the higher education context, as Terrana points out. Sue Rosenthal, VP for business and finance at Barry University, Miami Shores says it took her about six months to get up to speed on terminology, but now she is "thrilled" to be in her new role.

Build relationships: Thriving in the CBO role often means building strong relationships with a diverse range of constituencies. Karen Davis, VP of administration and finance and treasurer at California Lutheran University, who previously worked in finance, says building strong relationships from day one was important. "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 recommends.

Adjust your expectations: Davis also says it was challenging to adjust to the pace of decision-making in higher education. "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," she says. However, others observed that disruption in higher education was making some organizations more agile—and more like the private sector. "Amid disruption, heightened competition, and rising costs, many colleges are on the move," says Jeff Riddell, VP for finance and administration at Cornish College of the Arts. He previously worked as a small business adviser.

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Understand and shape the culture: Some CBOs say their private sector experience was of unique value to their new institutions, especially as colleges move into an era of accountability. "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 Bob Shea, a former CBO at the Community College of Rhode Island, Warwick, and a U.S. Navy veteran.

Learn more than the numbers: The challenges of being a CBO are often quantitative, with a focus on hitting revenue targets, balancing budgets, and managing human capital. However, John Sircy, VP for finance and administration at Columbia College, says mastering the numbers are only one part of success. "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," he says (Terrana, Business Officer Magazine, February 2015).

The takeaway: Those who transitioned into CBO roles from the private sector say that the keys to a smooth adjustment are adapting to higher ed culture and building strong relationships.


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