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What Presidents Want in a CBO

College and university presidents say they are looking for "architects of change."
University Business, Sep 2006

Usually the word agility is paired with athleticism, but nowadays that characteristic is considered a valuable trait in higher ed management. Now more than ever, the ability to change with the academic and business winds is crucial to success as a higher ed chief business officer. Moreover, today's CBO is a key component of the president's cabinet of advisers, said a panel of college and university presidents speaking at the annual meeting of the National Association of College and University Business Officers, held in Baltimore, Md.

William Troutt, president of Rhodes College (Tenn.), said one of the greatest traits of his institution's CBO is his ability to change and learn new approaches. Referring to author Jim Collins' book Good to Great, Troutt said a CBO must be able to turn data into information that can't be ignored by the president.

Karen Holbrook, president of The Ohio State University, listed a slew of traits, personal and professional, she thought a CBO should have. "I must be able to rely on [the CBO] for accountability to a large number of stakeholders from students to the general public," she said. She is also looking for financial skills, an understanding of technology and politics, sensitivity to public opinion and internal pressures from faculty and students, the ability to hire well, and someone who doesn't take shortcuts. An ideal candidate is someone who is calm, a good negotiator, appreciates academic value, understands academia and best business practices (which she notes as being hard to find in a CBO), has integrity, and works with transparency, she added.

Troutt mentioned that the ability to "make public your own dilemmas... fears" is important to being a CBO in his eyes. He also said the role of CBO is changing rapidly giving an example of the traits he would look for in a candidate: reflective, agile, customer-oriented, and the ability to "look below the surface." But, he said, nowadays a CBO cannot be "heroic" in that he or she can see a disaster and immediately bring order back to the campus or accounting books. "You can't come on the scene as firefighters, you can't do that anymore," he said. Now a CBO and other administrators must have specialized knowledge and be "architects of change."

The presidents made it clear that the relationship between the president and CBO is a partnership. Troutt said there should be a candid, open relationship between the two because the CBO helps "sell" ideas to the board of trustees.

They also agreed that it is a good thing for CBOs to have corporate experience, and even legislative experience. Troutt pointed to an example of how one CFO at Belmont University (Tenn.), where Troutt once served as president, was a former executive for the cookie company, The Cristie Cookie. But the executive was also an adjunct business professor, "so he had a passion for the work."

Stephen Pannill, president of Cecil Community College (Md.), said CBOs should participate in committees that predispose them to different people, and also be ready to move across the country for jobs.

Pannill used to be CFO at another school and he said he sometimes catches himself saying the dreaded words of a president to his CFO: "Just find the money."

Holbrook did question why more women don't become CBOs. An audience member, Mary Jo Maydew, vice president for Finance and Administration at Mount Holyoke College (Mass.), explained sometimes women more often think of the strain on their families when considering high-level roles requiring 24/7 work. She adds, however, that a large percentage of the executive staff at her college are women. But she adds, some subordinates "don't want my job." Maydew said she not only is at times required to work weekend and evening hours, but even when she is not working, she is thinking about work.

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