What makes for a truly exceptional chief business officer?
During the past decade, higher education CBOs have assumed a more prominent voice and a larger role in the strategic decisions and activities of their institutions. From developing new business models in the aftermath of the Great Recession to harnessing big data to maximize operations, the role of the CBO has grown increasingly complex. As colleges and universities continue to weather enormous disruption on multiple fronts, many stakeholders look to CBOs not only to maintain financial viability, but also to forge productive ventures and partnerships that can give their institutions a competitive edge.
In 2019, NACUBO conducted a series of focus groups to gather input from a broad swath of higher education leaders across the country about the specific skills and expertise that colleges and universities need most in their CBOs. One question participants addressed was whether it is time to rethink the title of this pivotal position. While no clear consensus emerged, the suggestions that participants offered on how to refer to these top financial professionals revealed the importance of today’s CBO to all institution stakeholders.
- “Chief operating officer” acknowledges the role that more business officers have already assumed to ensure that the operations of the entire enterprise—business and academic—are on solid footing, and that everyone has what they need.
- “Chief strategic partner” and “chief thought partner” reflect the fact that presidents in particular, but also trustees and fellow cabinet members, look to CBOs to provide vital insights, options, and workable solutions in response to every complex set of factors with which they’re presented.
- Even the more playful suggestions of “fixer-in-chief” and “optimizer-in-chief” get to the heart of what many CBOs think encapsulates at least part of their role: someone called on to clean up any problem and make things better.
Based on input from the focus group, what follows is a compilation of the multifaceted roles that reflect, in broad strokes, the acumen identified as core to being a successful CBO. These skills are not merely nice, but necessary for those charged with helping to strengthen institutions of higher learning in the face of financial stress, public skepticism, changing demographics, and fast-moving competition—a tall order, but an expectation of today’s CBOs nonetheless. Combined, these areas of expertise offer an aspirational road map for becoming the exceptional CBO leader every higher education institution needs.
- Big-picture thinker. With the overwhelming majority of time and attention that CBOs must spend on change management initiatives, today’s CBOs must possess a broad understanding of an increasingly complex business enterprise with many moving parts.
- Data translator. Underlying the expansion and complexity of the CBO role is an increasing reliance on big data to run every facet of the enterprise—and an expectation that CBOs will bring a strong grasp of the data, and what the data might suggest, to every discussion.
- Business strategist. It is assumed that CBOs understand the market position and business strategy component of essentially every program area and initiative—from enrollment to advancement to online learning—and can identify where more investment may be needed and where cuts are required. More CBOs are also increasingly looked to for expertise with real estate development, public-private ventures, and forging community partnerships.
- Problem solver. At the same time, CBOs must be good listeners to truly understand how the challenges of other departments and their functions fit into the bottom line and strategic vision of the institution. They must assess how business and academic models might be altered to free up resources for new programs. CBOs must also synthesize information to help others understand risks, consider best options and trade-offs, identify priorities, and evaluate strategies.
- Fiscal enforcer. One part of the CBO’s job that hasn’t changed—and won’t change—is the responsibility for maintaining fiscal accountability and ensuring the long-term financial viability of the institution. As colleges and universities adjust to receiving fewer funding dollars from their states and the federal government for student aid and research, and as new financial pressures are brought to bear on institutions’ budgets, CBOs must consider and propose efficiencies across their institutions. Tweaks here and belt-tightening there may not be enough for many institutions in the context of a fast-changing and competitive marketplace. CBOs must also help their presidents, cabinet members, and trustees understand and frame decisions within the larger context of the long-term financial health and resilience of the institution.
- Adept communicator. The increasing complexity surrounding the academic enterprise, the impacts of market forces, and any number of both unforeseen and anticipated events in the daily activity of an institution’s operations require financial translation. CBOs must be proficient in explaining their institutions’ business models and helping others understand the implications of budgetary shifts or the pros and cons of various spending initiatives—adapting their message to communicate effectively with audiences who have varying levels of financial prowess. CBOs also must be conversant in the languages of different stakeholder groups within and outside the institution—whether talking with civic leaders, policymakers, trustees, deans, financial aid staff, parents, or members of the student government council.
- Intuitive entrepreneur. Entrepreneurial is a descriptor that surfaced frequently in feedback from focus group participants. Even as good business leaders seek operational efficiencies and look for resources left on the table, CBOs must consider bold opportunities for growth. They must lead institutional efforts to balance risk and innovation and be willing to continually reinvent. CBOs must question which tools and technologies to invest in today in order to prepare the institution’s workforce with systems that will be relevant in the future. Similarly, CBOs need to be able to identify what is creating a drag on budgets and which processes are slowing services to students. As one focus group participant noted, being entrepreneurial means not only knowing how to start up a business, but also knowing when and how to terminate one.
- Strategic visionary. Innovation requires looking beyond current trends and events to envisioning those that might intersect in the future and allowing new opportunities to emerge without undue risk. CBOs need to explore new revenue streams, academic markets, and partnerships to bolster experiential learning for students—including partnerships with other institutions. CBOs also need to consider how to optimize current opportunities. Strong collaboration is required with the institution’s chief academic officer, vice president of student services, and other key decision makers to ensure proactive pursuit of the best possible options.
- Curious collaborator. Building relationships is central to the high level of collaboration needed to oversee the operations of a complex organization—and a crucial part of the job for today’s CBOs. This requires reaching out across the institution to ask questions and gather the facts, while showing genuine interest in what others do and think. In particular, CBOs must cultivate relationships with members of the president’s cabinet to learn their business and understand their challenges and daily pressures, as well as what most excites them about their roles and the ideas they have for areas of new growth and improvement. Gaining a better understanding about the priorities of other functions across the organization not only will assist CBOs with helping others get what they need but also will pay off when difficult conversations are required about where cuts must be made or new efficiencies should be introduced.
- Team builder. While responsibility for knowing everything does not rest solely on the shoulders of the chief business officer, incumbent on every CBO is ensuring that the necessary technical expertise resides within the business office team. As team builders, CBOs must expand the pool of expertise to build both breadth and depth, nurturing in team members the same soft skills of communication and collaboration that make for a great CBO. Team building also calls for a high level of emotional intelligence to understand the generational and cultural differences among individual team members that add strength to the whole, helping everyone thrive within a higher education environment. In addition, embracing good ideas and practices from outside higher education is as important as training those coming from outside the sector to understand and appreciate what is unique to higher education culture.
- Community ambassador. In the same manner that CBOs must build relationships internally, they must also represent the institution within the community; cultivate and nurture relationships with civic and local business leaders; and be vocal advocates with legislators, governors, mayors, town councils, and state and local law enforcement, among others. For instance, CBOs are well-positioned to cultivate and nurture strong town-gown relationships and explore potential joint ventures for mutual benefit. To be seen taking the time to foster solid working relationships with external stakeholders establishes a critical baseline of trust and credibility for the institution within the larger community.
- Trustworthy adviser. CBOs succeed in maintaining trust through the linchpins of transparency and accountability. Whether the numbers are good or not, CBOs must tell it like it is. According to focus group participants, CBOs not only put the numbers in context, they can explain nuances and frame the conversation in terms of opportunities, providing options and alternate courses of action. CBOs are also advisers in their outward-facing roles. Helping to contextualize the data and being honest with legislators, community members, and business partners goes a long way toward building and sustaining the credibility of the institution.
- Vocal advocate. CBOs are essential storytellers when it comes to communicating the value of higher education. CBOs must be front and center in these discussions precisely because they have the facts needed to make a compelling argument about the benefits of higher learning to an often-skeptical public audience. For starters, CBOs have the metrics and can explain the ROI. They know the business of the institution and the impact of the academic enterprise. They can communicate convincingly and coherently about college costs to the public and to students and parents. Because they have established relationships within the community, CBOs have a baseline of trust when it comes to conveying messages about the economic impact of their institutions to the wider region as well as the intrinsic value that higher education more broadly brings to the lives of whole communities and the nation.
- True believer. To love the job and believe in the mission of higher education and one’s institution is where the success and effectiveness of a CBO starts—and where it ends. Love of mission is arguably the most essential job requirement, because it undergirds one’s motivation for the role and provides momentum for excelling in that role. Love of mission will sustain CBOs through the tough days with knowledge of the value of the work done on behalf of students, communities, and society at large. Because CBOs are engaged, others will want to engage. Love of mission allows CBOs to rally the troops, boost morale, and sustain the energy and motivation of everyone on the team and beyond to serve students and expand the opportunities of learning for all who want to learn.
KARLA HIGNITE, Fort Walton Beach, Fla., is a contributing editor for Business Officer.