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Span of Influence

November 2017

By Margo Vanover Porter

As recipient of the 2017 NACUBO Professional Development Award, Brontè Burleigh-Jones shares with Business Officer the impact of her work as a CBO, volunteer, and mentor.

Potential CBOs need to brush up on three Cs, advises Brontè Burleigh-Jones, vice president for finance and administration, Dickinson College, Carlisle, Pa.

“In professional development, there’s less focus on technical expertise and an increased focus on collegiality, collaboration, and communication,” she says. “I would honestly say that having strong communication skills and being able to impart why we do what we do are far more important than financial acumen.”

She points out that CBO job descriptions have changed and suggests that professional development offerings need to change accordingly. “Most of my colleagues are no longer solely responsible for the business office, financial statements, and the budget,” she explains. “Our span of influence includes facilities, IT, HR, and the accreditation process. So many activities on a college campus are resource driven. Having them under the business office umbrella makes absolute sense.”

Burleigh-Jones received the 2017 Professional Development Award for her extensive volunteer service to NACUBO, which has included contributions as faculty for multiple events, a member of the Small Institutions Council, and a frequent author for Business Officer magazine.

You’ve contributed so much to so many organizations, including NACUBO, EACUBO, Middle States Commission on Higher Education, and Higher Education Resource Services. How do you find the time?

It’s a priority for me. I arrive on campus at 7 a.m., work through lunch, and am here until 5 p.m. And when I’m here, I am on it. I always make sure Dickinson is taken care of. I know my schedule six months in advance. I overlay what needs to happen on campus with my professional organizations so I can plan appropriately. I never put my volunteer activities before Dickinson.

You come from a family of educators. Did you ever consider another profession?

Yes. When I moved to Texas to pursue my PhD, my intent was to become a finance professor. Being the prudent financial manager that I am, I went to work at the Texas State Auditor’s Office for a couple years to become a Texas resident, which allowed me to pay in-state tuition. While working at the SAO, more often than not, I wasn’t always impressed with the administrators who were running the institutions. As a result, my focus changed from being a professor to an administrator. I felt I could have more influence as a finance administrator than a finance professor.

I started out on a path, but life led me in another direction. I now know I am doing what I am called to do. I love it.

In your opinion, how can CBOs frame the conversation so that everybody on campus can take part in discussions about institutional priorities?

It’s all about customizing the presentations and discussions based on the audience. I meet with a wide range of people on a regular basis. I talk about the same data, but how I present the information is driven by my audience. One of the things my grandfather told me is this: “If you really understand what you’re talking about, you can explain it to anybody.” That said, I believe that it is absolutely critical for CBOs to understand their audiences, because getting buy-in depends on it.

You serve as a role model for women and people of color. Do you ever feel overwhelmed by that role?

First, let me point out that I try to serve as a role model to a wide range of people. I mentor a considerable number of male students who are interested in business careers and seek me out. For example, during our most recent annual day of giving, one of my former mentees—a white male—made a noteworthy donation in my honor.

Now, to answer your question: No, I don’t consider being a role model a burden or taxing. There have been far too many people who have made themselves available to me. I believe it’s incumbent on all of us to reach back as we grow.

What differences might you observe in mentoring people of color compared to individuals of other races?

Definitely, there are differences. With people of color, because we have shared realities, they don’t have to convince me of their experience because I know it firsthand. When we try to explain our experience to people who are not of color, their general response—although innocent enough—is usually, “I can’t believe that happened.”

How could higher education improve diversity among faculty and staff, particularly among business officers?

By being intentional. By establishing appropriate recruitment pipelines with universities that offer quality MBA programs, advertising in the right places, creating relationships with entities such as the National Black MBA Association, and addressing unconscious bias within search committees. We all have biases, so it’s important to talk about it at the beginning of a search.

Another thing: You have to understand that candidates look for evidence of a welcoming community. It starts with going to the university website and seeing if there are men and women of color in significant positions throughout the organization. Once the candidates are in place, it’s important to create opportunities for them to have conversations with employees of color, because there are questions that we need to ask one another.

As a woman of color, in what instances might you have felt marginalized by your gender or race?

During a meeting with a local governmental organization with whom we have significant business, a matter of import came up, and the participants were told that we needed to elevate the conversation to include the vice president for finance and administration.

All the people from the governmental entity knew all the other players at Dickinson. I was the only outlier. Once everybody was assembled, I tried to begin the meeting. Before I could say hello, I was rudely asked, “Excuse me. Exactly who are you?”

Now if you know everybody else in the room and I am the only person you don’t know—and you were told you were coming to meet with the VP—what would that make me? I stopped, I introduced myself, and I passed out my business cards, which say Brontè. Throughout the meeting, they called me Dante four times. We reached a point where I said, “If my first name of Brontè is difficult, you can call me Dr. Jones.”

My colleagues were mortified with how this meeting played out and offered to take over, but it was important to me to finish the meeting, even if it was uncomfortable. We did reach resolution on the matter. This was in the last year.

What characteristics have helped you achieve your successful career?

The ability to navigate stereotypes, such as “the angry black woman.” Persistence, as demonstrated by this example. I was persistent: “I am the college’s chief businessperson, and you will deal with me.”

NACUBO has the statistics: Over 60 percent of CBOs are middle-aged white men. I appreciate that the average person coming to do business with the college is not expecting to see me, especially in central Pennsylvania. I understand that.

To avoid these types of experiences, which are all too common, my diploma from the University of Texas at Austin hangs on the wall in my office in a very prominent place. When you’re scanning my office, I want to be sure that you see I have a PhD from a major research institution.

How did working at a historically black college compare to your experience at St. John’s and Dickinson colleges?

At Huston-Tillotson University, resources were very tight. We were often short staffed, so the notion of “other duties as assigned” took on a completely different meaning. Things I would delegate now were on my table because there was no one to delegate them to. However, our level of commitment was bar none. We knew that we were serving first-generation, low-income students of color, and this was their opportunity to improve their lives.

MARGO VANOVER PORTER, Locust Grove, Va., covers higher education business issues for Business Officer.


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