The Business Officer as Interpreter

You can infinitely improve your effectiveness if you speak the language of your growing audiences, writes Jeffrey Ratje.

February 20, 2019
 
 
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I see the world as it was presented to me. I open my eyes and see the world differently.

This reflection of mine distills what I see as the challenge and the opportunity to partner as business officers with administrators, faculty members and other colleagues on our college and university campuses. Higher education is changing, and with it, the role of business officers. Indeed, the theme of change has become a mantra. But how can we as business officers best adapt to all the change?

Leaders in our business community speak about the silos that dot our institutional landscape -- the challenge we must face to improve communication and partnership, as well as the opportunity to trust, grow together and hold one another accountable for achieving shared goals. Those silos manifest themselves not only in the functional and organizational structures of our institutions but also in the psychological paradigms of our training and how we view ideas, decisions and data. Building bridges in our own thinking is necessary to realize the promise of a horizontal and integrated institution, moving together to empower the purpose of higher education.

Focusing on the Audience

For starters, we must learn to see, speak and understand academics in an audience-specific way, not just from our own perspectives as business officers. Expanding our viewpoint and seeing our work through the eyes of our academic colleagues, students and other stakeholders is an important step to greater understanding and professional growth. The trick is recognizing something that we are often blind to: as business officers, our training and indoctrination prepares us for the functional aspects of our work, yet we often receive scant training in communicating with faculty and students.

That happened to me when I first transitioned from a central budget department to academic administration. I was thrust into the middle of a contentious faculty presentation on financially stabilizing the college. I opened with a statement of the financial challenges and opportunities, and I closed to a silent room.

The first question from the audience was not about my numbers but instead about my understanding of and commitment to the mission of teaching. “How will your plan impact our ability to teach and train students?”

I was stumped. I didn’t have a clue how to answer this fundamental question, because my 11 years of experience as a business officer had focused my attention on the numbers and the primacy of staying out of deficit. I thought my job was to provide solid financial analysis. Yet the faculty had a different perspective of what my job was. They wanted me to be a partner with them to perform the primary objective of teaching and research.

The lesson was clear: I needed to speak in terms of the mission when working with faculty. Talking solely in money terms did not demonstrate that I was sensitive to or even aware of their concerns. From then on, I also reviewed future presentations in advance with trusted faculty advisers to solicit different views.

Examining Biases

Another key lesson for me was to search for the best intentions in others. The faculty member gave me a gift: insight into what was important to her when she asked the question. If I had assumed that she was negative or defensive, I would have missed this valuable insight amid my own biases and preconceived notions. She was actually worried about the financial concerns, too, but she wanted to put the concerns in context to what she saw as equally important core missions.

“Administrators only care about money and numbers. They don’t appreciate the myriad valuable contributions I make as a faculty member.” This statement came from an engagement survey conducted at my institution. If you read that statement, you have three choices: 1) to search for the best intentions, 2) to become offended and put the offender on your naughty list, or 3) to ignore the statement altogether. It’s no surprise that I chose, and would advise, the first course of action. Seeing the statement as a negative comment would only reinforce the faculty member’s perspective that administrators don’t care. The potential for a constructive dialogue diminishes, and the offense colors all future conversations. Alternatively, ignoring the statement doesn’t address the true concerns.

To me, this comment is a request for validation. We must slow down and examine our biases before jumping to conclusions. Are we responding to facts or letting our own perspectives overrule the potential that we aren’t seeing all sides?

Encouraging Novel Thinking

Through deliberate mindfulness, seeking optimistic conclusions about the intentions of others can become a learned behavior. The role of training and mentoring among business officers is especially important for building greater perspective. It forms the basis of the success in our industry.

What if we are perpetuating a cultural element we’d rather stop? Say, for instance, a junior business officer asks, “Why do we review and approve all business transactions before they are posted? Reviewing all transactions requires a lot of work, and only a handful of transactions require correction. Couldn’t we query the data for common errors after they post?”

Within this constructive question lies not only the possibility of multiple innovations but also the opportunity for building trust among institutional units. Too often I have heard responses that shut down creative thinking. Before responding to this question, you should uncover and disclose your biases. Maybe you’ve attempted a post-transaction review process that the auditors questioned in the past, or you’ve tried something new that resulted in an error and got you in trouble. The message that you took away was clear: don’t try that again. But maybe you should try it again -- just modify your response to remedy the problems.

You may not be able to support the sweeping changes implied by the question, but you don’t want to shut down innovative thinking, or worse, create the perspective that collaboration and innovation are bad. Go out of your way to encourage this kind of novel thinking. Celebrate it as someone seeing the world from a different perspective -- as green shoots of insight.

Moreover, you should recognize that, whatever your response to the junior business officer, it will influence that person and become a point of reference for how they view the world and train the next generation of business officers. Paradigms are created through moments like this -- will it be horizontal and integrated or siloed? Changing to the horizontal world requires consistent decision making and communication in both the small training moments like this and the large restructuring of organizations.

Speaking the Right Language

In fact, through my exposure to both central and academic administration, I have come to believe that the primary role of a business officer is largely that of an interpreter -- a knowledgeable and skilled professional interpreting and mediating among various audiences and viewpoints. I’ve been involved in far too many discussions that were based on the parties talking past one another because of the use of what were assumed to be universal truths.

One example is a conversation with my dean involving the definition of temporary and permanent budget. After circling in confusion for 15 minutes, he asked what my definition was for these terms, and I asked him. Turns out we were using different definitions -- both valid but significantly different. Once we knew the other’s perspective, we were able to engage in a fruitful discussion.

Being an effective interpreter requires adapting language, analogies, level of detail and jargon to the audience and understanding of what’s important to it. It means not “dumbing it down,” which assumes the worst intentions, but rather treating your partner with the same respect you expect. Indeed, the most important skill is to be able to actively identify communication that will be misunderstood. It is learned through trial and error and is a sign of your enlightenment as a collector of perspectives.

You can infinitely improve your effectiveness as a business officer if you speak the language of your growing audiences. The truism that people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care is especially valid. Your audience wants to know that you care deeply about what they care deeply about. Care and emotion are often not conveyed in numbers. Until you can connect with an audience through their perspective, numbers simply get in the way of communication.

Bio

Jeffrey Ratje is associate vice president for finance within the Division of Agriculture, Life and Veterinary Sciences, and Cooperative Extension at the University of Arizona.

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