Communication Is Key for CFOs

Business officers are susceptible to getting siloed. Christine Helwick offers suggestions for how they can work effectively with leaders in other campus disciplines.

December 20, 2013

Today’s university business officers feel overwhelmed.  The scope of their responsibilities is vast and growing, and even though they have control over institutional resources, there are rarely enough to go around, especially for their own work.  This can easily result in a retreat to their comfort zones and abandonment of the extra effort required to reach across disciplines to collaborate with colleagues.  The consequence can be that the business office becomes siloed.

By training and discipline business officers have a unique language and perspective on issues. Spreadsheets, pie charts, and numbers are good communication tools, but they can also become shields to hide behind, and can, perhaps unintentionally, intimidate colleagues who are too afraid to ask questions.  While business officers understand that they are different from academics, they don’t always fully appreciate how much their background can separate them from other university colleagues with whom they must communicate to succeed.

The first step to counteract the business officer becoming siloed is to become conscious of this phenomenon and the risk it poses to the health of the institution.  There are numerous examples in today’s world of areas where cross-discipline communication is necessary for universities to succeed:

  • Compliance. It is not enough to hire the compliance officer, leave that person to do the work, and assume that the university will then achieve institutional compliance. Without support from every corner of the university, the compliance function will almost certainly become a hollow paper exercise, consisting of annoying rounds of checking boxes and completing forms that appear only to slow institutional progress. The entire university workforce must be educated about the underlying purpose behind the rules with which they must comply, and there must be good cross-discipline communication to develop meaningful strategies to efficiently meet those purposes.
  • Conflicts between privacy and transparency. A variety of laws and recent amendments, which are not always consistent, call for universities simultaneously to protect information and to be transparent with it.  Meeting these requirements requires good judgment and a willingness to undertake risk. An institution cannot arrive at good decisions in this area without robust cross-discipline discussion and debate. 
  • Campus violence. Virginia Tech changed the rules on both crisis preparation and crisis management. It is no longer good enough for campus employees to respond to delicate situations involving student mental health with the mantra “FERPA won’t allow me to share information.”  The business officer, together with student affairs, campus police, mental health professionals and others, must together develop campus protocols for troubled student behavior, and regularly monitor delicate or threatening situations. The campus must also have an interdisciplinary plan to manage any instance of campus violence, including a well-understood chain of command and customized plans for decision-making on how and when to communicate with local law enforcement, students, faculty, staff, parents, and the community.
  • Other campus disasters. A campus shooter is not the only disaster that can befall a university.  Recent times have seen universities also vulnerable to floods, fires, earthquakes, terrorist attacks, tornadoes, and other natural and manmade disasters.  None of these can be effectively managed without campus administrative teams that plan and work together and conduct dress rehearsals for various disasters. 

Many other situations could be added to this list.  When the university business officer is siloed, and no longer regularly reaches out to communicate with colleagues in other disciplines, the health of the institution is at risk.

What helps keep the business officer in regular communication with university colleagues in other disciplines? Here are a few suggestions:

1. Make liberal use of cc’s. An easy, but often overlooked, tool to keep the business unit integrated with the rest of the institution is to regularly add cc recipients from other divisions to everyday communications. It not only informs those other campus units of the day-to-day work in the business unit (and often produces unexpected connections that might not otherwise occur), but it also projects an overall openness within the business unit, which makes it more likely that other units will reciprocate and share their information in return.

2. Make difficult conversations personal. Business officers must often deliver budgetary and other messages that are unwelcome.  When the message is unpleasant, the delivery should be personal.  Face-to-face is best, but at a minimum, the message should come from one individual to another over the phone.  Unpleasant messages should not be conveyed without warning in an email or a memo.  Colleagues will appreciate the courage and humanity it takes to reach out to them on a personal level. It may not change their reaction to the immediate message, but it will help the long-term relationship and make it more possible to work together on another day.

3. Leave the office. With more and more work piling up, it can be hard to find time to step out of one’s office at all during the day. Yet nothing contributes to good cross-discipline communication more than getting out and regularly visiting colleagues in their environments.  It provides an opportunity to observe their work firsthand, learn more about their needs and style, and discover what is most important to them.  It also builds relationships by communicating that the business officer values their contribution to the overall effort.     

4. Look for opportunities to institutionalize sharing. The university leadership team generally comes together in a staff meeting or some other periodic gathering, but often the opportunity is missed to use this time to share the more mundane day-to-day work across disciplines, separate from the issues that are on the formal agenda. It doesn’t have to be time-consuming – a quick roundtable will suffice. But this type of institutionalized sharing reinforces the importance of collective work and a better understanding of each unit’s contribution to the greater whole.  It can also be surprising how frequently serendipitous connections are made in the process that can lead to greater efficiencies that otherwise might have been overlooked. 

5. Make time to socialize with colleagues. The human connections are what make the complicated work successful.  Scheduling periodic lunches, after work gatherings, or some other social get-togethers with those who work in different units inevitably results in sharing of more than just work. It contributes to the development of a respect for, and often friendship with, those colleagues that will produce better communication and cooperation later on when it really matters.

As with many things in university life, the process of how the work gets done is often as important as the substance of the work itself.  Universities reach peak performance only where every unit respects and understands what the other is contributing to the effort and there is healthy dialogue across those units on a regular basis. Business officers, who are particularly susceptible to becoming siloed, have a great opportunity to take the lead in developing a culture of cross-discipline communication.  They can only prosper where it is the norm.


Christine Helwick is of counsel at Hirschfeld Kraemer LLP in California and former general counsel for the California State University System. This essay was adapted from a presentation she made to university business officers at the EIIA Advisory Counsel.  


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