Becoming a Renaissance CBO

The role of the chief business officer is changing (and expanding) dramatically, and current and prospective CBOs must broaden their skills and approaches, write Thomas Ayers and Karen Goldstein.

June 5, 2015

Like most campus administrators in higher education today, chief business officers are expected to handle a significantly wider-ranging role, work with a much more diverse set of constituents and possess a broader set of skills than ever before.

The role of the CBO has always been quite broad, often with responsibility for all aspects of finance, human resources, facilities, auxiliary services, information technology, campus police and risk management. However, the new pressures facing colleges today have brought both new and expanded responsibilities, including helping to guide strategic planning and associated implementation, developing entrepreneurial partnerships to create new revenue streams, developing plans for emergency preparedness and Title IX compliance, working collaboratively with other campus leaders to build cross-functional teams to provide more effective services, integrating resource allocation efforts with planning and outcome assessment, and serving as an educator and champion of transparency with all constituent groups regarding institutional financial health.

What Institutions Want

Browse through position specifications of open CBO positions across academe and one quickly gets a sense of the skills and responsibilities being sought. Below is language from the listing for a recently advertised position that illustrates heightened expectations:

  • “Be an important partner with the president, provost, vice president for research and vice president for student affairs as they collaboratively strive to support and expand academic programs and research operations, as well as develop new initiatives and high-impact extracurricular activities.”
  • Develop “a variety of student success initiatives and activities especially well suited to the institution’s student demographic and their life circumstances.”
  • “Provide leadership and support the development of creative business solutions to the challenges facing public higher education.”
  • “Play an important and participatory role in helping to identify new revenue streams… including developing public-private partnerships and other external business collaborations.”
  • Be “an active and visible member of the local business community, willing to reach out to city and other community leaders and organizations to establish and nurture positive relationships and pursue mutually beneficial business and economic strategies.”

A Vignette of Challenges from Kettering

Examine the challenges faced today by CBOs. At Kettering University in Flint, Mich., the new challenges facing the CBO (i.e., Tom Ayers, in his role as vice president for administration and finance) have included:

  • Collaborating with local government and community partners to purchase nearly 200 foreclosed and blighted properties near campus to improve safety and allow for future economic redevelopment,
  • Working with other campus leaders in cultivating substantially greater transparency in allocating resources with linkages to institutional assessment and goals,
  • Collaborating with engineering faculty, experienced alumni, outside donors and other campus leaders to convert an abandoned industrial brownfield site into an automotive research area, and
  • Partnering with the president, university advancement team, legal counsel and city leaders to assume responsibility for the operations of an historic city stadium for the benefit of both the city and the university.

These new and expanded responsibilities require a broader set of skills. It is no longer sufficient to be strong in financial analysis, contract negotiation, traditional team building and communications skills focused on making reports and presentations. One must now have the ability to collaborate with leaders on and off the campus, to think outside the box, to engage teams in internalizing a culture of excellence, and to communicate effectively and transparently in person and in writing on a wide range of issues. It goes without saying that fulfilling such expectations is quite a tall order, we agree.

What Does One Do?

What’s a CBO to do? Our suggestion: embrace it and view these new challenges as opportunities for professional and personal growth that, if handled successfully, will have a lasting impact in shaping a campus in the furtherance of its mission. The ground truth is that current CBOs and those aspiring to the CBO role who dismiss the changing environment will be shuffled to the side or passed over for promotions. Of course, ramping up one’s skill set is easier said than done. It requires a new mind-set to become something of a Renaissance CBO.

Many CBOs and those looking to become tomorrow’s CBOs are willing to take on such additional responsibilities but need help in knowing where to begin. Let us suggest some practical ideas to improve one’s skills and mind-set:

  1. Make sure that you understand well the academic programs of the institution. Join in partnership with the academic vice president, the deans and the faculty at your institution to really understand the current academic programs, what new programs might be planned and especially the associated changes in the learning process. Meet regularly with them to share information and ideas. Attend academic events on campus on a regular basis and listen, listen, listen. Cultivate personal relationships with a handful of faculty willing to give you timely and confidential feedback and perspective on issues.
  2. Develop your communication skills. Listen to trustees, campus leaders, faculty, staff and students to better understand their concerns about the financial health of your institution. Ask trusted individuals among these constituencies to provide feedback on how your efforts in communicating could be improved. Seek to strike an appropriate balance in defining transparency, understanding that too much information is overwhelming and too little undermines credibility. Accept opportunities both within and without the institution that stretch your communication abilities -- for example, explaining linkages between endowment and financial aid discounting to faculty members or talking to a neighborhood association about economic development.
  3. Mentor your direct reports. In order to take on your new roles and responsibilities, you will need to make sure that you have responsible leaders managing the various units of your division. So help your team members develop their own leadership skills. Provide opportunities for them to be involved in projects outside their normal span of duties. Encourage them to further their education and to get involved in professional organizations. Listen to their concerns and needs and share how you deal with challenges.
  4. Develop your creative and entrepreneurial skills. Seek out other CBOs who have developed new programs and learn from them. Learn from national associations and consortia in brainstorming ideas. Volunteer to serve on boards of not-for-profit organizations. Discipline yourself to look at every challenge as an opportunity and to identify the needs and goals of other individuals and organizations involved in any undertaking.
  5. Understand the roles of and work closely with the other senior leaders. It is important that all senior administrators work in close partnership. The CBO and the VP for enrollment, for example, need to partner on the student discount rate. The CBO and the VP for advancement need to work closely on keeping track of donations and communications with donors. The CBO and the provost/academic VP need to work closely on supporting academic programs as strategically and efficiently as possible. Such collaboration is based on knowing one another and developing a sense of trust. Spend time with other senior leaders, seek to understand the unique pressures they face and look for ways to be supportive.
  6. Work with local community leadership to share services and find new ways to collaborate in stewarding resources. Look for areas of mutual interest and determine how each party’s unique position might serve the common good. For example, a joint public-private effort in “selling” can reap positive outcomes in encouraging a business owner to locate a new business operation near a campus. In some situations, private organizations might be free of some regulatory restrictions to take action, while at other times public municipalities may have access to otherwise unavailable federal or state resources.

Myriad challenges to higher education are going to continue coming from students, parents and legislators. As such, the role of the CBO will need to expand in a variety of directions. It is up to current CBOs as well as aspiring financial leaders to branch out and develop skill sets to meet the challenges and help ensure the success of their institutions.


Thomas Ayers is vice president for administration and finance at Kettering University, in Flint, Mich. Karen Goldstein is a consultant at the executive search firm Witt/Kieffer and former vice president for business and finance at Davidson College.

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