Portrait of the College CFO

Quality of life and influence in the institution matter most to chief financial officers -- far more than pay, survey finds.
July 6, 2007

The easy stereotype of the chief financial officer is of a numbers-obsessed person interested only in the bottom line – the chief bean counter, as it were.

But a new survey of college chief financial and administrative officers suggests that the stereotype, like many such images, doesn’t hold true, a finding that has significant implications at a time when major transition appears to be looming in the field.

The survey by Witt/Kieffer, a firm that helps colleges and other nonprofit groups search for managers, found that the two most important factors in job satisfaction for the 634 respondents (out of 4,000 surveyed) were quality of life and their sense of their influence within the institution and their relationship with campus chief executives. (While more than 50 percent cited quality of life and presidential leadership as the "most important" factor in their job satisfaction, just 9 percent cited compensation.)

“Presidents are starting to see and expect more of a strategic, holistic partnership [with CFOs] rather than just [focusing on] numbers,” said Alice Miller, a Witt/Kieffer consultant who conducted the survey. “That relationship [with the president] has become a primary reason why they stay” at their colleges or universities.

The survey shows that colleges and universities appear to be doing a good job of enhancing the role of chief financial officers and making them happy; 52 percent said they were satisfied in their current jobs and just 31 percent – down from 35 percent in a comparable survey in 2002 – said they would seek a new job opportunity within the next year.

But the fact that most CFOs are happy in their jobs could prove to be a problem for the many colleges that -- based on another of the survey’s findings – may need to find themselves a new chief financial or administrative officer in the next few years. The Witt/Kieffer survey found that 37 percent of the CFOs surveyed were age 56 or older, and a total of 81 percent of them were at least 45 years of age.

Given the heavy turnover that that finding suggests is coming, said Witt/Kieffer’s Miller, it is troubling that more than half of CFOs also reported that they anticipated “leadership restructuring” at their institutions in the next few years, which Miller described as “a potential indicator of a lack of internal leadership development programs and a need to bring in new talent.”

“Organizations are becoming vulnerable for turnover at the top, without a good plan” for succession, Miller said. Given the high job satisfaction and relative lack of mobility among CFOs, she said, colleges that have not done a good job planning for succession may find it difficult to attract their next top business officer.

Among other findings of the survey:

  • Fully a quarter of top financial officers are women now, up from 18 percent in 2002. Eleven percent are members of racial minority groups, up from 6 percent in 2002.
  • Fewer than half of the CFOs surveyed earned salaries above $150,000.
  • Nine percent of CFOs said they hoped to become a chancellor or president.

Witt/Kieffer plans to publish a full report on the survey soon. Find out more on the firm's Web site.


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