College presidents represent the character and imagination of the schools they serve. They set the tone; they cast the vision. Chief Business Officers

The role of a Chief Business Officer involves more than numbers.

The role of a Chief Business Officer involves more than numbers.

(CBOs) also have a distinct role. They represent the conscience of the school; their voice is essential. Without it, we have character without conscience, which will diminish the effectiveness of the president and limit the possibilities for the future. Thus, presidents must especially understand the proper role of a chief business officer.

The Role of a Chief Business Officer as Conscience

Thomas Staley, who was the provost at the University of Tulsa in the mid-1980s said, “While the soul of an institution can be found in its curriculum, its conscience can be found in its budget” (Pierce, 2012, para. 1649). I think that Dr. Staley is right on target. This means the Chief Academic Officer (CAO) is the voice of the soul of the institution, and the CBO is the voice of the conscience.

Let’s look at character and conscience more closely. Oswald Chambers defines conscience as, “that faculty in me which attaches itself to the highest that I know and tells me what the highest I know demands that I do” (Chambers, 1963, May 13). Mike Henry of the Lead Change Group incorporates Chamber’s definition of conscience in this statement: “On our inside, in our character, there is a faculty, a feature, built into us that calls us to be our highest self. It calls us to be our best us. That’s our conscience” (Henry, 2015, p. 1). Henry (2015) goes on to say:

“When I listen to the highest I know. I’m the best person I can be. When I act on the highest I know, my best character makes a positive difference. When I am the highest I know, my character, my who-I-am, inspires others to act according to the highest they know. And I become a leader.”

If we consider Mike Henry’s quote from the perspective of the institution, presidents lead most effectively when they listen to their conscience, the CBO.

The Role of a Chief Business Officer as Presidential Advisor

Now let’s add to the conversation that private higher education is facing significant challenges. Some of them are value (cost and discounting), the shrinking middle class, tight budgets, unfavorable demographics, the rising cost of health care, and the list goes on. On July 31, 2014 Forbes posted an article on its website entitled, “The Future of Higher Education Depends on Innovation”   (Doss, 2014, p. 1). Funding innovation requires either margin from the operating budget or from fundraising. Neither is easy.

The challenges of the present and needs of the future heighten the importance of the CBO and require more from the CBO than in the past. This situation necessitates that presidents and boards rely on the insights, expertise, and skills of the CBO, and include them in the decision-making process.  Too often this does not happen. Sometimes it is because the president doesn’t value the voice of the CBO, other times it is because the CBO doesn’t have the skills and temperament to earn a voice. If presidents are going to rely on their CBO, what are the skills and temperaments they need to see exhibited?

Dr. William Crothers has written almost 50 informational handouts about campus leadership. He retired in 2002 after serving Roberts Wesleyan University as president for 21 years. Since then he has served as the interim president for several financially struggling colleges. He has a keen sense of what a president needs from the CBO and wrote a list in one of his handouts as follows (Cruthers, n.d., p. 1):

  • Demonstrate motivational leadership — get staff excited by the possibilities.
  • Seek continuous quality improvement — do not accept mediocrity; keep making things better.
  • Develop an entrepreneurial perspective — innovative leader, keep producing ideas.
  • Maintain the big picture — be on top of detail, but do not lose sight of the “forest for the trees.”
  • Think strategically and prioritize — work on what is important.
  • Support willingness to take risks — achieve balance between conserving assets and building the institution.
  • Maintain sensitivity to shared governance and faculty perspectives — we are not a business.
  • Encourage teamwork — seek input, adapt and have patience.
  • Believe in your calling — personal mission.
  • Project self-confidence even in uncertainty.
  • Be a diplomat — develop relationships with faculty, staff, students and trustees.
  • Be a problem solver — propose solutions; do not just name the problem.
  • Be candid — present facts and put them in context.
  • View issues from the president’s perspective.
  • Communicate — listen and inform.
  • Make the decision and move on — risk adverse people make poor CBOs.
  • Be an effective deal maker — do not leave money on the table, but also do not kill the deal.
  • Demonstrate professionalism in managing the many areas of responsibility.
  • Hire and fire right and develop those under you.
  • Maintain integrity — without honesty, respect, and trust, nothing else matters.

What a great list!  Doing these things will earn the respect, trust, and confidence of the president.

Presidential Dependence on the Role of a Chief Business Officer

I want to speak directly to presidents for a moment. As I do, an image comes to mind of the body of Christ in Romans 12. As president, you are given a leadership team with a variety of different gifts and skills to effectively lead your institution. If you are to successfully navigate the current challenges and find ways to generate enough margin to invest for a better future, you have to rely on the gifts and skills of the CBO. Don’t forget! The CBO embodies the conscience of the institution. If you are to model your best character for your school, you have to listen to your conscience. One more word: if you don’t trust or respect your conscience/CBO, or they don’t have the skills and temperament to do the job with excellence, get a new one, but don’t just ignore them.

Growing Into the Role of an Effective Chief Business Officer

Now for the CBO: do you embody the attributes described by Dr. Crothers?  Are you a strategic leader?  Or, do you see your job as a gatekeeper and, as such, place a stranglehold on every dollar that flows into the institution? You are not the president!  God didn’t call you to serve in that role. You are the CBO and your school needs the insights, expertise, and skills that you have. If you don’t have a voice on your campus, look in the mirror before you become indignant about your peers. Read Dr. Crothers’ list again and ask yourself if you have the skills and temperament that he describes.  Have you functioned in a manner that has earned trust and respect, or have you tried to force your ideas on the campus?

CBOs, if you don’t have the skills you need, get them. Professional development sources abound. I heartily recommend the Association of Business Administrators of Christian Colleges (ABACC). ABACC is an outstanding organization whose annual conference is worth attending every year. In addition, they offer a variety of online courses, webinars, and resources that can help you grow and develop throughout the year.

Presidents, if you believe your CBO can grow into the trusted advisor that you desperately need, insist they get the necessary training and mentoring. Again, ABACC is a great source. If you are not convinced of the importance of the CBO’s voice, talk to ABACC, contact Dr. Crothers, or me, but talk to someone who understands the value of an effective CBO. You have to listen to your conscience to represent the character of your institution with integrity. When you do listen to your conscience, you will be the best leader you can be, and your institution demands nothing less.


Chambers, O. (1963). My upmost for his highest. Grand Rapids, MI: Discovery House Publishers.

Crothers, W. (n.d.). What presidents want in the CFO. Retrieved from

Doss, H. (2014). The future of higher education depends on innovation. Retrieved from

Henry, M. (2015). Character and conscience in leadership. Retrieved from

Hovey, D., & Boser, U. (2014). The new education CFO: From scorekeeper to strategic leader. Retrieved from


Pierce, S. R. (2012). On being presidential: A guide for college and university leaders. [Kindle version]. Retrieved from Kindle


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