ALG Interviews Randy Helm, Robbee Baker Kosak, and Tom Minar

For CDOs considering an eventual move into the CEO/President/Executive Director role, what skills and experiences, beyond fundraising and management of advancement staff and programs, should they look to acquire within their institutions?

Helm: Obviously you need to be very, very good at development and alumni relations — and all that goes with it. Closing gifts, managing relationships, building and motivating teams, inspiring confidence, and kindling enthusiasm for the institution are all important skills, but they are not enough. Listen to and observe your colleagues on the cabinet — and most of all, your president. Learn as much as you can about their areas of responsibility and the perspective they bring to the issues discussed at senior staff meetings. Presidents need to raise money, but that is just one part of the job. Develop a deep understanding of admissions, of student life, of the academic enterprise, and institutional budgets. Learn about the legal dimensions of the job: human resources, Title IX, ADA, and all the other issues that presidents must master. The best place to learn all this is in the cabinet. Don’t tune out when things beyond your own portfolio are being discussed.

Kosak: A critical skill set needed for a successful move to CEO/Executive Director is in the financial management arena. This means more than running a balanced budget and understanding investments; it means having a deep understanding of the audit process — including the roles of the board’s audit committee, the CFO, and yours as the CEO — as well as having an appreciation for the fact that the audit is not just “an annual activity.” The audit reflects many decisions, policies, and practices that are executed by multiple people in your organization throughout the fiscal year. Thoughtful decisions, discussed and vetted by the management team throughout the year, can lead to a smooth audit process as well as a positive management letter and audited financial statements to present to the public. Of course, going along with an understanding of the audit process is the ability to understand financial statements. In your years as a CDO, use your time to learn from colleagues who serve as CFO and General Counsel. I have found my former colleagues in these roles to be immensely instructive in these arenas. Lastly, it is imperative that one develops an appreciation for how a brand is created, managed, and promoted. Regardless of the type of organization you come to lead, you are essentially “running a business.” It is crucial that you and your organization have a well recognized, respected, and authentic reputation within the audiences you serve and from whom you seek financial support. Using all available channels to communicate and protect your reputation within those groups is crucial to your organization’s success.

Minar: The most important, in my mind, is as much exposure to academic affairs as possible. CDOs do so much work in program development and have resultant background in planning faculty positions, understanding the funding of academic programs, and even market need assessment, that they might have more exposure than they think. But making sure your president and provost know of your interest in the presidency will enable them to mentor you and engage you meaningfully in academic planning and conversations that will last through your career. Otherwise, board management (don’t we all do that anyway?) or institutional budget exposure can be critical. Ask to be secretary of the corporation or of the board — remind them it’s appropriate because you have the closest relationships with trustees.

What skills and experiences might they want to acquire in other ways—for example, by serving on a nonprofit board, or through additional education?

Helm: A Ph.D. in an academic field is helpful — but it is probably not practical to obtain one just as a credential to be used as a candidate. Getting a PhD in an academic field is part of providing you with credibility, but by itself it is insufficient. Search committees will want to know if you’ve done research, if you’ve taught, if you’ve published. Unless you can claim to have done all those things, just having the degree probably won’t be decisive. It won’t hurt, but it won’t be decisive. A PhD in educational leadership may or may not be a helpful credential depending on the institution and the search committee. Serving on a nonprofit board can’t hurt, but may not be all that helpful, depending on the organization. Serving on the board of an educational institution can equip you with perspectives, experiences, and seasoning that will help you give better answers in interviews for a presidency.

Kosak: Being on a variety of nonprofit boards can be immensely valuable. Such experiences can provide an early training ground for what it is like to be a board member—one can always learn valuable lessons by “walking in the shoes of others” that will serve you well as you begin to work with your new board as CEO. Board service also provides in-depth opportunities to learn governance practices as an “insider,” including how board members are selected; the tone, content, and regularity of communications from the CEO to board members; expectations with respect to all aspects of board member participation; and reporting and compliance standards for various types of nonprofit organizations.

Minar: I wouldn’t trade my Ph.D. and the five years I taught at Northwestern for anything. So if you’re going to go for education, go all the way. The best board experience, if your desire is to move into a higher education presidency, is on a higher ed board, of course. There are boards that need our talents, and you can find those opportunities. Keep in mind that our work in higher ed is distinctly different from most other industries in the nonprofit sector.

What has been the most challenging part about the transition from CDO to CEO?

Helm: Oddly, the most challenging part of the transition was managing the development team. I made it clear from the beginning that I had no wish to micro-manage the development operation, that I had my hands full with the responsibilities of the presidency. But there was still a powerful inclination by development staff to defer to my perceived expertise, and at first that meant they would wait for me to give direction rather than initiating action themselves. We got past this in time, but it took a while. Also, I wasn’t prepared for the volume of material in my in-basket every day. It was overwhelming at first.

Kosak: I moved from 35 years as a leader in advancement in research universities to the presidency of a foundation that supports the top PhD candidates in science, engineering, and mathematics in the United States. The Foundation was recently granted a change in tax status from that of private foundation to public charity status—we now both award funding and raise funds for the mission. It has been a perfect bridge from the university setting into leadership in the nonprofit community. The most challenging dimensions have been two-fold: first, helping the staff through the daily operational and strategy changes required to develop successful development and marketing/communications programs, and second — and more nuanced — leading the board, key volunteers, and the staff through decisions as to how to effectively present the Foundation’s mission, needs, and success to the public. This includes everything from the development of fundraising and communications strategies to the formal development and use of statements regarding non-discrimination.

Minar: Honestly, the glass houses we live in as presidents. We are so visible. My favorite story is of the constituent who loudly announced at an event that he’d seen me at the fabric store (with my 89 year-old mother, who was making table linens for the president’s house!).

What has been the most surprising aspect of the transition?

Helm: I was surprised at how much fun it is to have the variety of tasks that make up the president’s daily schedule. I might have breakfast with a prospect, interview a prospective faculty member about her teaching and research, meet with architects to discuss plans for a new building, meet with lawyers about a lawsuit, and then have dinner with a bunch of students. Very energizing!

Kosak: I am surprised at how much I am enjoying the business leadership aspects of the role. I am an avid life-long learner, and the depth to which I need to quickly learn or hone skills in this arena has been energizing. On the flip side, I was a bit worried about making the transition away from daily contact with faculty research leaders. For years, I enthusiastically learned about so many disciplines and discoveries every day through my university work. Though my interaction with faculty now is not on a daily basis, I’ve been delighted that I get an even broader view of science and technological research through my regular interactions with our Fellows (in-school and alumni).

Minar: The amazing joy and warmth I feel around campus. The remarkable opportunity to talk with faculty about our collective future. The never-ending stream of “Hi, how are you?” that I hear from students.

What advancement skills and talents are the most important in your role as CEO—on what experiences do you draw the most?

Helm: Motivating people. Listening carefully. Always knowing what the next step should be and understanding the crucial importance of follow-through. Those and the importance of saying “thank you” frequently and sincerely.

Kosak: Each day I draw on: the ability to develop a compelling case for support (whether to secure support for the organization, increase operating support from the board, or encourage a new volunteer to join us); the ability to personally inspire major gifts; and the experience and confidence to lead a committed board of directors through a significant change process.

Minar: Strategy, strategy, strategy. I’m able to utilize my strategic skills to plan for a strong future for my institution. My constituent relations skills are very useful; I can be dropped in any room, with any people, without being scripted, and at least perform okay (I think my staff are surprised). I’m used to running around—campus, the city, the country, the world—all the time and maintaining my energy and smile. Those are key skills I brought from advancement! That said, obviously solicitation skills and willingness are very important as well.

Do you expect nonprofit organizations to continue to look to advancement as a source of potential CEOs/Executive Directors? Do you see this increasing or decreasing in likelihood, and if so, why?

Helm: I don’t know. I think search committees often talk a good game about looking for non-traditional candidates, but usually chicken out in the homestretch and go with the “safe” choice — which is not always wise, but… And, of course, some institutions who do go with a non-traditional candidate will look for people from the business world. These appointments can be brilliant, or they can turn out badly. There are plenty of examples of both.

Kosak: Speaking about the nonprofit sector more generally—well beyond higher education—I do not think the sector will continue to thrive without a large number of CEOs coming from a strong development/advancement background or extended experience with these activities. One must have subject (mission-related) expertise on staff. But the CEO must be a compelling and successful solicitor, have strong analytical and strategic skills, be a strong communicator, insure the organization can deliver on the potential impact for which gifts are being sought, and inspire confidence in board members and donors as to the ultimate success of the organization. In the end, it takes a successful, experienced professional and one who is very business-focused to lead an organization. Advancement work in complex organizations provides the perfect training ground.

Minar: Absolutely. The first reason is simply that there isn’t a wide enough pipeline of other qualified candidates, and not enough deans and provosts are interested in these jobs. The second is the clear match of skills for the job. Our strategic sense, our understanding of financial nuances and fiduciary responsibility, our sensibilities around the complexities of compliance are obviously beneficial. But our years of varied experiences building relationships with people in all sorts of settings is most important of all.

Peyton R. (Randy) Helm is Interim Chancellor of UMass Dartmouth and President Emeritus of Muhlenberg College. He previously served as Vice President for College Relations and Professor of Classical Studies at Colby College.

Robbee Baker Kosak is President of the Fannie and John Hertz Foundation. She previously served as Vice President of University Advancement at Carnegie Mellon University.

Thomas J. Minar is President of Franklin College. He previously served as Vice President of Development and Alumni Relations at American University.

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