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This post first appeared on LinkedIn.

A reflection on my session with Washington University’s Women Faculty Leadership Institute

Years ago, I was in the early minutes of a daylong strategic finance session with a women’s leadership group.

We were making introductions. Who we are, where we work, why we’re here in the room.

Then someone told the story of being in a meeting early in their career where budgets were discussed, and being told that “the girls in the room probably won’t be interested in this stuff”.

And it quickly became clear that we were talking about more than finance. We were investing together in women’s leadership and culture change in higher education. 

 Now in its third cohort, Washington University’s Women Faculty Leadership Institute (WFLI) continues that investment. WFLI provides professional development around leadership in general, and specifically in university finance, negotiation, communication, conflict management, team building and mentoring. Along the way, each cohort expands the strong network of women leaders across the university’s main Danforth campus and its medical center. I’ve been fortunate to support the work of WFLI since 2017, around strategic finance issues.

WashU’s intentional investment in its leadership—and especially its women leaders—is all too rare in higher education. It represents a terrific example of the capacity building that can be accomplished, however, when higher education takes a moment to teach itself.

The focus on strategic finance reflects a new lens for most of the participants in our recent session. Two questions serve as initial guideposts:

·      How do we move from budget balancing to an agreed definition and understanding of return on investment (ROI)?

·      How might the application of an ROI lens impact decision-making around mission and student success?

We begin with a dialog around ROI, and the fact that ROI refers to more than just dollars. ROI reflects dollars, yes, but just as importantly, the people and time involved, and what we get for that time. We also note that ROI means different things for different stakeholders. Students might focus on reducing excess credits, and the time and cost of a degree. The university might focus ROI on creating a sustainable business model. Regardless of the ROI definition, in every case, quality must be maintained and assumed.

As the day progresses, clear ROI bright spots emerge. Departments are tackling the challenge of tying compensation more directly to outcomes. Schools and colleges are recognizing that programs contribute in different ways: some through robust numbers of majors, some through significant service credit hour generation. And the university’s resource allocation model is reflecting these different ways of contributing.

But room for growth exists around the understanding of strategic finance and the application of an ROI lens. The areas these WashU leaders recommend for potential investment happen to reflect my experience across all of higher education. Highlights include:

  1. Exposure: Strategic finance represents a new way to view an institution and its work. Institutions and systems benefit by creating more exposure to the framework across the university community.
  2. Transparency: Higher education finance is still a black box. Where does the money come from and where does it go? Institutions need to create greater transparency around finance and the results of resource allocation decisions.
  3. Storytelling: The sharing of financial data that does take place is too often solely focused on the numbers. Not enough time is spent on creating meaning from those numbers, and providing good storytelling around the movement from data to analysis to meaning to informed decision making.
  4. Metrics: Too little time is spent creating agreed upon financial frameworks, or good metrics which would define what good looks like and the progress toward achieving it.
  5. Support: Once the willingness to engage within a strategic finance framework occurs, university stakeholders will still require support to apply that framework. How can universities create internal resources (or provide external resources) to help stakeholders analyze and act within a data-informed culture?

So, where does that leave us? On its own, frustration over a lack of strategic finance exposure and associated action fails to lead to any change. The WFLI members, however, spent the last third of their day together brainstorming how to model the change they wish to see. All change must start somewhere and with someone, or some group. The WFLI members recognized their own power in the growing network they are creating, and have committed to supporting each other in providing increased transparency and accountability through a strategic finance approach. I can’t wait to return to campus a year from now and hear of the progress they’ve made.

Questions for you: What conversations around ROI would you like to see at your institution? How can we all support and encourage more equitable participation in finance?

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