Want to step out of the corporate vortex and into a fulfilling and stable – if perhaps less remunerative – finance career? Think higher education.
Not that there aren’t some monetary rewards. The median pay for CFOs of colleges and universities is $153,000, according to the College and University Professional Association for Human Resources, which recently surveyed 1,251 schools. If you happen to have a doctoral degree, the median jumps to $220,000. At the other end of the spectrum, merely holding a bachelor’s degree is good for just $131,000.
Overseeing the investment of endowment funds as chief investment officer is actually a higher-paying role than CFO, with a median of $210,000. Other finance positions and their median salaries include: departmental CFO, $113,000; chief audit officer, $107,000; and chief accounting officer or controller, $101,000.
Some CFOs may be more attracted to the idea of teaching than running a finance department. The median salary for a tenured or tenure-track professor is $95,000.
Sadly, though, the outlook for a corporate CFO becoming a full-time, tenured college professor is not good. Many years ago, people with long experience in the business world were often regarded as attractive candidates for business-school professorships. But more recently the academic culture in business schools is such that it would be very difficult for anyone other than a well-known “superstar” CFO to land such a role, according to Jonathan Schiff, an accounting professor at Fairleigh Dickinson University in Teaneck, N.J., and an advisor to large-company CFOs.
Even if a finance executive were to focus specifically on doing what’s required to become a tenured professor, the time frame for doing so likely would be a prohibitive factor. Schiff gave this example: “Mary leaves KPMG after five years and goes to work at Honeywell at age 28. After 11 years there she becomes a divisional CFO. She does that for three years before beginning a Ph.D. program at 42. She gets through in six years and gets on the tenure track at a university at age 48. She achieves tenure at age 55 – if all goes well.”
The vast majority of CFOs who teach in colleges, whether they’re still working in the corporate world or retired, do so as an adjunct professor, a notoriously low-paid position. A strong desire to teach has to be motivation enough, notes Richard Block, who served as CFO for a variety of startup companies from 1999 until his retirement last year. He started teaching an accounting class at Babson College near Boston in 2006 and since retiring has increased that workload to two classes at Babson and one at Boston College.
But while Block is not getting rich, or even paying the bills, from his adjunct-professor gigs, he feels fairly sure that his real-life business experience provides at least as much value for students as do the conceptual teachings provided by Ph.D. instructors.
At Babson, Block took over a class that had been taught by a full-time professor for years. “I found the materials that were being used in the class to be antiquated and simplistic,” he says. “I would take the concepts and say, ‘In the real world, here’s what would have happened, and here is what you would do about it, and here are some additional learnings I don’t see in the textbook.’ And I found that the students very much resonated with talking to someone with some battle scars.”
Block is interested in teaching full time, but positions are tough to find. He recently applied for a lecturer post at a school and made it to the final round of interviews but lost out to a candidate with a Ph.D. “The job was not actually designed as a Ph.D.-required position, but there are so many Ph.D.’s today that they’re applying for jobs like that,” he notes.
Still, the rewards of teaching are important to Block. He enjoys the academic environment, and more so the feeling of a “teaching moment.”
“As you start to teach stuff they give you that deer-in-the-headlights look and don’t have any idea what you’re talking about. But after you figure out how to reach them they go ‘ah hah, I got it, thank you.’ That makes you feel really good. It’s a much different and more rewarding feeling than you get from, say, closing the books a day early.”
Block still acts as a CFO consultant and is currently working with a movie-production company in that capacity. But he doesn’t spend much time yearning for the thrill of full-time corporate finance.
“My last bunch of years in the corporate world were with startups, which is always very pressurized,” he says. “They’re funded by venture capitalists, and the pressure is on to grow sales fast without spending a lot. I was always doing three or four jobs that in a larger company other people would be doing. In some respects I enjoyed being a jack-of-all-trades, but after a while you get tired. It didn’t feel to me like just trying to make do and save cash was the same thing as doing a good job.”
Another CFO-turned-adjunct professor, Len Goodman, had no such burning desire to leave the corporate world. He merely decided it was time to retire after more than 40 years in corporate finance. He’s now teaching a business-ethics class at Fordham University, as well as running his own consulting operation.
Goodman was a CFO for 25 years at GAF Corp., a building-materials company, Datascope, a publicly held medical-device firm, and paint manufacturer Benjamin Moore. In his case, teaching is actually a return to a long-ago stop in his life.
In his early 20s, while getting his MBA degree from Columbia University, he taught accounting and finance for two-and-a-half years at his alma mater, Queens College. “I enjoyed that – a lot,” he says. “Now, teaching gives me an opportunity to give back.”