Leading in Turbulent Times: An Interview with Mason’s CFO

Posted: August 3, 2009 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: July 30, 2009 at 11:00 am

By Daniel Walsch

Mason CFO Maurice Scherrens leads a staff meeting. Creative Services photo

Mason Senior Vice President Maurice Scherrens leads a staff meeting. His responsibilities include facility management, fiscal services, human resources, athletics and auxiliary enterprises. He recently received the CFO Award of the year for large nonprofit organizations from Virginia Business magazine. Creative Services photo

A few weeks ago, Virginia Business magazine presented Mason Senior Vice President Maurice Scherrens with the CFO Award of the year for large nonprofit organizations.

Scherrens has been a major part of George Mason University’s landscape since 1977. As Mason’s chief financial officer, he provides leadership in facility management, fiscal services, human resources, athletics and auxiliary enterprises.

He is also responsible for developing the university’s budget and works closely with the academic and administrative leadership to ensure they receive the support they need to fulfill Mason’s overall mission.

Recently, he discussed the award and the challenges of his job.

Congratulations on your honor. Were you surprised?

About two months ago, I received notice that I was one of 60 people nominated. I was totally surprised by the news. To be nominated for this award was humbling. But the truth is this is not an individual award. This is a George Mason University award, and I was proud to receive it for George Mason University.

Leadership is such a challenging task in these economically difficult times. How have the challenges that come with economic hardships forced you to adjust your own style of leadership? Are you approaching your job differently today than you did several years ago?

One of the key attributes that we bring to the workplace during turbulent times is a willingness, perhaps even an eagerness, to challenge existing policies, structures and practices. It is not a time to let people hunker down and fall into a silo mentality. People sometimes default to reacting in such a way that says, “Leave me alone. I’ll get through it on my own.” So what we have to bring to work every day is an attitude that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. We have to break down walls. Some of those walls may reflect thinking about how things used to be done.

Right now, we are taking a hard look at internal and external barriers that are keeping us from being more efficient. We want to make sure we bring together a cross-section of the university to talk about what it is that one department could be doing to make things easier for another department. By any performance measurement, George Mason University is a very efficient and effective organization. But there is always room for improvement either in process or activity. No organization has all the answers.

There is a tendency to pull in when things are tight. People may hesitate to be creative because they are afraid to stick their necks out.  That’s got to be a challenge for those in your position ― to let people know you share their concerns but at the same time you want them to speak out and share their perspectives.

Many organizations view their number one challenge as being communication. I agree. I believe the key is making people feel safe. Have we established an environment where people feel safe communicating honestly? Usually the most effective communication occurs between parent and child; husband and wife; family and friends. The reason for that is that people feel safe. They know that no matter what they say, the other person will still be there when the dialogue is over. The challenge for Mason and for most organizations is to either maintain or create that kind of environment at the workplace. That said, it is much easier to maintain a safe environment than create one from scratch. I hope we have built that foundation here at Mason.

The culture of organizations in general is that there is a tendency to fall into the pattern of repeating past behavior, especially if that has been successful. How can you get people to try and reinvent themselves?

After 30 years at Mason, I know exactly what you are talking about. The one thing we can be sure of is that yesterday’s answers will not answer today’s or tomorrow’s questions. Circumstances change. We certainly learn from the past. And we most likely learn better from our failures than our successes. So we need to take the lessons of yesterday’s experiences, build on them to address the issues of today and tomorrow and look at things with fresh eyes and an enlightened perspective. It’s easy to look back and say how good and easy things used to be. But if you take the Mason of 1985, you would quickly agree that you would not want Mason to look like that today. Getting from then to now has not always been a straight line. There have been zigs and zags. But the ability to stay agile as an institution has been the key to our organization’s success.

It is comforting to know that although we have a vision, we have not always known what the precise path was to achieve that vision. I believe we work hard to differentiate “windows of opportunity” from “hallways of distraction.” But due to our location in a vibrant metropolitan area, ideas seem limitless, and possible initiatives are abundant. Therefore, we must be steadfast in our commitment to retain focus on our core mission and highest institutional priorities. We have the chance during these turbulent times to make wise strategic decisions that position us at a competitive advantage for when the economy rebounds.

The evolving challenges do seem to be what drive you as much as anything.

The key role of a CFO is often to bring to the table an objective-level critical thinking and analysis to help the institution identify and take advantage of those initiatives that are financially feasible. I am also given the opportunity to challenge the compatibility of initiatives with the mission and availability of resources. We can’t pursue everything. But if we stay focused, then we will be able to differentiate ideas that contribute to the vision from ones that do not. The extent to which the institution can effectively communicate its vision allows people to not only share the vision but also share in the excitement of the journey. As a result, we can develop a community where people feel that they are making a difference.

Any final thoughts?

Personally, this award never happens without a very supportive and understanding wife and family. Professionally, it does not happen without strong leadership from the Board of Visitors and president [Alan Merten]. And the real reason why we could be recognized with this award is the exceptional staff. There is no better place to be than at Mason.

Write to mediarel at gazette@gmu.edu