SHU President Shares Business Strategies with Region’s Corporate Leaders

News Story: February 28, 2007

A regional event that brings business leaders “Inside the CEO’s Office” came to Sacred Heart University on Feb. 23, where they learned from University President Anthony J. Cernera about some of the challenges and joys he faces as the head of a growing Catholic educational institution.

Cernera’s presentation to about two dozen people at the Pitt Center Board Room was part of an ongoing series that the Bridgeport Regional Business Council introduced three years ago to provide insight into how a CEO grows as a person on the job and how a CEO grows his or her business, according to Paul Timpanelli, president and CEO of the BRBC.

Cernera told the gathered business executives about the University’s journey from its financial problems, precipitous drop in enrollment and struggle to stay in existence in the 1980s to its current position as a well-respected, sought-after comprehensive Catholic school with emerging international connections.

Today there are 6,000 students, 3,400 of them full-time undergraduates, and this year the University received 7,000 applications for admissions to a freshman class of only 900. That represents a 15 percent increase over last year’s applications, he said.

Cernera said risk-taking, vision and an effort to distinguish the school from other higher education facilities contributed to SHU’s success. Rather than closing the doors or downsizing the school at the height of its financial troubles, University officials examined the landscape of higher education and found the appropriate niche for the school, transitioning from a commuter to a residential institution and adding areas of study, such as the health sciences program.

Offering a hint into his management style, Cernera said he strives to keep staff focused on the University’s mission.

“What do we do best here? It’s the institutional focus on strategic planning. We continually talk about where we’re positioned, how to get where we want to go, what adjustments we need to make,” Cernera said. “People can get caught up with the goals and objectives. That’s the wrong thing to worry about. The most important thing that a CEO does in the strategic planning process is to say, ‘Here’s the mission of the institution,’ and then you can talk about the goals and objectives and about redefining and re-evaluating those. They’re just means towards the end,” he said.

Asked about the qualities that make a successful CEO, Cernera said the ability to keep learning is paramount. “Keep learning the business [in which you work] but keep learning [in general] as a habit of life,” he said. Additionally, he said, “A good leader should be able to say, ‘I made a mistake’ and ‘I don’t know.’”

Samuel Tingley, Jr., senior vice president for JP Morgan CHASE, which sponsors the “Inside the Office” speaker series, said the event allows business leaders to listen to and learn from accomplished individuals in an intimate setting.

“This is a unique opportunity for local business people to speak with presidents and CEOs at their place of business and see where it’s all being done. It’s one thing to be sitting in the ballroom of a local hotel and hear someone speak. It’s another thing to actually come onto a campus or a company,” Tingley said.

“In one hour you’re able to get an education…You learn how it is that they were able to derive their vision and set their goals and make change happen,” said Gail Solis, executive director of the Bridgeport Chamber of Commerce and a graduate of SHU.

Diane Krahm, an agent for AFLAC and a sergeant in the Fairfield Police Department, said the point that Cernera drove home for her was the importance of knowing one’s position in the business community, staying focused on the vision and having the confidence to work around any obstacles.