Mr. Diaz discusses how he views his role, the university’s financial health, how he will be involved in the strategic initiatives, and what he wants you to know about him.
Mark Diaz became GW’s executive vice president and chief financial officer on Aug. 1, after serving for 18 years as a budget and planning leader at the University of Miami.
He recently sat down with GW Today to discuss how he views his role, the university’s financial health and some of the projects he will be involved in, including the Institutional Culture strategic initiative.
Q: What does your portfolio include?
A: On paper, essentially all business operations of the university fall under my auspices: human resource management and development, information technology support, financial services, business planning and improvement, facilities and real estate, and safety and security. I look at all those functions as support functions that serve the university.
In addition to what’s on paper, my view of what I’m responsible for is operationalizing President LeBlanc’s vision. Period. And that’s not limited by boxes or structure. For example, because of my experience in health care and university culture, I am involved in both the Medical Enterprise and Institutional Culture strategic initiatives. President LeBlanc has also asked me to work with him to provide administrative oversight for athletics and recreation.
Q: What does all this mean for how your first few months at GW will look?
A: I like to assess so I’m informed about whatever decision needs to be made. I am spending a lot of time assessing, taking a lay of the land. I’m not dogmatic. I don’t come with preconceived notions. While I have been in a university setting before, GW is a new landscape with its own unique challenges and opportunities. So I’m getting familiar. Reading, meeting, observing—I’ll be doing all those things first.
Q: What have you learned so far about the financial health of the university?
A: Early diagnosis: stable. The prognosis is filled with opportunity. GW has resources, and the opportunity lies in optimizing those resources, rather than maximizing them. Contrary to the perception that this is a resource-limited environment, I think there are opportunities to optimize and leverage resources to realize the university community’s aspirations. That’s exciting, since I’ve been in truly limited-resource environments, and it does limit aspirations, in spite of your best efforts.
Q: What is your perspective on keeping the GW community informed about finances?
A: Having all constituencies informed is helpful, especially for the sake of transparency. Too many times transparency is invoked as this nice thing we all want to aspire to. But if those whom you’re being transparent with aren’t informed about whatever you are trying to be transparent about, then you've failed. I think it’s important to really give everyone a solid understanding of where we are and where we’re going with our finances. To that end, we’ll be sharing that as it becomes clearer.
Q: You mentioned you are involved in the Institutional Culture strategic initiative. You played a similar role at the University of Miami. First, how do you define culture?
A: Sometimes it’s easier to say what something isn’t. Culture is not simply a customer service thing. It isn’t putting on a smiley face and reading from a script. Culture is about values and behaviors. In its simplest form, culture is behavior and behavior is people, so culture is people. At Miami, I emphasized the importance of culture on the organization’s value proposition and helped assess—or diagnose—it. This involved going beyond anecdotes about various issues and really exploring, with the help of some outside experts, how the organization worked internally and how it interfaced or talked with stakeholders and members of its community. This kind of comprehensive assessment is the next step in GW’s culture initiative and something you will be hearing more about in the coming weeks.
Beyond assessment, I don't think I’m a subject-matter expert in changing culture, but I do know how big culture is. And I know that you can’t go at it alone. It’s not an overnight thing. You really have to do everything possible to work toward the outcome you want and not hope for the outcome. Culture is one of those things you cannot hope to fix. You have to intend to fix it. Everything is about intentional actions, intentional words, intentional behaviors.
Q: What else do you think is important to know about culture?
A: Budget concerns can sometimes become part of an institution’s culture over time. But reiterating what I mentioned earlier, GW has resources—human, financial and other assets—and it’s a matter of optimizing them to grow and achieve our aspirations. Also, one of the things you always have to guard against is the phenomenon that “I’ll fix my corner of the world because I understand its culture,” and inadvertently what you’re creating is a sub-culture. You’re not doing anything to align or enhance the institutional culture.
Culture is all people. Not some segment or group of people. So it’s very critical that the first thing we do is ask, “How do we get everyone to coalesce around one purpose that they can identify with?” You don't have to memorize it, but you should be able to identify it. Therein lies the work, the magic that can then help really start transforming the culture. Finding out exactly where can we get everyone with something that is identifiable, relatable, motivational, emotional or a connection to what they do. That's a lot of work. But it can be done. The key is that everyone—not 99 percent, but everyone—has to connect with that. That's the only way it will work.
Q: How can the university community get involved in the culture initiative?
A: The next step will be a comprehensive assessment and we will need the entire university community to be involved. We will be sharing more information about that in the coming weeks.
Q: What excites you about being at GW and in D.C.?
A: So how do I answer that without sounding cliché? I believe in President LeBlanc’s ability to move an organization. And if I really had to distill what I’m about, I’m about just making things better. So collaborating with Tom LeBlanc and being a part of his efforts to enhance an organization gives me every opportunity to realize my purpose of making things better. Also in assessing this opportunity—I assess everything—I saw a commitment to his vision, from the Board of Trustees and across the university. That alignment is important. All of this excites me.
Finally, I think the diversity of GW adds a flavor that I’m accustomed to and familiar with. A lot of folks believe their point on a map is the center of the universe. But D.C. is the lead horse in that race. That excites me, too.
Q: What else should the GW community know about you?
A: I would like folks to know that I’m really here for the best interest of this university, first and foremost. I’m not here for legacy building, for resume building. So anyone who has the best interest of the university in mind, come and talk to me. That's the type of conversations I want to have. I have an aversion to being told what I can’t do. Hopefully everyone has that same aversion, and they’re really looking at how to do things, not how not to do things. So if you’re aligned with that, then you’re aligned with me.