Boosting Employee Excellence
The best competitive advantage for institutions of higher education is a fully engaged and productive staff and faculty. That’s according to members of a CUPA-HR think tank exploring the future of higher education and related implications for those who manage human capital at colleges and universities across the country. In August 2006, the group released its findings in a report that identifies key internal and external challenges facing higher education and success factors designed to bolster the capacity and competitiveness of institutions. (See sidebar.)
“Our goal at the outset was to make sure this was not simply a study of problems and challenges, but to focus on identifying what leaders can do that will impact the success of their institutions at their core,” says Andy Brantley, CUPA-HR chief executive officer. Likewise, think-tank members intentionally chose not to rank challenges or success factors, since leaders must assess the strengths and weaknesses and most pressing challenges for their individual institutions, says Brantley. The group also kept its focus broad to encompass overarching, institutionwide concerns that affect faculty and staff at all levels. For instance, when evaluating an institution’s strategic planning efforts, leaders should consider how the various components of the strategic plan are fully embodied in how human capital is managed throughout the organization, says Brantley.
Becoming Strategy Savvy
Allison Vaillancourt, associate vice president of human resources at the University of Arizona (UA) and current president-elect of CUPA-HR, was a think-tank member. Some of the group’s initial discussions centered on naming specific frustrations stemming from what think-tank members identified is a certain lack of sophistication within higher education about human capital strategy. “Many of us see amazing potential in our institutions, but we don’t always manage people as well as we might,” says Vaillancourt. Among the pitfalls: the complex internal structure of institutions that makes building a common culture difficult and the length of time often required to build consensus about programs and policies.
One example is decision making about academic offerings. A proposal to eliminate or merge a program can take ample time to push through faculty senates, where there is often a desire for protracted debate, says Vaillancourt. Meanwhile, affected faculty and staff are left hanging, wondering about their future.
“Another internal challenge we discussed is that there isn’t always a respect for what’s required to be a good manager or for identifying and grooming leaders,” says Vaillancourt. Especially on the academic side, institutions tend to advance people based on technical expertise rather than leadership. “Simply because someone is brilliant doesn’t mean he or she should become a department head,” says Vaillancourt. She believes part of the challenge is that there is often resistance within higher education to appearing too corporate by intentionally preparing people for leadership roles. However, think-tank members did note a greater awareness among younger department heads about the need to manage, coach, and prepare academic leaders so that the decisions they make, including hiring decisions, are good for the institution as a whole, says Vaillancourt.
A Better People Infrastructure
In providing an assessment model and a listing of strategic questions leaders must ask, a primary goal of the CUPA-HR think tank is to increase the level of sophistication by which institutions manage their people. “A great organization takes more than smart people. It requires structure and planning,” says Vaillancourt. Her institution has developed a list of 20 priorities leaders believe are required to build an organizational infrastructure that supports faculty and staff success. For example, UA leaders have come to understand the need to better prepare for retirement-related vacancies and to enact a plan to retain institutional memory. “We are currently conducting an age analysis by department to determine, for example, what percentage of a department is age 60 and older. In part, what that may tell us is where we need to invest in recruitment efforts during the next 5 to 10 years or where there are opportunities, through retirements, to merge or collapse programs in ways that are less painful,” says Vaillancourt.
UA is also in the process of implementing a universitywide engagement survey to find out what motivates faculty and staff, with plans to repeat the survey every 18 months. “From our studies of faculty and staff employed less than 18 months, we know this is a critical time period for individuals to decide whether to stay or leave the institution,” says Vaillancourt. “If we can determine what frustrates employees, and why they leave, that can help us go a long way in retaining good employees.”
One finding that has already surfaced is that those new to higher education often don’t understand the political landscape of higher education in terms of the shared governance structure and how decisions get made and, says Vaillancourt. In response, the institution is increasing efforts to boost employees’ understanding of how UA works so that people aren’t in the dark and don’t leave simply because they don’t get it. UA is also developing a series of human capital performance indicators—for instance, what percentage of women achieve tenure and length of service and absenteeism rates by department. “Tracking these kind of metrics will help us build a better infrastructure to manage our people and to make ongoing adjustments where needed,” says Vaillancourt.
Core Asset Accountability
According to Brantley, because higher education is under tremendous scrutiny these days, think-tank members also set out to explore ways in which leaders can hold their institutions more accountable before additional external guidelines are placed on the industry. In that spirit, the list of critical success factors is intended to help guide institutional assessment so that leaders can do an even better job of managing their core asset.
Key think-tank outcomes and issues raised by the report are also being incorporated into the CUPA-HR Knowledge Center to provide an ongoing framework for collecting innovative institutional strategies and best practices. As an assessment tool, the report can guide leaders in determining threats and challenges specific to their own institutions and recognizing areas of strength and opportunity.
Karla Hignite, principal of KH Communication, Tacoma, Washington, is editor of NACUBO’s HR Horizons; e-mail: email@example.com.
CUPA-HR think-tank members identified a series of 21 critical success factors and corresponding questions that leaders can use to guide planning and assessment of the specific culture and challenges of their institutions. Here is a sampling of those success factors.
Institutional branding: Do we have a compelling institutional brand that sets us apart from similarly situated institutions and local employers?
Assessing engagement: Are our faculty and staff excited about their work? Do they regularly put forth exceptional effort? Do we ask faculty and staff what inspires them and what impacts morale?
Compensation planning and analysis: Are we regularly and systematically evaluating external market conditions and internal equity in order to make informed pay decisions? Do leaders understand the importance of competitive wages and benefits?
Clear expectations and honest conversations: Is performance planning an institutional norm? Do our institution’s faculty and staff know what it takes to be successful? Are performance expectations established in a collaborative manner? Are individual plans aligned with institutional objectives? Are faculty and staff held accountable for achieving results, and are leaders willing to have difficult conversations when necessary?
Career ladders: Do our employees have a place to go? Have we established paths for advancement? Do our faculty and staff understand what it takes to advance?
Succession planning: Who is next? What plans are in place to ensure that emerging campus leaders are being trained and prepared? Are plans in place to retain institutional memory?
The full summary of the CUPA-HR “Think Tank Report on the Future of Higher Education 2006,” including the full list of success factors, is available from the CUPA-HR Knowledge Center. The model is intended as a framework for encouraging and collecting innovative institutional strategies and best practices.