While in my former role in human resources at General Electric, I participated in an organizational change management training program co-developed by Dave Ulrich. I have applied this change acceleration process numerous times and in a variety of ways with different groups since transitioning to higher education more than 10 years ago. Efforts at Skidmore College have ranged from assisting in the painful process of eliminating several departments—while also minimizing the negative impact of this on campus—to convincing leadership of the institution's need to implement major changes to the college's compensation and benefits programs.
In all such efforts I have been guided by a set of seven factors identified by Ulrich for successful change management.
- Leading change entails securing a visible and enthusiastic sponsor and leader of the proposed change.
- Creating a shared need requires letting others know why change is needed and ensuring that the perceived need for change is greater than the resistance to change.
- Shaping a vision involves articulating what the new process or model will look like when you are done.
- Mobilizing commitment requires identifying and getting key stakeholders involved and on board with the desired change.
- Changing systems and structures entails adapting or replacing previous models so that change can occur, since many change initiatives fail simply because people try to institute a new process using old models.
- Monitoring progress involves measuring how you are doing compared to established benchmarks.
- Making change last entails developing action plans with assigned ownership and timelines in place to ensure an ongoing commitment to change.
While these steps may often be invisible to others, they have become an internal checklist of sorts for how I approach helping groups and the institution as a whole move through significant change. According to Ulrich, successful change can occur with only two of the first three and two of the final three factors. However, the fourth factor—that of mobilizing commitment—is absolutely essential to the success of any change initiative. This was the case when I initiated an effort several years ago to bring into alignment with our peer schools Skidmore's rich benefits program and to enrich a less-than-adequate compensation structure.
Mobilizing Key Stakeholders
In concert with utilizing an existing committee to study the issue, I approached our college president to get her on board by explaining the underlying goal and providing credible data to make clear why, from a budgetary standpoint alone, the college needed to act sooner rather than later. When our college president stepped down, I immediately set out to gain the support of our interim president to get him up to speed and ultimately spearhead the change effort, and later did the same with our new president.
By crafting messages and arming our leaders with appropriate data, they were able to convince the range of campus constituencies that we could not afford to maintain the status quo of our current benefits program. Through continual mentoring, they were able to repeat key messages and clearly identify for others the threats and opportunities of making major changes. I likewise identified other key stakeholders, including cabinet members and key faculty members who would be most influential and able to ensure that others understood the messaging and rationale behind the proposed changes, which ultimately took several years to approve and implement.
While the specific change initiative will vary by division and department, building capacity for change within an organization entails a similar approach in most instances. When a strategic initiative involves change, my HR team and I ask leaders key questions such as: What is driving this change? What is the goal? How much time will this require? Who are the champions? How can we get others on board? What skill sets are required? How might you change your own leadership approach to support this initiative?
Within my own department at Skidmore, change took longer than I initially anticipated or desired, though I can see that we have come a long way in 10 years in terms of how executive leaders, managers, faculty, and support staff have come to view the HR function and the role of HR staff. We have transitioned from essentially a paper processing function to a strategic function in which campus leaders from the president to frontline supervisors now seek our guidance. Requests range from helping others gather data to inform the direction of a reorganization effort to strategizing and identifying specific performance management needs. Within the past two years, even our academic deans, chairs, and faculty members have begun to seek our input and involvement in providing training, performance counseling, leadership development, and a range of other higher-level services including mediation. I am certain that none of this headway would have been possible without first convincing my own team to consider their roles in a new light.
When I first came to Skidmore, HR staff members were entrenched in the traditional administrative functions of human resources. To get my team members to consider their multifaceted roles, I found it helpful to develop a four-block model based on the four roles Ulrich outlines in Human Resource Champions: administrative expert, employee advocate, strategic partner, and change agent.
To get the ball rolling, I purchased copies of Human Resource Champions for each of my staff in conjunction with starting an HR development book club that met monthly over lunch. I assigned a different chapter to each staff member, who was then responsible for developing questions and facilitating that chapter's discussion. As we worked through each chapter we discussed the implications for our roles at Skidmore and how those translated into the different hats we must wear at different times based on the nature and need of their interaction with faculty and staff. For instance, when team members were interacting with a manager, were they being a strategic partner by helping managers place their issues in the context of the bigger institutional picture? Even while interacting with the manager, were they thinking through the employee perspective so they could provide the appropriate advocacy in favor of employees' needs?
All this had a significant payoff in terms of getting staff to think through where we were going as a team as well as our role in implementing institutional change. From those conversations we developed our own set of bullet points for each of these four roles.
THE ROLES OF HUMAN RESOURCES AT SKIDMORE COLLEGE
One of the immediate outcomes of drilling this model into the daily context of our jobs was that instead of needing to check with me for every question, team members began to resolve many issues on their own simply because they now had an identifiable framework for their various roles. In addition to posting our four-block model in our own workspaces, HR staff kept this in hand to show managers and leaders as they met to discuss their needs and concerns. We also began using this chart during our new employee orientation to educate employees from their very first day about the HR function and how they could expect to see us performing our roles on campus. This model and the various roles help keep the HR team focused as we model leadership for the campus community.
Yet another of the key concepts Ulrich espouses is to always look to ensure that HR is adding value. This may encompass how you set goals, work with managers, counsel employees, or coach executive leaders. I constantly work with leadership to address gaps between their goals and the capacity of the organization. Do they have the skill sets to meet their goals? Do current staff members have the capacity to develop needed skills? What do individuals need to close the gap within their own jobs? Do our structures support this effort? How do we need to change organizational structure to meet goals?
Adding value also entails providing people on a regular basis with the information they need about the business of the organization. In conjunction with challenging my team to think about the business of HR, I have continually pushed them to consider the critical functions throughout the institution and the kinds of data that others need. For instance, what specific challenges and pressures do admissions or academic affairs staff face? By collecting and sharing data freely about everything from student SAT scores to our student diversity profile to progress on the college's capital campaign, we can provide value by offering insight on issues that others are dealing with across the institution. By fostering an employee culture in which faculty and staff understand the business of the organization, everyone is better prepared to perform their roles and advance the institution's mission.
There are still some leaders on campus who don't necessarily want HR to know the business of their operations well enough for us to provide feedback. However, as a team we now see this as part of our strategic partner role to ensure that we have a presence across campus as we come to understand the core functions and how employees are expected to perform. Without being confrontational, we are often able to make suggestions or ask questions that invite managers to reflect on their operations and whether employees are being involved and informed about key issues or changes.
Barbara E. Beck is associate vice president for finance and administration and director of human resources at Skidmore College, Saratoga Springs, New York; e-mail: email@example.com