Building Talent Internally
Several years ago, the University of Georgia’s (UGA) finance and administration (F&A) leaders looked in the mirror and saw what many of us in higher education face: a graying management team. Rather than view the pending exodus of seasoned leaders as a threat, we chose to see it as an opportunity—one that could lead to a stronger and more diversified administrative team in the future.
“As the senior leader for the division, I’ve always felt like one of the key indicators of a healthy organization is that it has people in place who are prepared, ready, willing, and able to move into ranks of further responsibility and leadership once those open up,” says Tim Burgess, UGA’s senior vice president for F&A. “I think it’s incumbent upon the leadership team to be focused on succession planning. The Finance and Administration Fellows Program is a key piece of our efforts to do just that.”
Charting Leadership Needs
Nearly 20 percent of UGA’s workforce—more than 1,600 employees—serve in the university’s F&A division, spanning auxiliary and administrative services, budget, controller, environmental safety, human resources, physical plant, and university architects. The challenge of pending retirements looms on our immediate horizon. From 2009 to 2011, 16 leaders within the division who will reach 60 years of age and at least 10 years of service will be poised to retire. By 2016, 38 percent of the division’s assistant directors, directors, and assistant/associate vice presidents will be eligible for retirement.
In light of these sobering statistics, we established a divisionwide team of staff representatives to draft recommendations to improve our managerial diversity and develop the bench strength of the entire division. The staff development initiatives now underway are based on the team’s report. Senior staff determined that the programs should be directed centrally through the office of the senior vice president rather than human resources so that the initiatives would bear the endorsement of the ranking official in the division.
As the assistant vice president for F&A, a significant amount of my time is devoted to oversight of these efforts. They include:
- New to F&A Day: a daylong orientation program offered each spring to the newest members of the division.
- Foundations of Leadership and Management Program: a basic business skills program for new or aspiring managers. The division’s diversity committee recommended the content for this program, and training was offered to 40 division employees in FY08. The program was so successful it has been launched universitywide.
- F&A Fellows Program: an intensive training opportunity providing meaningful work experiences in other F&A units.
The F&A Fellows Program is the pinnacle experience of our staff-development programs. Since its inception in 2005, the program has helped us identify 10 rising stars throughout the division, test their aptitude, and expand their horizons through six-month placements in F&A departments other than their own. The results are impressive: four of the participants (40 percent) are minorities; five (50 percent) are female; seven of the eight graduates in the three preceding classes (the fourth rotation is currently underway) have assumed positions of increased responsibility; and half have either earned or are pursuing advanced degrees (two graduates already had master’s degrees).
Fundamentals of the Fellows Program
At the heart of our fellows program is a “residential” experience. Fellows leave their departments to spend three months in each of two different F&A units. During these six months, fellows learn new skills, enhance their appreciation for the breadth of the division, and forge professional connections for future career growth. They are mentored by senior leaders in the host units and are included in management meetings to learn more about decision making. They also attend shadow days in other F&A units, as well as a day with leaders in academic affairs and external affairs. In addition, the fellows are paired with two campus business officers to develop appreciation for school- and unit-based perspectives, rather than purely centralized ones.
Work assignments for fellows are more than mere busy work; they are value-added initiatives for the host units. Several examples include an assessment of wireless communication devices in the physical plant and a recommendation for improved efficiencies; participation in the development of a bicycle master plan for campus (an idea pitched to the senior administration by the fellow and the chief university architect); and examination of a salary-incentive proposal for faculty researchers.
The nature of the fellows program necessitates that participation be small. No more than three fellows are selected each year, ensuring that the personal experiences of fellows will be meaningful and that their time away will not be overly burdensome on the lending unit. While fellows are evaluated on their performance in assigned tasks, most important is their attitude and aptitude. How do they react to new situations and new duties? Do they develop creative solutions to problems? Do they demonstrate initiative? Are their interpersonal skills strong? Likewise, fellows evaluate their own performance and provide valuable feedback about the program, which has been enhanced each year based on their suggestions. These evaluations are shared with the home departments for inclusion in the annual evaluation materials of each fellow.
Selection for the F&A Fellows Program is a highly competitive process. A screening committee narrows the applicants to a short list of finalists who are interviewed by the senior vice president and other cabinet-level officials. This high-level participation helps convey the status of the program to the entire university community. Once selected, placements are assigned by the senior vice president.
Rarely do fellows receive the first choice indicated on their applications, as these are often viewed as being too close to their comfort zones. The fellows generally begin their rotations after Labor Day, returning to home departments for the month of December. The second rotation runs from January until the end of March. The achievements of fellows are celebrated at an awards luncheon in the spring. In addition, the senior vice president has lunch with alumni once each year to catch up on their progress. Plans are in the works to engage participants in further networking and professional-development programs, and we are also considering ideas for continuing the involvement of fellows graduates, perhaps via divisionwide group projects for alumni.
The associate vice presidents over each unit are responsible for either crafting a meaningful work experience as a host unit or, as a lending unit, for providing coverage of the fellows’ work duties during their extended absences. The sudden absence or addition of a high-performing employee for half a year can create a burden for the lending units as well as the hosting units and requires managing the expectations of the fellow as well as those left behind. Especially for a lending unit, it may be difficult for a leader to surrender an up-and-coming employee, particularly when the fellow might be hired by another F&A unit once his or her talents are seen by a broader audience. “That’s truly a risk when you loan somebody out and they do such a good job that the person they’re working for wants to recruit that individual,” says Reginald Woods, senior human resources manager in the physical plant. “The good news is that, particularly in a learning environment, we should be open to those kinds of challenges. You really have to think about what’s best for the university, and that has to be foremost in our minds.”
Controller Holley Schramski has hosted and loaned fellows. “As a host of a fellow, you need to have a good game plan—what the fellow’s expectations are, what your expectations are—so sitting down and planning an agenda is priority No. 1,” says Schramski. “Make sure that everyone who will be interacting with the fellow understands his or her purpose and role in context so that there is complete buy-in.”
The fellows program offers benefits well beyond the selected participants. Fellows realize that there is more to the division, and to UGA, than the confines of the unit and department in which they work. They are able to apply their new knowledge and improved networking to enhance the operations of their home departments upon their return. Likewise, employees in the lending departments who step up during a fellow’s absence improve their knowledge and skills because they are cross-training and assuming new duties. Upon the return of the fellows, job duties do not revert to old norms. Rather, they reflect the enhanced skills and training of all involved. In fact, the entire F&A division is enhanced because the capacity of the overall workforce is strengthened. In addition, the hosting departments reap the benefits of value-added projects performed during a fellow’s tenure.
Another big plus of the program is that it costs very little to implement. Lending departments may hire temporary staff to help cover the workload in the fellow’s absence, although this option has never been utilized. On one occasion, a fellow was paid to perform 10 extra hours of work per week to keep critical initiatives in his home department underway. In all other cases, the work has been covered by cross-training and spreading the workload among existing employees.
Perhaps the greatest testament to the success of the program is the fellows’ determination to heed the advice of mentors to pursue advanced degrees. Fellows retain their current salaries and do not receive additional salary upon their selection or completion of the program, and no promises are made to them of a promotion pending the conclusion of the program. Instead, the fellows are informed that a successful experience will broaden their skills and be an asset in future consideration, but that the best step they can take to improve their prospects for career growth is to continue their educations.
Key Lessons Learned
The F&A Fellows Program is one component of a multifaceted staff development program aimed at improving opportunities for advancement within the organization. Unfortunately, budget woes have hampered our ability to implement staff-development programs as fully as desired, except in the case of the fellows program. This program, which requires nominal monetary investment, has continued unimpeded. Thus, it is particularly advantageous in that it can flourish in downturns as well as in good economic times.
Lessons we’ve learned include the following:
- Don’t be afraid to modify the program in response to feedback. It’s an iterative process.
- Be flexible in developing the fellows’ schedules and adapt these when the lender has special needs (e.g., a delayed start to finish a critical project).
- Manage expectations of all involved. Be clear and realistic about perceived outcomes—for instance, that there is no guarantee of a promotion upon graduation from the program.
- Establish unwavering support from senior leadership.
Regarding the final point, top-level support is critical. It must be present from the get-go and must remain steadfast for the program to persevere. In truth, it can be a challenge to maintain the support of unit leaders, particularly those in smaller units, who sacrifice a great deal when a fellow is selected from their departments. This is especially the case when budget constraints are tight and there is little money to hire replacement help to cover the workload. That is all the more reason why commitment to developing the next generation of leaders must be demonstrated from the top.
“This has clearly been a great success for us. We are developing a cadre of employees who have shown that they have the skills, abilities, and commitment to advance in the organization,” says Burgess. “If you expect good people to work hard and do good things, then you ought to be willing to spend your own time to show them that this is important, that it really means something, and that this is worth everyone’s valuable time.”
Kathy R. Pharr is assistant vice president for finance and administration at the University of Georgia, Athens; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
UGA's F&A Fellows with Senior Vice President Tim Burgess and Kathy Pharr
Front row (left to right): 2005-06 fellows Chris Kwiatkowski, Kim Thomas, and Kim Eberhart; 2008-09 fellows Darlene Bradley and Heath Hardison. Says Thomas, who transitioned from a position as communications director in the police department to assistant director of services for the physical plant: "The fellows program allowed me an opportunity to develop my leadership skills and apply business principles in my rotations that I didn't have in my old position. Now I have moved from managing a group of 11 employees to assisting in the management of more than 300 employees, and I know that I have a group of peers and top administrators to call on if I have questions. I'm also pleased to be a positive example to others who aspire to advance in their professional careers."
Middle row (left to right): Burgess, Pharr, and 2006-07 fellows Brett Jackson and Rod Platt. Says Jackson, a former parking services senior accountant who now serves as assistant director of auxiliary services: “The fellows program demonstrates that leaders are open to new ideas; open to people taking the next step, showing initiative, and trying something new. There’s definitely a feeling that you want employees to succeed here.”
Back row (left to right): 2007-08 fellows Chenyao (Franky) Zhang, Al Jeffers, and Tomekia Wilson. Says Zhang, who transitioned from a contracts and grants accountant to an application analyst in parking services: “The fellows program has caused me to re-examine my career goals. It has broadened my exposure and network of colleagues, increased my visibility, and given me greater confidence and leadership abilities.”