Building Performance in a Union Environment
Talent management is difficult enough in its own right. Trying to instill a performance-oriented mind-set within a unionized labor force is an even greater challenge. But, it's not impossible, according to Dee Bernard, formerly finance director of Minneapolis Community & Technical College (MCTC) and now vice president of administrative services and chief financial officer of Inver Hills Community College, Inver Grove Heights, Minnesota. Both colleges are members of the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities (MSCU) system, the fifth largest state higher education system in the country.
While at MCTC, Bernard helped lead a strategic review of her finance division's staffing plan. The effort was part of a larger statewide workforce development and succession planning initiative, she says, and it came at a time of multiple external pressures, including a shrinking statewide labor market and increased demand for new skills within the finance arena to address requirements resulting from passage of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act.
The results were fairly remarkable, notes Bernard. "Over a five-year time period, we promoted nine employees while eliminating 11 positions during a restructuring effort that led to a 20 percent reduction of workforce in our division. And, we improved efficiencies and effectiveness in times of significant changes in our workforce landscape." Those accomplishments were no small feat, given the difficulty in handling promotions and terminations within a largely unionized workplace. "We had to be creative and methodical," she notes. In fact, an added outcome of the workforce planning effort was an effective talent management strategy that emerged in the process. "For five consecutive years, our efforts were recognized with a financial excellence award by our system," says Bernard, who finds the external recognition of improved performance from MSCU, combined with significant increases in efficiencies, to be the strongest testament to the success of planned staffing.
In a nutshell, here are the steps Bernard took at MCTC as part of a workforce development plan that in effect launched a talent management program within the MCTC finance division.
- Identify barriers and then develop a plan to work around them. As with any SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats) analysis, you have to first recognize key challenges, notes Bernard. Within a unionized work environment, the challenges often emerge as tensions between institution priorities and labor practices. For instance, on the one hand, her division required new skills to address increased reporting requirements, and so her immediate desire was to have the ability to aggressively search for new talent. Juxtapose this with union labor priorities to promote based on seniority. "We realized we needed a longer-term talent management strategy to grow employees into the new skills we needed," says Bernard.
- Identify needed skills and competencies. After performing a capacity analysis to determine skill deficits within her division, Bernard assessed position descriptions to determine how well these reflected actual responsibilities and tasks. "We realized our workforce plan needed to address our current competency gaps." Yet she was amazed to find that in a number of instances, job descriptions frequently were not in alignment with division goals and objectives. "It wasn't that employees were performing poorly, but by no means were all performing optimally based on our actual needs," says Bernard. Add to the frustration that within a unionized environment where seniority takes precedence, it would not be so easy to quickly eliminate underperformers and aggressively promote star talent. "We needed to figure out how to accomplish performance and productivity goals differently," she says.
- Create individual development plans based on career tracks and aspirations. For Bernard, a big part of talent management is simply paying attention. Incorporating individual development plans for every employee that clearly articulated individual aspirations and goals was a huge step, she says. "By building key KSAs (knowledge, skills, and abilities) to include in position descriptions and development plans, we created an awareness factor about institution and division expectations."
- Incorporate key competencies into training and evaluation. When you know you are working within an environment based on seniority, you have to develop your employees from within, notes Bernard. "In our case, organizational restructuring efforts required some extensive cross-training, and this proved another reason for our success and a component that we chose to retain as part of our overall talent development strategy."
- Involve union leaders. Finally, bring union leadership in from the start, advises Bernard. "What we were attempting could easily have smelled foul to union managers. By bringing them along from the beginning and sharing the structure of our plan, they could see how these efforts would add value for employees, and so we were able to build consensus."
While implementing individual development plans and incorporating cross-training are not earth-shattering ideas, what astounded Bernard was how quickly employees blossomed once performance expectations were clearly articulated. "It's easy to take this for granted, but I believe it's all the more important within a union environment to identify expectations and incorporate these into your talent development program. You may have to get creative, and you certainly have to be patient, but it will pay off over time."
Karla Hignite, principal of KH Communication, is editor of NACUBO's HR Horizons. E-mail: email@example.com.