The Art of Early Intervention
|Vivian Moore Lawyer retired as of January 2012 from Montgomery College, Rockville, Maryland, after 36 years of service. Lawyer began her career in student affairs and worked for 16 years in EEO and affirmative action as a separate function from human resources. She spent the remainder of her career within a comprehensive human resources office serving as a director of employment and professional development programs, and for the past 12 years, as the college's chief human resources officer.|
|Vivian Moore Lawyer|
For the past six years, Lawyer served as an advisory panel member of NACUBO's HR Horizons. In this interview, Lawyer recounts lessons learned from a career of guiding others to achieve their best, including the art of early intervention in resolving conflict.
What do you consider your greatest accomplishment or biggest legacy of the HR function from your time at Montgomery College?
The college's Leadership Development Institute that I helped create in 1992 has continued to this day, with the 19th class of participants getting ready to graduate. We initially launched this program with a small grant but continued funding the program through the college's budget. From September through May each year, participants take part in daylong programs that include leadership assessment tests and discussion of leadership styles and theories and a range of workplace issues such as ethics and diversity. Over the years we added various components, such as allowing participants to shadow managers and supervisors for several days.
Our goal from the outset was not to create a program geared to developing the next president, but rather, to help participants learn how to lead from wherever they are within the organization—whether a secretary, building service worker, administrator, or faculty member. In certain instances, the program probably helped some individuals realize that Montgomery College was not the place for them, but in many instances, we saw graduates of the program assume different roles or take on new responsibilities in their current jobs and build long-lasting relationships across the institution. That is the kind of thing that fills my heart with joy. I have always believed that Montgomery College is a place where everyone has the opportunity to grow—from the least prepared student to the president. The great benefit of the institute is that it really aims to instill in participants that we are all here for the same reason—to learn and to grow.
In recent years, you were driving a major reclassification of all positions at Montgomery College. What do you consider the key benefit to the institution of that process?
This is still a work in progress, but the overall vision of this from the start has been that classification of positions is fundamental to so much else that happens and needs to happen in support of the college's workforce development priorities. Because of this, the classification part has to be done right. Leaders must make sure they have the appropriate descriptions when they recruit. Appropriate and consistent descriptions are also needed for fair and efficient performance review and for setting benchmarks. And, these are also necessary to have in place so that you are able to tie the goals of individual positions to institutionwide goals. It may be several more years before the entire talent management system is in place, but this represents a huge accomplishment that will allow the institution to be even more efficient and consistent. While it may not speed up the interviewing process—since humans are still needed to do that—the new system will make it easier to assess individuals on set criteria to help identify the most qualified people for the job.
What most tested you during your career, and what did you learn from this?
I can recall two or three employee complaint situations that went on far too long for the simple reason that the individuals involved had their minds set on a specific outcome and they weren't willing to look at the situation with any shred of flexibility. They weren't able to perceive that if they simply continued down this path, it was not going to produce a good result for anyone involved and in fact would only get worse for everyone. What I realized from those situations in particular is that you have to deal directly with the problem—whether it is a conflict between two employees, or between an employee and a supervisor. And that in part means better training of supervisors to implement early intervention measures such as documentation of employee behavior and performance. This doesn't have to be onerous, and you don't need to document volumes. It could be keeping a simple calendar to track employee progress. Prevention and early intervention are so important to keep situations from spiraling out of control.
Did you ever have a personal or professional "mantra" that you repeated to yourself or to your staff to keep focused on top priorities?
Start early and train more is probably one lesson I always tried to keep in the forefront for dealing with a host of issues, including what I previously shared about keeping on top of employee conflicts by training supervisors to manage conflict through prevention. I would say another principle that has always guided me is to find the good in others. Even in the most trying situations, I've tried to dig deep to remember that there was some reason we hired this person in the first place. Respect of others' time is a third key guiding principle. Each time I held a meeting, including routine staff meetings, I thanked people for coming. Everyone is so busy, and even a short staff meeting encroaches on the ability of others to do their work. So I've always tried to be mindful of thanking others for their time.
What have you found to be the single best driver of employee morale and motivation that has stood the test of time?
People want to be heard. No matter how simplistic that may sound, when I first became director of affirmative action, employees came to me in droves to tell their stories because I became known as someone who would listen. I can recall one morning when a certain employee called me and was very anxious to talk with me. When I realized that what he was recounting to me about a miscommunication that had taken place between him and his supervisor had occurred a full year earlier, I asked him what was so urgent about this now. Here was an employee who had let this upsetting conversation fester for so long that he reached a boiling point where he had to get it off his chest. It's critical that we train supervisors to have regular conversations with their employees. And this is part of the real value of the evolution of performance evaluation from a once-annual event to routine feedback and engagement with employees so that, when there are disagreements or misunderstandings about performance and roles, solutions can be sought early on.
During your tenure in the profession, how have you seen the relationship between the CHRO and chief business officer evolve?
Since college and university budgets are so heavily invested in people, leaders really do need to talk more about people processes and where this money goes. In my experience, it was at the impetus of our CBO that I began to be involved about 12 years ago in the college's quarterly financial meetings. It was highly enlightening to me to see detailed presentations on the college's finances, what we were expecting through enrollment and other revenue streams, how our investments were performing, and so forth. In return, I felt I had something of value to contribute that was really brought home during the downturn these past several years. I was able to explain the implications of a slow-down in filling positions and the longer-term impact of a hiring freeze. In our conversations of recruitment and spending, one issue in particular that surfaced was that of hiring temporary workers. We had to strike a balance between filling permanent positions and having the staff to meet our academic, security, and legal needs. Through these discussions, we were able to reshape some of our hiring policies, including revisiting the college's process for assessing the justification for filling positions.
How would you say that HR has become more responsive to the institution over the years?
In the past decade or so, we have learned that we really need to be educators for the new programs we launch and for changes that we make to existing programs. This past year the college began offering a consumer-driven health plan option. This required a real selling job with regard to why we were doing this and how it could benefit employees. In addition to offering program information and talking with employees, we made sure we had tools available to help employees determine how this new plan would work for them and their family members. HR of decades past would not have taken so much time to really assist employees with understanding the key components and with identifying and providing resources to help them make these important decisions about their benefits. For any major effort these days—whether it's a new job classification or recruitment system, or a new health-care plan option—you really have to be prepared to push the information in a variety of venues.
What should HR be involved in at the strategic layers of the institution that, in your mind, it too often is not?
I feel very fortunate that at Montgomery College, I was able to take part in high-level conversations and decision making about the institution's workforce. I think one area that has been a challenge and that probably is a challenge for many institution HR functions is not always having full participation with the academic side of the house. There are so many ways that HR can assist departments beyond recruitment that strategically could really benefit the academic enterprise as a whole in understanding hiring needs, identifying long-term staffing priorities, and in developing plans to retain key talent.
What about HR changed most dramatically during your years of service?
I think that technology, and in particular the transparency of data that is now possible, has taken us a long way in being able to understand what's behind the numbers. Not only are we able to obtain information-rich reports, but we can use these to help others draw conclusions about what the data reveal or suggest and to actually shift behavior. In one example, like many institution HR departments, we've had challenges getting staff performance reviews submitted in a timely manner. After creating a quarterly report of timeliness of performance reviews, we found that this helped put people on notice and increased the number of performance reviews being turned in on time. The transparency of data that is now possible provides an objective view of what's happening that I believe can help HR begin to change the behavior and response of employees for the positive. Not everyone will take the data to heart, but many do.
Technology has also become a big help in areas like recruitment and workforce development. For instance, we now can not only easily quantify how long it takes us to fill a position but can identify where in the process the decision gets bogged down. Likewise, when you are able to quickly see which employees have completed a certain level of training, it can help narrow the pool of candidates who may be eligible for promotion. Technology can't address the human element and tell you who would be best to hire or promote, but it can give you a place to start the conversation.
What advice do you have for today's higher education employees seeking to reach the CHRO spot?
Obviously you have to develop your skills, and being part of a professional association or network is, I think, incredibly beneficial. And for the CHRO role in particular, I would say if your calling has not been to be an attorney, make sure you know some good ones. Virtually everything you do in HR—every process and practice—has legal implications behind it. It's also critical to recognize that the job requires multiple management styles because you are working and interacting with the full range of personalities and personal agendas on a daily basis. Today's workforce is so diverse in every way, so you really need to possess the ability to adapt your management style to the individual sitting in front of you.
What was the most painful part of the process for HR in weathering the recession? What lessons would you say were learned that should remain a cautionary tale going forward?
It was really tough when we had to freeze positions and slow down hiring even though we knew some of our units needed people in critical ways and were then forced to have existing employees taking on the extra burden of the work. I think the work that leaders have done since then to really seek alignment of the college's vision with its goals and objectives in terms of defining positions and identifying key positions means that the college will be in a much better place if these kinds of tough decisions are needed again. Staffing decisions really need to be based on institution priorities.
What do you think will be the next big shift in HR?
Like so much of our lives these days in which functions have become self-serve, there are some aspects of HR that can benefit from this shift. The goal isn't to be hands off in serving employees, but it's important to respect the different ways that employees may want to engage the institution. Some are very happy to be given the tools to research the information on their own, and for those employees in particular, it's important to develop ways that make it easy for them to find what they need.
What are you involving yourself in during your retirement?
For the first time in many years I have been able to do some real work in my garden. Whether it has been planting new flowers, or mulching a bed, or finally moving plants from the sunny side to the shade where they should have been in the first place, I am so pleased with how it's starting to look. The methodic approach has been really therapeutic for me in other realms as well, whether it's been increasing my involvement with community organizations, or going to the gym regularly. I will tell you, however, that between my leisure activities, some consulting work I've been doing, and greater involvement with my sorority in preparation for celebrating our centennial in 2013, I feel much busier in retirement than I was when I was working full-time. So my advice to those nearing retirement is to hold on to your time-management skills because you may need them more than ever.
Karla Hignite, editorial consultant to NACUBO, is editor of NACUBO's HR Horizons. E-mail: email@example.com.