Human Resources serves as a strategic partner in the leadership of many higher education institutions, particularly during times of institutional stress. As executive search consultants serving the higher education market, we wanted to learn what is on the minds of senior HR leaders in this unprecedented time, so we engaged with HR leaders at large and small, public and private institutions to get their thoughts about what leaders will need to ensure campuses can successfully emerge from these difficult times. While some of the skills are ones that have always mattered for higher education leaders, others are new to the portfolio and gaining in importance. What we discovered and uncovered through these conversations follows.
Caring for Community
It is a well-worn adage that you can’t over-communicate, but during these times of extended stress for all members of our communities, this is even more true. Regularly scheduled and frequent communication using a variety of approaches (video, emails, memos) ensures that our campus communities survive and thrive, working together through unknown challenges and risks. Lianne Sullivan-Crowley, Vice President for Human Resources at Princeton University says, “HR has always had responsibility for communicating with the campus,” but this spring has issued “six or seven community-wide memos.” It is even more important in these times to use language that communicates clearly to a variety of audiences, free of jargon and “inside” terminology. Keeping communication concise and streamlined so that people clearly see the important messages is key. Using institutional data and analytics will communicate decisions made based on the current reality and make them easier to understand. Some institutions see a current and future need for communications specialists on the HR team to aid in this critical messaging.
Leaders must also continue their work to connect effectively with the larger community within which the institution is based. They must provide support for students, connections with faculty and staff who live locally, and a route to engagement with local and state authorities who are able to help with the campus’ crisis management activities. Effective engagement with the local community is always a good idea and is critical during these times of mutual reliance. In addition, being attuned to how institutional decisions will impact the larger community is important. As campus leaders debate furloughs, pay cuts and layoffs, taking into account what they will mean both internally and also to the wider community should be central to decision making. This is especially true when an institution/campus is the primary employer in a town. And importantly, as many students express their enthusiasm for staying closer to home, recruitment opportunities will be enhanced by being sure that the campus’ strengths and values are well understood locally. All steps that can protect and even enhance enrollment success will be important going forward.
Bottom line: Community inclusivity matters. That means being willing to invite and accept input from stakeholders when possible. It spurs exploration, discovery, creativity and innovation which are core to the academic enterprise. And it ensures that all the work of the campus community is fully informed with perspectives that incorporate multiple points of view. All of this work must be grounded in institutional mission, values and priorities. The commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion has been much tested during these times, requiring not just statements of support and commitment, but evidence of action with clear goals, measurements of success and future steps well laid out. Leaders who can clearly articulate institutional priorities and how these priorities take stakeholder needs into consideration, as well as how to implement meaningful change, will be in high demand.
Leveraging New Models
With its 700 years of history, higher education is not known for moving quickly. Considering that academia encourages exploration, discovery, and creating new ways of thinking and doing, it should be able to operate at greater speed as the current crisis requires fast revision of teaching methodologies, student support delivery, and institutional staffing models. Flexibility and the ability to make decisions quickly are strengths that institutions need to call on going forward. Leaders with these habits of mind will be well-positioned to advantage their institutions and move the sector forward in new ways.
Successful leaders will embrace that we are living in a virtual world. This situation has demonstrated that while there is a place for in-person and face-to-face activities on our campuses, it need not be the only answer, all the time. On some campuses, Human Resources Offices were already involved in remote work solutions. “I had already been encouraging flexible work options for all of our team members, even our Solutions Center members, so that we could test the technology. So most members of the team have been used to working remotely. We all miss the opportunity to catch up with our colleagues, as a full team, in person in the office, but the rest of it we were already used to it,” said Jack Heuer, Vice President for Human Resources at the University of Pennsylvania. At other institutions they had to come up to speed quickly. “Though we didn’t have a work-from-home policy, everyone who can is now working remotely,” says Lee Kelly, Assistant Vice President for Human Resources at Queens College in New York City.
Critical to institutional success will be the ability to take advantage of cross-unit work, cross-training and job sharing in order to provide maximum support to students, faculty and staff while accomplishing core missions. This crisis has required that staff assignments have more flexibility than in the past. Some campuses have already implemented cross-staff working options. “There have already been 40 requests for cross-position needs,” Princeton’s Sullivan-Crowley said. For example, because Audit might have a decreased workload right now, HR might leverage someone with that group for financial analyses of HR planning. Leaders can use this time to push for as much cooperation as possible, in new and creative ways, and to acknowledge and reward those on their teams who extend these limits for the common good.
Planning + Prudent Risk Taking
Planning skills remain critical — multi-year strategic plan revisions and updates, scenario planning, and alternative financial plans all will be needed, now and for the next several years. Leaders who are adept at these responsibilities will be very well positioned for more success. In order to implement these plans, attention to institutional governance structures is required. At times of institutional stress, effective use of current governance structures, as well as understanding how to create additional, ad hoc groups, is particularly important. Leadership can sometimes think that responding to crises suspends the need for shared governance, but as Allison Vaillancourt, Vice President of Organizational Effectiveness at Segal (formerly of the University of Arizona) notes, decisions made in that vacuum “don’t have a lot of support, and in some cases don’t make a lot of sense.” Regardless of the venue--a campus senate, a union governing group, the System Office, or Boards of Trustees--leaders must be knowledgeable about the areas of responsibility for each group, and how to effectively engage them in shared decision-making in support of the institution’s future.
Of course, the decisions being made under these new scenarios will be high stakes and made under conditions of uncertainty. While making data-informed decisions will continue to be valuable, these new realities require leaders who can live with risk and uncertainty and make decisions even when comfort is not easily achieved. At the same time, flexibility will also be important, as some decisions will need to be remade or revised when more information becomes available. HR leaders have an important role to play as decisions are debated. “Sometimes we need to say ‘this is not a good time’ to make that change and think about the long-term consequences of what might feel like short-term decisions,” said UPenn’s Heuer.
Rethinking some aspects of the cost-equation for higher education institutions is likely to be important going forward. “Six months ago, organizations were asking about organizational culture. Now there is a greater eye on expenses,” says Vaillancourt. For example, a greater focus on reducing duplication of functions and expanding opportunities for partnering within and across institutions are already being seen. The reduction of investment in similar functions across multiple units (IT support is an example) will be an obvious opportunity to reduce expenditures while providing needed services. Working with other institutions regionally to purchase shared services, partner on projects, and reduce each institution’s own investment will also seem much more feasible. The cost savings benefits appear evident. What is more elusive is how these collaborations can drive revenue and increase student enrollment. Leaders who can crack this code will help to secure the future of higher education institutions.
Extraordinary times can so often yield extraordinary leaders. As executive search consultants to higher education, we are always on the hunt for this talent and from these insights we will be assessing candidates who embody the leadership qualities emphasized by higher education’s top HR talent. Recruiting, developing, and retaining these kinds of leaders will provide the edge in institutional success.