Betsy Jackman: Trends, Challenges and Practices in Managing Human Talent

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Executive Director, Talent Management, Office of University Development at University of Michigan

Woolbright Group: Within our advancement programs today, what are the three most critical challenges that hiring managers are facing? What are the actions that our profession might take to adjust, change or transform these challenges into opportunities to hire and retain the best and brightest?

The biggest challenges always seem to be time, resources and money! Making the time for consistent check-ins with staff go a long way when it comes to developing and retaining staff. Aside from ensuring we’ve set clear goals and expectations and provided necessary tools and resources to set employees up for success, it’s just as important to ask them “how do we keep you engaged in your work and what will it take to keep you long term?” In other words, how’s the job really going for you? We have to listen and follow through on these responses the best we can – even if there is only a little we can do – as employees greatly value this effort.

When resources are limited or non-existent, there is a chance to be creative, resourceful, and look for a positive solution, even if it’s a simple one. At UIC, we built a very effective referral network within the staff. We would send out job postings and ask the team to share these—always engaging them by asking who do you know or who might we be talking to? If there were local meetings, CASE conferences and such, we talk up UIC as being an engaging and rewarding workplace. Our staff loved helping bring in new recruits because they love where they work. It was clear they really feel ownership in helping build a very desirable workplace.

On the money front, we may not always be able to pay employees more money, so it’s key to focus on all the pieces we can influence, like a positive work environment, establishing well-defined job descriptions and expectations, consistently celebrating milestones and successes, staff appreciation, flexible work arrangements, and work/life balance. It’s important to ask your staff what each of these pieces looks like to them through one-on-one discussions, focus groups and surveys – and then make sure to deliver.In general, when it comes to time, resources and money, I think it’s important to ask: how can I be creative, be strategic, be practical, simplify or experiment with this in order to get the desired outcomes?

WG: What are the major trends that our advancement programs face over the next three to five years in terms of hiring and retaining our staff? Are there particular positions that are the most challenging to hire/retain? If so, which one(s) and why? What is the longer term perspective or trends that might position our advancement programs to meet the priorities of our respective college or university to raise philanthropic support?

I think as time becomes even more precious to each of us in this fast-paced world, we’ll continue to look for and expect higher quality experiences and interactions in our jobs. We each want to continue to grow, have impact and feel valued for the work we do. For an advancement organization to be successful in the talent management arena moving forward, I believe it will need to be authentic and vibrant – genuine and full of life. This holds true for each and every individual within the organization as well. Therefore, it’s essential to hire a “true match” for your organization, and may even mean taking a hard look at your existing talent.

Knowing that recruitment is a two-way street, messaging – or the story you are telling – will continue to be very important. Are you effectively “bringing your organization to life” and really selling your organization’s highlights when communicating with candidates? Candidates can sense when an organization is special or magical – so define that for your organization and articulate it clearly. We’ll want to make sure we truly hold out for A+ talent, meaning the right experience or transferable skills, great ambition, and a palpable passion for their work. Hiring the right person to begin with makes the rest of their career with your institution a breeze compared to settling for a mediocre hire and then paying the price down the road.

Leadership teams will be more important than ever as they really set the tone for an organization. I think it’s important to be ever mindful of the impact of our decisions and behaviors as leaders have on an organization. As we demand more from our leaders, we must look for effective ways to grow and optimize their abilities and strengths. We often focus our training and skill building on the less experienced, but we also need to stay focused on our leaders and managers, making sure we prepare leaders to be successful. Coaching is a big piece of this–someone who can look at individual needs and respond to that.

We are all in a position to grow and learn from each other. What I love is when a group of leaders can sit down and hammer out new ways to go about things. Being a coach, I am always looking for ways to help people grow through stimulating discussion and dialogue. We need to encourage our teams to continually ask questions like: What are we doing to make this the best place to work? What does success look like? How do we set ourselves up for success? This kind of introspection will help lead to a healthy, evolving, successful organization.

Also, the more we can focus our time and efforts on helping employees refine and develop their “sweet spot” – the marriage of their individual strengths and interests, the better the results for the organization.

WG: Within your own department, what are the types of professional development programs are you offering for your advancement staff? How are you measuring the success of these programs in developing and retaining the staff?

At UIC, we’ve had an exceptional training program for deans, administrators and faculty that has been highly effective and well-received. We’ve had a lunch and learn program where we often use the panel approach and focus on strategy, best practices, and skill building. We also bring in guest presenters periodically, and send staff to targeted conferences when possible. An in-house coaching program assisted staff with things like leadership skills, time and energy management, communication skills, and career path development. Overall, we’ve focused heavily on using in-house talent to lead professional development sessions, which is great for both staff in gaining wisdom and knowledge, but also for those wanting to gain presenting/facilitating experience. It also helps with budget restraints. We assess our program through surveys and brainstorming sessions to ensure learning objectives are met and the program is highly rated by staff. The goal has been to provide very practical and useful training sessions, tools and resources.

WG: For a college/university to consider forming a department such as yours, what are the critical considerations before one develops? What might be some of the “lessons learned” in the early stages of such a department? What would you recommend to our colleagues?

You definitely need someone leading this effort that is very passionate and excited about talent management, persuasive and strategic who can be both business and people focused. This leader should have a direct connection to the leadership team, or better yet be a member of the leadership team. Talent management staff need to be approachable, business-minded and true problem-solvers as all levels of staff need to see this team as a valuable resource. I recommend approaching something like this with an experimental mindset – meaning experiment with your formula for success and be willing to play with it along the way to ensure it continues to meet your organization’s needs. Start with creating a detailed “ideal” vision with goals and expectations, a thorough examination of available resources and plan regular assessments along the way to ensure needs are being met. Overall, I think commitment, open communication, and persistence are key.

WG: Since we all are interested in “best practices,” what is one that you are most proud in your organization?

In thinking about the retention piece of talent management and the importance of always looking to keep staff engaged I would share a practice from UIC’s last campaign. As a team, we chose six themes (much like values) for how we wanted to be/operate throughout the campaign and created definitions for each of them. These were themes like “bold,” “collaborative,” and “empowered.” While we set those definitions at the beginning of the campaign, we continued to talk about examples of these, and how we could continue to embody those throughout the course of campaign.

This approach makes you stop and think about the work you are doing, and be more intentional. The idea of how you want to “be” expands your thinking. What does “bold” really mean? Collaboration was a really important one. We pushed ourselves to consider ways that we could better collaborate with one another. It really helped build the team, as they felt stronger as a group.

Our themes were really ingrained in all of us. This idea of “let’s think about who we are and who we want to be” was a great compass. We incorporated discussions on these themes into our bimonthly all-staff meetings and annual staff retreats to ensure we truly “lived” our themes in our day-to-day work. I think it has been really effective because so often we focus our business all on the “doing” side and forget to really think about how we want to “be”. This approach really seemed to energize our work and thinking in a very powerful and inspirational way.


The Woolbright Group’s services include counsel in strategic planning, board development, leadership and team building, capacity building, training in effective fundraising and solicitation skills, and more. For more information, please contact us.

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