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The Journey Begins for Six Early-Career Higher Ed HR Pros

2016-17 Wildfire participants (l to r): David Elliott, Katryn Stewart, Kristina Gravellese, Andrea Alfano, Veronica Lenegan, Clarity White

2016-17 Wildfire participants (l to r): David Elliott, Katryn Stewart, Kristina Gravellese, Andrea Alfano, Veronica Lenegan, Clarity White

Do you remember when you were first starting out on your higher ed HR career path? Maybe you were fresh out of college, or maybe you worked in the private sector before making the leap to higher education. Maybe a job in human resources was your plan all along, or maybe you just fell into an HR role somewhere along the way.

Regardless of your beginning, if you were lucky enough to have an ear to bend, a shoulder to lean on or footsteps to follow in early in your career, it likely helped you find your footing, gain some confidence and feel reassured and supported in your new role.

This is exactly what CUPA-HR’s Wildfire program is designed to provide for a select few early-career higher education HR professionals each year.

Full Immersion
Through networking, CUPA-HR conference and event attendance, creation of an individual development plan, interaction with and guidance from Wildfire program alumni, the CUPA-HR national board and other higher ed HR leaders from across the country, and a year-end project based on the insights they gain throughout their experience, Wildfire participants are immersed for a full year in all that is CUPA-HR and the HR profession in higher ed.

The 2016-17 Wildfire program officially kicked off at this year’s Association Leadership Program (ALP) — an annual gathering of more than 175 CUPA-HR leaders, corporate partners and national office staff — which was held in Knoxville, Tennessee (the hometown of CUPA-HR headquarters!), in mid-July. From the moment they first gathered as a group, you could feel the energy, excitement and enthusiasm from this year’s cohort — Andrea Alfano of Georgia State University, David Elliott of Arcadia University, Kristina Gravellese of Harvard University, Veronica Lenegan of Mills College, Katryn Stewart of Virginia Tech and Clarity White of University of Arizona.

Sound Advice
At one of the group’s ALP sessions, they shared with one another some of the challenges they’re facing at their institutions (the new FLSA overtime rule, lack of training for department/unit supervisors and managers, the need for HR to be more strategic and be seen as a valued business partner, and siloed HR functions) and talked through some ideas for tackling those challenges and finding ways to learn from difficult situations. Wildfire program co-lead Mark Coldren, who serves as the chief HR officer at University at Buffalo and is a past chair of CUPA-HR, offered some actionable, implementable takeaways and shared some great insight from his many years in higher ed HR. Wildfire alumni and experienced HR pros also shared words of wisdom with the group.

Among their advice:

  • To show HR’s value as a business partner, use data whenever and wherever you can. Mark used the new overtime rule as an example. He shared that when having discussions with various leaders and supervisors on his campus about the impact the new rule will have on their areas, he shows up with data in hand (if X number of employees work X number of hours of overtime, here’s what the cost will be; if we raise salary levels to meet the new threshold for X number of employees, here’s what the cost will be). Being able to contrast and compare these very real numbers, he says, helps supervisors make informed, data-driven decisions — and helps showcase that HR really does know its stuff. Data-driven decisions are the way forward in higher ed, he told the group, so HR needs to be on board.
  • Own the things you don’t do well. No organization or unit within an organization does all things on an A-level. One of the things that has served him well in his career, said Mark, is acknowledging (yes, out loud and to others!) the areas in which his HR organization might fall short. “When complaints arise about a particular HR function, and I know improvements could be made, I make it a point to say, ‘You’re right. We don’t do that well. But we’ll work on it,’” he said. “Just that simple acknowledgement has helped ease tension, improve credibility and open doors in countless instances.”
  • Don’t operate in a box. Class of 2015-16 Wildfire alumna Bel Campos of Quinnipiac University noted the importance of stepping out of the transactional HR role and really understanding the whole of the university and where and how they as individuals as well as HR as a whole can contribute. “This is how HR can really begin to expand its reach and influence and position itself as a value-added contributor, and how you as an early-career professional can build your knowledge on the business of higher ed.”
  • Keep an ear to the ground. Following up on Bel’s advice, Mark gave the group some pointers on how to learn the business of higher ed and the workings of their institutions: attend any and all town hall and chat-with-the-president-type meetings on campus, get out of your office and visit other departments and units on a regular basis, and scan or subscribe to daily publications like The Chronicle of Higher Education, Inside Higher Ed, University Business Daily, EAB Daily Briefing, Ed Dive: Higher Ed and others.

Though ALP was just the beginning of the Wildfire journey for this year’s participants, they walked away with valuable connections, ideas, resources and information that will help set the stage for the rest of their Wildfire experience (and we hope their long and fruitful higher ed HR careers!).

Stay tuned … we’ll learn more about the Wildfire Class of 2016-17 — Andrea, David, Kristina, Veronica, Katryn and Clarity — over the next several months!

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