Stepping Up for Staff

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Tuesday, January 12, 2021
By Joyce E.A. Russell
Photo by iStock/BlackSalmon
The Villanova School of Business builds a better community by listening to the voices of staff members.

Far too often in academic institutions, staff members don’t get much of a voice. Business school governance is typically focused on curriculum and research, but daily operations and functions must be handled as well, and staff members generally take on those responsibilities. The majority of academics would agree that these employees are highly talented and nearly indispensable. Yet, they rarely get seats at the decision-making table.

Consider, for example, what happens when schools create new global programs. Faculty are the ones who decide what countries to visit and what material students should master beforehand, but it is often staff who take care of the logistics of running the programs. If business schools want to create the best possible experiences for our students, we should start with the best possible ideas, and those ideas will only come through partnerships between faculty and staff.

At the Villanova School of Business (VSB) in Pennsylvania, we know how important our staff members are to creating an outstanding experience for our students and our community. We want to hire, retain, and grow our engaged and dedicated staff by making our institution one of the best places to work in the metropolitan area. To that end, two years ago, VSB created the Staff Advisory Council.

Today, 14 staff members from all ranks and departments meet every month to discuss ways to make VSB an outstanding workplace. The council not only generates new initiatives designed to build a stronger community at the school, but also serves as a channel that relays information back to the departments. Each person on the council is also a member of at least one subcommittee working group.

We’re committed to investing in our staff just as we do our faculty. The Staff Advisory Council is a valuable resource in pointing us in the most desired direction.

Taking the First Steps

Our initial goal with the council was to foster staff empowerment and open two-way communication. However, we felt strongly that specific ideas should come from the group, not the dean’s office. Therefore, for the first few meetings, we asked the new council members to give us their honest opinions, while the business school leaders stayed silent and listened. I’ll admit the initial meetings felt awkward, but the tentative hand-raising and hesitant suggestions soon gave way to lively discussions and enthusiastic idea generation.

One of the staff’s first initiatives was to conduct a climate survey that gathered input from across VSB’s departments and used that data to inform the council’s priorities. The climate committee plans to run that survey every other year.

The most recent survey uncovered a lot of positives. For instance, 93 percent of staff said that their work supports the VSB mission, and 88 percent stated that their co-workers are committed to doing quality work. In general, the staff agreed the best thing about working at VSB is our community, which includes students, staff, and faculty.

We felt strongly that specific ideas should come from the Staff Advisory Council, not the dean’s office.

However, the survey also identified areas where there is room for improvement. For instance, 65 percent of respondents felt they had had opportunities in the past year to learn and grow professionally. We’d like to see that percentage go higher. The professional development subcommittee is already working to add more professional training opportunities this year—virtually, of course.

Those new opportunities will complement ongoing efforts like the lunch-and-learn series created by the council. Of the eight sessions we have held so far, some have focused on developing practical skills such as using Excel or improving emotional intelligence, while others have been more broadly educational. Many have been delivered by VSB faculty. I taught the very first lunch-and-learn lesson on negotiation strategies. I’m proud to say that, since then, several staff members have used with me some of the negotiating tactics that we discussed! While COVID-19 has forced the lunch-and-learn sessions online, we have continued this popular series.

Focusing on Relationships

Several council subcommittees work toward breaking down silos between staff and faculty. Academia can be hierarchical, even among professors—even more so between faculty and staff. People tend to compare their job functions, much to everyone’s detriment. We believe that if people get to know each other across departments, we will generate even more cross-disciplinary collaboration.

That’s why one of our subcommittees is devoted to strengthening staff and faculty relations by planning activities designed to increase person-to-person interactions. Before COVID-19 put a pause on those activities, our communications and marketing department and our Centers of Excellence held open houses where staff and faculty could mingle. We believe that both casual get-togethers and structured community meetings will promote understanding about the value that each individual brings to the school.

Another subcommittee that strengthens relationships is the one dedicated to rewards and recognition. We have multiple levels of awards, including our “anytime” thank-you note program, in which an individual sends a VSB-designed card to a colleague to express gratitude for a specific act of assistance; our quarterly “Cheers for Peers” awards, which recognize both winners and nominees; and our annual VSB staff awards, which are held every May. Such programs not only celebrate staff and faculty for their hard work, but also encourage them to nominate and appreciate each other.

These efforts are beginning to pay off. Faculty members are recognizing the difficulties staff often encounter when working in various locations and over weekends, while the staff has a better appreciation of the pressures professors face in seeking tenure or conducting research. My job is to make sure both groups prioritize relationship building and collaborate frequently to create a great place to work.

Last spring, when the pandemic forced the shutdown of in-person classes, it became clear how much progress we’ve made toward building a more connected culture. Just like everyone else, staff members initially were unsure about what would happen in the immediate future. However, discussions at the Staff Advisory Council meetings, which continued as virtual Zoom discussions, helped alleviate some of the worry. These online sessions not only offered the Villanova leadership team an excellent way to share information that council members could funnel back to their departments, but also encouraged people to discuss how they were feeling during an uncertain time.

Identifying Best Practices

I’m not going to claim that we’ve created a magic formula for boosting the morale of our business school’s staff. However, we’ve learned some lessons that we think are worth sharing if other schools want to implement their own Staff Advisory Councils:

Get buy-in from important decision makers. A program like this isn’t difficult to create, but its success is wholly dependent on the level of commitment it receives from top leadership. With the support of school leadership, staff also are less likely to feel the frustration of being unable to move great ideas forward because they lack a direct line of approval. That's why, as dean, I attend meetings and listen to the ideas. In addition, the council is co-chaired by two senior leaders within VSB: Terrill L. Drake, associate dean and head diversity officer; and Cathy J. Toner, assistant dean for talent and staff development and for community and external outreach.

Think about how to engage staff. It’s not enough just to gather people in a room and ask for opinions. Create a structure for soliciting ideas—or better yet, empower the group members to query their departments, create goals, and implement solutions. In our case, the working subcommittees do this important work.

Provide time for council members to meet—and bring in lunch. Allow council members to meet during the day, so they don’t have to stay after hours to do committee work. And be sure to feed them. They will appreciate receiving the free meal, and the cost will be a small part of the school’s overall budget.

Empower the group members to query their departments, create goals, and implement solutions.

Be transparent. Not every idea that comes out of the Staff Advisory Council can be accomplished. After all, the business school is part of the larger university, which has its own rules and guidelines. If the school can’t implement the council’s ideas, explain why, so that members can better understand and explain the reasoning to their respective departments. At VSB, for instance, casual Friday isn’t always possible for everyone, since many people will need to look professional during meetings and appointments. Our council came up with the idea of “Dress for Your Day,” which allows flexibility in the dress code on Fridays.

Remember that change can be slow. When people try to transform “the way things have always been done,” there will always be those who resist the changes. Patience and transparency go a long way. When everyone remains focused on the mission of the university, change will ultimately happen.

One way we know the Staff Advisory Council is working is that the council has a low turnover rate. During the pandemic, which has been challenging for everyone, we have offered members the option to roll off the council if they don’t have the time to participate. Only one person has chosen to leave, and for personal reasons. She told us that multiple people in her department had already asked for her place on the council! We even have an informal waiting list of staff who have served as substitutes for one or two meetings and have requested permanent spots when there are openings.

That’s music to my ears. We want engaged, informed, and enthusiastic staff members, and we want to retain them. I’m pleased to say that, with the VSB Staff Advisory Council, we’re creating another way to keep our staff engaged—and keep them at the school.

Joyce E.A. Russell
Helen and William O’Toole Dean, Villanova School of Business, Villanova University
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