Have you hired a CHRO?

The chief human resource officer is becoming an essential part of the higher-ed transformation

As the competition for top-notch faculty increases, human resource (HR) departments in higher education are experiencing a key transformation—and this shift has important implications for colleges and universities.

Traditionally, campus HR departments have largely been “personnel shops,” says John Thornburgh, a senior partner at the executive search firm Witt/Kieffer. In other words, they have focused mainly on the basics of administration, compliance, developing and enforcing rules and regulations, and other tactical elements of managing employees.

However, today’s campus HR departments are becoming much more strategic in their approach by focusing on how they can recruit, attract, develop, and retain the best employees for their institutions. This shift reflects the changes that have occurred in the private sector, Thornburgh notes, where companies are investing heavily in the tools and staff needed to hire and retain top talent.

“The chief human resource officer role is being looked at as a much more strategic leadership position than it has been in the past,” he says. “What we’re seeing now is the need for an HR leader who is transformative in developing and driving a high-performing employee culture.”

This change affects the skills that chief human resource officers need to be successful. According to Thornburgh, here are three key attributes that college and university leaders should look for in a CHRO:

A vision for how to make the institution a distinctive place to teach or work.
A big part of the CHRO role is to identify what makes an institution stand out and how to “sell” the organization when recruiting employees. “You want to be able to signal to faculty that they’re working and teaching in a unique place that has a clear mission and a special character,” Thornburgh says.

This is an important aspect of the job, he says, because if recruiting is simply reduced to compensation, then the “haves” would be draining faculty and research talent from the “have-nots”—which would be “detrimental” to higher education.

It’s also important for colleges and universities to retain the faculty they hire.

“It’s not productive to bring people in and have them leave a year or two later, so you have to deliver on your promise,” he explains. Toward that end, the CHRO must also be a “chief cultural officer” who can forge an attractive work environment that keeps employees happy and conveys to faculty how much the institution values their work.

An understanding of the latest HR technologies.
A successful CHRO not only has to be fluent in all aspects of HR administration, Thornburgh says; he or she also must understand the latest practices and technologies.

“Employees are used to technology advances in other aspects of their lives, and they become frustrated if their employer doesn’t deliver the same seamless experience they take for granted every day,” he says.

For instance, employees want to be able to fill out forms, get up-to-date information, and complete transactions from the convenience of a mobile phone. They don’t want to navigate awkward, paper-driven processes for dealing with benefits-related changes or issues. If colleges or universities haven’t done this already, Thornburgh says, they should invest in sophisticated, user-driven HR platforms that “transform how employees interact with their employer.”

These systems also provide a wealth of employee information that can help campus leaders make more strategic hiring decisions. For instance, they can help leaders understand the diversity of their workforce and “where there might be gaps or opportunities,” he says.

An ability to communicate with leadership and other stakeholders.
Today’s CHRO “is being looked at by university leadership as a full partner in making the institution an attractive place to work,” Thornburgh says. “At a growing number of institutions, this person is sitting at the table with administration, and so they need to be comfortable in providing their input to the president and senior leadership.”

A CHRO also must be prepared to deal with unexpected issues that arise. “The CHRO is often front and center when there are situations such as protests over benefits and policies,” Thornburgh says. “These are high-profile incidents, and the HR leader has to be the point person to deal with those calmly and effectively, with a sense of competence.”

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