Leveraging Business Processes to Transform the Staff Experience and Differentiate the InstitutionBill Dracos | Chief Business Practice Improvement Officer, Emory University
A great staff experience is critical to the success of any modern-day postsecondary institution. A motivated and satisfied team of staff can have a significant impact on the success of learners and on the growth of the college or university. That said, constructing a great staff experience takes more than perks and titles. It requires a commitment to creating a work environment that makes it possible for staff to make an impact every day. In this interview, Bill Dracos shares his thoughts on the critical role of business processes in facilitating that kind of success-focused postsecondary environment.
The EvoLLLution (Evo): Why should senior institutional administrators be focused on ensuring they’re delivering a great staff experience?
Bill Dracos (BD): If you look at any higher ed institution we don’t make a physical product. We make students and graduates and research findings. So the only strength the university has, aside from maybe an endowment, is the quality of individuals serving the students. Our people—our faculty and our staff—are critical to that effort.
Evo: To your mind, what are some shared characteristics of a strong staff and faculty experience?
BD: I think both groups like a challenge. That could be intellectual challenge, it could be problem solving, it could be a leadership challenge, and it’s slightly different for each constituency group.
Also they like career progression. They want to get promoted, so titles can be important to a lot of people but either way recognition and accolades are something that many constituent groups have in common. However, I think a lot depends on the nature of the generation you’re talking about. When you talk about staff development and motivation you have to look at what kind of people they are and what generation they are.
Millennials, for example, sometimes have a shorter attention span, but often that’s because they want a new challenge, they feel like they want to be stimulated, they want to learn and they want to grow. Gen-Xers are motivated by the same kind of challenges but they’re also motivated by proving a result or getting to an answer, and the boomers are similar. You’ve got to look at what their reward structure is and you have to look at how they’re going to be compensated both psychologically, monetarily and in terms of status and power. All those things make for a complicated answer to a simple question.
Evo: How do you define and develop a staff experience that differentiates you in the hiring market?
BD: Higher ed is changing. Traditionally it was a sleepy industry where people could come and do their jobs every day and stay for 25 to 30 years and retire, and that was fine. You can’t do that anymore. You can’t hide under your desk for 20 years and just leave with a plaque, that doesn’t work. I look at my team—which is made up primarily of young people in their 20s and 30s—and I want them to learn and grow here. I want them to earn a promotion—or two or three—and then I want them to go do something great, whether it’s inside Emory University or it’s outside our university. Right now we’re a team of 10. I’ve turned over the entire team—intentionally and by growing them—in five years and we have a distinguished body of alumni. We have business officers coming out of my team, some program directors, and somebody went on to support the C-suite for a Fortune 100 company. We have some very impressive people coming out of our team.
Of course it’s painful on occasion, of course there are moments where I really push them and challenge them, but I also try to reward them. In addition to the challenge, the pay is reasonable. Every year I give a bonus to every one of my employees. The final thing we do is we try to make work fun and we do a lot of offsite retreats and we do dinners together.
I have a phrase I use in my environment: We take our work incredibly seriously and ourselves not so much. We have some fun. Many university offices don’t have that. They have a very hierarchical traditional department structure. Here, we work to build a team, and I think that’s the key. If we could duplicate it across the university I think Emory would have a great deal of success. It’s just a hard culture. It’s easier to have employees sit at their desk and do debits and credits. It’s a lot harder to make that fun.
Evo: What role does business processes improvement play in the staff experience?
Everybody’s got a strategic plan, but many places struggle with executing it well. We come in and we help them take that strategy and turn it into execution, into implementation. When you do that and they see their goals and they see their strategies moving to success, you see a happy staff. They see problems turned around, they see their operation improved or maybe a process changed or workflow changed or even an information movement changed to get better reports or dashboards. They’re happiness makes a better staff experience.
Business improvement in the university is about alleviating frustration and moving them forward toward goals, and if you can do those two things, you’re going to create a better staff experience.
Evo: What are the first steps a leader should take when trying to determine whether they need to adapt or update internal business processes to improve the staff experience?
BD: The first step is really understanding the problem. You have to get in there and do analytics, and you have to pull information. It’s consulting 101 in many ways; there’s data collection, primary and secondary research and benchmarking that are all critical. If you jump right to “I think the answer is this because my gut tells me that,” it’s a recipe for disaster most of the time.
Get the information, understand the problem and then make information-based decisions. In the medical field, they call it evidence-based medicine. Make evidence-based decisions based on compelling information. If you don’t then you can’t make the right decision. You’re guessing. So don’t guess. Analyze.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Author Perspective: Administrator