For six years running, the University of Notre Dame has ranked as one of the top higher education workplaces in the country, according to the “Great Colleges to Work For” survey conducted annually by the Chronicle of Higher Education. That high rating no doubt stems from a combination of the university’s attractive campus in Notre Dame, Ind.; competitive compen-sation and benefits; commitment to work/life balance; and an intellectually and spiritually supportive community—as well as an array of opportunities for personal development and advancement.
“In general, our commitment to our students is to educate the mind, the body, and the spirit. And that is what we try and do with all our employees as well,” explains Linda A. Costas, Notre Dame’s director of talent and engagement. “We fully fund employee training. It’s really important for us to help each individual find balance and grow as a person, and professionally.”
The university—the largest employer in St. Joseph County—devotes more than $1 million annually to providing training and education for its more than 5,000 employees. That budget, funded through Notre Dame’s human resources department, has grown exponentially since the arrival 10 years ago of Robert McQuade as vice president of human resources.
“He arrived from the corporate world, took one look at the budget—it was less than $50,000 for the whole university—and questioned how we could possibly train and develop future leaders and employees at all levels with such a minimal investment,” explains Costas. “Both he and John Affleck-Graves, executive vice president of the university, are fully invested in learning and development, and continuous education—and they want to carry that model throughout the entire organization.”
In this interview, Costas describes how Notre Dame encourages, nurtures, and helps advance employees throughout the university.
What is your guiding philosophy for learning and development activities?
We rely on our management competency model, which looks like a pyramid, to guide our activities. For each of three management categories—front-line supervision, midlevel management, and leadership—we’ve developed eight competencies that describe the soft skills, as opposed to the hard skills, needed for a particular position. Achieving the front-line, or baseline, competencies prepares you for the midlevel, which then prepares you for senior leadership.
When we’re developing a midlevel management development program, for instance, we look closely at the core competencies at that level, such as managing change, coaching, team building, and negotiating differences. We determine where we have the biggest gaps and the best way to fill them.
The goal is to intelligently build programs that will provide a return on the training and development investment. That return can be defined in several ways—such as better employee morale scores or as opportunities for advancement that, with training, might happen within three years, rather than in five years without the training.
What’s unique about Notre Dame’s approach to employee development?
Notre Dame has a very deep sense of community and family, which, in part, might be because we do everything we can to lift up people at all levels. Our approach to employee development reflects that. We take care to provide programs and opportunities for everyone from senior leadership to service-level staff, and we encourage everyone to take an active role in their [self-]development. In fact, the expectation is that every employee will participate in at least one development activity each year, something that’s emphasized in the performance management process.
The more conversations we have with any employee, whether through our performance management process, a talent review, or professional development opportunities, the more connected and invested that person is in the university. For example, we’ve been seeing a pretty strong correlation between participation in programs for service-level employees and an increase in their promotion rates. So our approach helps us have better retention and engagement at all levels, not just at top levels.
Describe some of the employee development programs you offer.
Each year, for example, we run about 50 or 60 one-day or half-day programs—free and open to all employees across campus. That’s up from about 15 different programs offered five or six years ago. The majority of our instructors are outside consultants who are experts in areas such as presentation skills, goal setting, communications, interaction skills, team building, conflict management, and how to deal with change. The culture really supports employees taking the initiative to attend these professional development programs to build their skills—a manager’s recommendation usually isn’t needed.
Through our Learning at Work Academy, based on campus but taught by outside instructors, we offer programs in basic computer skills, English as a new language, literacy, and high school equivalency. These programs have been life-changing for many of our employees. For example, Notre Dame has many people for whom English is a second language—people who may have held positions of leadership with previous employers in their home countries. Improving their language skills has enabled them to become more confident and realize more of that leadership potential here.
Another program funded by the university, done in conjunction with Ivy Tech Community College, enables staff to earn a technical certificate or a two-year associate’s degree in applied science. In the six years since the program began, more than 80 staff members have earned their degrees.
Then we have several series programs, which are more in-depth, multiday trainings. One that receives a lot of accolades and attracts high participation is Today’s Administrative Professional (TAP). Designed for our administrative assistants and coordinators, it’s a pretty intense series of programs, held once a week, that runs for about nine months and leads to a certificate. Now that we have more than 300 TAP alums, they’ve asked us for more—so we’re rolling out TAP 2, a program that offers even more skills in technology and office management.
What about opportunities for supervisors and managers?
The series programs also cover management skills areas, including project management, first-time supervisor skills, and midlevel management training. The Building Leadership Excellence series, which provides development opportunities for senior leaders, is by invitation only. This series includes workshops and presentations by thought leaders on topics such as strategic direction, leadership communications, and multicultural competency.
The program is built around the eight competencies required of a successful and effective leader at Notre Dame. Those leadership competencies range from being a change leader to being mission sensitive to having a culturally savvy and global perspective.
We also have a rotation program, where we pull people out of their current roles to spend 18 months—three, six-month assignments—in other areas of the university. They might, for example, lead a process improvement team for admissions, re-imagine the Alumni Association Visitors Center, or help develop a new first-year studies program. They also meet regularly with HR staff and the executive vice president to discuss their progress and career goals.
Typically, the rotation program is for midlevel to up-and-coming, high-potential people who are nominated by their vice presidents to get the exposure across campus they need to really be able to take off in their careers. The program is centrally funded, so the three host departments don’t have to worry about who’s paying what salaries, which encourages more departments to host.
How do you keep up the momentum, so that even longtime employees stay focused on developing their talents and careers?
It starts with our onboarding process for new employees. Within their first month, employees learn about training and development opportunities and career services.
Ongoing onboarding sessions explain the assistance available from human resources consultants—such as career assessments and job search tools—education benefits, and our performance management process. That process uses an online talent management system, through which employees can register for and track learning opportunities, and maintain an up-to-date talent profile of their professional goals, experience, and accomplishments.
Staff development at Notre Dame isn’t just encouraged—it’s actually required. Each year as part of the annual performance management process, every employee is asked to identify and follow through on at least one development opportunity, and we encourage more.
Asking employees to contemplate their own development needs on a regular basis helps us keep in touch with what those needs are. We’re always striving to connect our learning opportunities to those development plans, and this two-way conversation helps our employees see not only what we’re offering, but also helps us offer what they want and need. We look for programs that follow recognized adult education principles, such as emphasizing participant engagement and skill practice during the learning sessions, so staff can immediately apply their new skills on the job.
For senior-level administrative positions, how does Notre Dame handle succession planning?
For us, succession planning takes the form of talent reviews—conversations the senior leadership has about who could succeed them and who can move up to follow those successors.
A group vice president and his or her direct reports might spend a full day talking about all their people—the opportunities, readiness factors for moving on, skill gaps, and so on. These conversations involve several members of human resources, including the vice president, to think through not only who the candidates are, but also what each one needs to be ready for a successful transition should the opportunity arise.
We use talent reviews at a high level to spot trends or changes in our talent pool. We also use them at an operational level to identify what training programs we need to offer to develop those candidates—and what kind of budget might be required for the coming year.
But those conversations about succession don’t happen easily, do they?
It’s been an evolution for us. Trust and transparency are critical to the talent review process, and they both take time to develop. But the conversations are getting easier.
For example, one group on campus has been doing talent reviews for three or four years, but last year was the game changer. The conversation was more open and candid than in the past. One participant was willing to say, “There are four people who could replace me—but there’s only one of me. If I don’t figure out what to do with those others, either I will lose them or campus will lose them.”
Another colleague responded, “You know, I really need someone like that right now. Do you want me to give that person more exposure to learning about something else on campus?” The whole group can help problem solve, which leads to better ideas on how the university can keep high performers engaged and in the succession pipeline.
In the past, a conversation like that might not have happened, because people were worried about losing their really good employees—and worried about looking vulnerable in front of a boss and colleagues. But once you’ve built a circle of trust, you can have meaningful dialogue about succession planning and the development of high-potential talent.
The big debate, of course, is whether to tell employees that you’ve identified them as high-potential talent. How does Notre Dame handle that sensitive issue?
There are two extremes, which are “Don’t ask, don’t tell” at one end and “I will tell, fully knowing that doing so will create the expectation of a promotion—and possibly an elitist culture” at the other. I would say that we have not really settled on a universitywide approach, because the succession planning continues to evolve.
The first extreme, not telling high-potential employees anything at all, is problematic. Some institutions maintain a super-secret, high-potential list—except that everyone on campus knows that the high-potentials get taken to special events and programs. And the day you’re not invited to those events, you know you’re not a member of the high-potential club.
In a middle-ground approach, you need to manage the expectations. Human resources should be able to say, “You’ve been identified as someone with great potential, and we would like to think about a development plan for you. While we can’t guarantee opportunities right now, we’d like to target some for you so you can be ready when they arise.”
We might also say, “Lots of people on this campus will be identified as having high potential. You’ll move in and out of programs, when doing so helps you to develop. But the fact that you’re in one program this quarter and in another one next quarter doesn’t mean anything except that such rotations are part of the process.”
In our environment, we want managers to feel comfortable acknowledging employees’ strengths and potential, but doing that doesn’t necessarily mean those employees will one day be vice presidents at Notre Dame. It’s all about defining the expectations for the person and the program.
Also, our culture has shifted a bit in that senior leaders now recognize that it’s OK if someone has to leave Notre Dame for career advancement somewhere else.
What can other institutions learn from Notre Dame’s efforts to develop talent across the campus?
First, it’s much better to start slow and small, offering just a few programs or projects to assess the interest. If you move too fast or introduce a big, expansive program, you may not have taken the time to build in trust and accountability, which are important factors.
People have to believe that participating in development activities will truly make a difference in their careers, which speaks to the institutional culture. At Notre Dame, we’re very lucky to have tremendous support for continuous learning throughout the whole organization.
Another success factor is incorporating accountability into performance goals. Senior leaders, for example, should make a commitment to developing a specific number of people and incorporating specific diversity initiatives into their performance goals. Those goals all support a climate of rewarding and developing talented people.
SANDRA R. SABO, Mendota Heights, Minn., covers higher education business issues for Business Officer.