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Business and Policy Areas
Business and Policy Areas

Planning Your Transition

May 10, 2016

By Karla Hignite

Since November 2015, Charlene Moore Hayes has been serving in a newly created position at Johns Hopkins University as senior executive for human capital strategy. In this role she has responsibility for a range of initiatives, including leadership recruitment and development, and employee relations at senior levels throughout the university. For 12 years prior Hayes served as JHU's vice president for human resources, the position now held by Heidi Conway, who joined JHU in 2005 as senior director of benefits.

Shortly before Conway became chief human resources officer (CHRO), she herself transitioned to a newly created role of associate vice president and chief operating officer (COO), responsible for the day-to-day human resources operations for the university, with direct oversight of business services, HR finance, benefits and payroll shared services, benefits, compensation, HRIS, and talent management. In her COO role Conway was also responsible for an annual operating budget of $20 million and an annual benefits budget of $450 million.

The story that follows of a successful and smooth internal leadership succession didn't happen by chance. It was an outgrowth of intentional talent development over a decade. (Even within Conway's first year of employment, Hayes recognized Conway's operational and leadership skills and added the HR shared service center to her list of responsibilities.) And, this story serves as one example of how institutions might consider approaching the anticipated flood of senior leadership vacancies on the horizon in colleges and universities across the country, as many seasoned higher education leaders transition to retirement or other opportunities.

Need Fuels a Bold Idea

The position of COO is not a new concept within the corporate HR arena, but within higher education it is essentially unheard of, says Hayes. While the role may vary in focus from one organization to another, the overall emphasis is to help drive performance improvements across the entire HR organization and clear the way for the chief HR officer to execute some of the big-picture, longer-term strategic initiatives that often fall by the wayside in the face of day-to-day operational priorities.

The idea to create this position within HR at JHU emerged several years ago from President Ronald Daniels and Senior Vice President for Finance and Administration Daniel Ennis. They saw a need to help free more time for Hayes to fully immerse herself in some of the higher-level strategic HR needs of the institution. "Human resources is a huge enterprise at Johns Hopkins, with approximately 250 HR staff across the university. It is also complex, encompassing Johns Hopkins Medicine, which adds a whole other layer to HR oversight," notes Hayes. "Bottom line, it can be extremely difficult to lead an operation as massive as HR is at this university, especially when you try to layer on additional strategic directions for the institution."

And there have been plenty of new initiatives at JHU. Upon his arrival seven years ago, President Daniels began laying out plans for an ambitious strategic realignment and changes in priority focus for the university. The kinds of changes he envisioned would require, among other things, concerted attention to executive-level recruitment and employee relations, notes Hayes.

Discussions about the nature of the COO role took place at a time when university administration was looking to tighten budget controls across the board to better manage institutional dollars generally, so a meaningful way of incorporating greater budget control within HR held appeal for leadership. For Hayes, another plus of the new position was to provide a more direct connection between the executive levels and HR for becoming more collaborative and business-focused across the institution.

COO From Scratch

Some within HR had questions about how the COO position would work and struggled with the title itself, since "COO" didn't sound like an HR position. And, the restructuring took some time for HR folks to wrap their heads around, raising concerns, as do most change initiatives, with what it might mean for them, notes Conway. In the case of JHU, the answer included greater focus on efficiency and financial accountability, and moving away from a silo approach to business processes and solutions.

"I always thought I had a pretty good grasp of what the CHRO role entailed. When I took on the COO role, this provided immediate exposure to the incredible depth and breadth of work done in HR across the institution, and I quickly realized what I didn't know and where I needed more experience," says Conway. One area in particular that required time and attention was strengthening relationships with key stakeholders not only within HR but across the university. "The COO position brought my collaboration skills to a whole new level as I learned to be more thoughtful and more willing to pause and reflect in decision making."

Having Conway in the COO role did free significant time for Hayes to focus on broader institution concerns. And yet, as VP of HR, Hayes still had to pay attention to overall HR issues and impacts. "Ultimately, I was still responsible for the daily HR function," says Hayes. Additionally, by elevating Conway's exposure and broadening her experience, Hayes knew this would make Conway more attractive to other organizations and talent managers already aware of her capability. She was convinced it was only a matter of time before Conway would be recruited as a candidate for CHRO at another institution, for which she would most certainly be qualified, notes Hayes.

Because Hayes had played such a significant role and was personally invested in Conway's professional development, it only made sense to her to clear a path for this to happen at JHU. Since they both could not fill the CHRO role, where did that leave Hayes?

The Next Iteration

Before joining JHU, Hayes had already served in the top HR spot at North Carolina State and Purdue universities for a total of 20 years as a higher education CHRO. "That is a long time," notes Hayes. Although she has always loved serving in this role, and while she wasn't ready to retire, the circumstances forced her to consider her next move. She credits a former executive coach who had encouraged her to chart her next transition, telling Hayes that she had certainly earned the right to define her own role. "At some point we all have to get out of our own way to find a new way to continue to contribute," suggests Hayes. For Hayes, that meant proposing a new role for herself. Once again, leadership proved supportive in thinking about talent in a creative new way, notes Hayes. In addition to the enthusiastic support of President Daniels, Senior Vice President for Finance and Administration Ennis was instrumental in thinking through the specifics of the human capital strategy position.

With both transitions complete as of last November, Conway, in her CHRO role, is responsible for all HR policy and strategy and day-to-day operations, reporting to Ennis. In her new role as senior executive for human capital strategy, Hayes likewise reports to Ennis and to the president's vice president and chief of staff. In this senior advisory role, Hayes is focused primarily on executive compensation, recruitment, coaching, and employee relations, along with other specific strategic issues and projects. For instance, JHU has never had a university-wide approach for onboarding deans and vice presidents. "With this new role, I now have time to tackle this and to focus on similar kinds of projects," notes Hayes.

Building a Succession Infrastructure

Conway describes transitioning into the COO role and then assuming the VP post as remarkable moments for her personally. "My time as COO was an incredibly beneficial next step. Spending time in that role provided important training for me and helped me better understand how we work together as an institution. It also provided critical exposure to institution finances and decision making." Because JHU is such a large and complex institution, Conway and Hayes think it is unlikely that university leadership would have seen a case for hiring Conway into the top spot from her position as senior director of benefits without the kind of exposure she had gained to the full HR enterprise from her COO role. "They might have been comfortable with me as an interim to keep things running, and depending on how well I performed in that capacity, may have considered me for the role, although I think a much more likely and logical scenario would have been to conduct a search," says Conway.

She applauds the risk JHU leadership took in testing a new structure to grow talent internally, and she credits Hayes for her creativity and vision in shaping the framework needed to retain and develop faculty and staff across the institution. "One big takeaway from this evolution for me is the opportunity leaders have to rethink established norms and structures so they can think strategically about talent."

Hayes concurs. She suggests the commitment to optimize the talent of those already within your organization requires a willingness to be creative and to take risks. "It is critical for leaders to focus on developing others on their team and provide opportunities for others to develop. Simply put, this is a responsibility we all have as leaders."

For the higher education HR function, Hayes suggests it might make sense for more institutions to explore the idea of what a COO role could represent both for the value added to the institution and as a steppingstone to the CHRO position. Yet, she concedes that this particular approach won't work for every institution. The size and complexity of the institution are contributing factors to the success of this type of approach; the inherent value of such a position is that it can facilitate the level of cooperation, collaboration, and trust needed to operate effectively, notes Hayes. Institution culture is also a factor. "In part, this works at Hopkins because we generally don't let egos get in the way of getting our work done."

More important than the specific talent development model or a particular position to provide a pathway is to, in fact, develop a pathway infrastructure, notes Hayes. "Succession planning and talent development are among our foremost challenges within the sector. We simply have to consider creative new ways not only to recruit new talent externally, but also to grow talent from within," says Hayes. "If you can get leaders to think creatively beyond your current organizational chart of positions and vacancies and consider how to provide transitions for people to bring them along professionally, your organization will be much better served by the talent you already have within."

Karla Hignite, editorial consultant to NACUBO, is editor of NACUBO's HR Horizons; e-mail: