Leadership and HR: Partners in Institutional Change

By Susan Basso, AVP of Human Resources, Seton Hall University, and Karen Hutcheson, SVP, Sibson Consulting Apr 27, 2009
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This article is adapted from a presentation that was given at a large conference in 2008. Although we assumed the attendees would be interested in the topic, we were unprepared for the degree of enthusias​m. We presented to a highly engaged standing-room only crowd, and Susan Basso spent much of the remainder of the conference speaking with those who sought her advice and perspective. Higher education is changing, which presents many challenges — memories are long, cultures are deeply rooted and tradition continues to shape current decisions. Given the positive response our presentation received, we thought we would share Seton Hall’s experience more broadly. We also thought readers would like to hear directly from Basso about how she quickly and smoothly made the transition into a situation where change was already underway. Read about it in “Susan’s Story,” immediately following this article.

Seton Hall University in Northeast New Jersey serves approximately 10,000 undergraduate and graduate students and employs nearly 2,000 staff, administrators and full- and part-time faculty members. Nationally ranked and recognized as one of the leading Catholic institutions of higher education in the United States, the university was founded in 1856 by the nephew of Mother Elizabeth Ann Seton, the first American-born Catholic saint, for whom it was named. In addition to its well-known Big East Conference athletic teams, Seton Hall has outstanding programs in business, the sciences, communication and law.

For the past several years, the university was engaged in a significant transformation effort which included a new leadership team, increased student applications (up 300% in 2007) and integrated marketing efforts to expand its reputation and draw (though nationally ranked it was better known regionally). The university also focused on enhancing its organizational and operational effectiveness, including the development of a stronger employment brand and increased performance expectations for faculty and staff.

While Seton Hall’s leadership has always valued the commitment of its long-term work force and strong internal community, it came to recognize that certain mindset shifts were needed to ensure that broader institutional strategies could fully take hold. Action, decisiveness and accountability became important expectations for everyone, and “how” work is accomplished is now just as important as “what” is done. At the same time, leadership remains committed to rewarding faculty and staff who demonstrate effective performance in a competitive and internally equitable manner.

HR’s Charge — No Small Order

Because Seton Hall’s leadership has always valued HR’s position in the institution, it challenged the function to play a prominent role in the transformation. HR was expected to:

  • Facilitate change throughout the academic and administrative divisions.
  • Partner with the community (faculty, administrators, staff and the union) and be their resource for information and guidance.
  • Evaluate and restructure all HR practices, programs and policies to align with the university’s strategy.
  • Embrace openness and transparency and seek input from faculty and staff as well as others who have insights into the culture and organization. Proactively educate the community and address the many misconceptions that existed.
  • Strengthen the relationship with the Division of Academic Affairs and work closely on faculty compensation issues to ensure appropriate, competitive salaries that follow principles that are similar to those used for the staff.
  • Respect the culture while recognizing the need to change it — retaining what was good and fixing or eliminating what was not.

While this would be a tall order for any HR professional, it was especially challenging for someone who was new to the university.

How it Happened

Susan Basso joined Seton Hall as the associate vice president for Human Resources in the midst of this transformation. Although much momentum had already been achieved, there was little time to waste and leadership expected her to get quickly up to speed. The first order of business was to assess what she had walked into. Three short-term priorities emerged:

Implement enterprise resource planning (ERP) software. Seton Hall was poised to launch Banner within six months. Because Basso had already implemented another ERP program elsewhere, it soon became apparent that changes were needed to the implementation plan to give the university the results it expected. But how do you stop a speeding train? Read about it in “Susan’s Story.”

Understand the environment and build trust within the community. It was essential for Basso to reach out to all constituencies to listen and learn. The community needed to trust her and view her as capable, interested and approachable, or change would be impossible.

Evaluate the structure and staffing of the HR department. Before making any staffing or structural changes, it was essential to understand and build on the strengths of existing staff. Ultimately, there was some restructuring to better align staff capabilities and interests with job content. All processes and policies were reviewed, updated and streamlined. Everything needed to run more efficiently.

Once these priorities were addressed, Basso and her staff developed a three-to-five-year HR strategic plan, which covered a multitude of issues (see the table below).

Key Considerations and Components of the HR Strategic Plan

Faculty and Staff Compensation

Openness of process

Consistent guiding principles

External competitiveness

Internal equity




Performance Management

Culture of accountability and feedback

Training managers

Linking performance and rewards


Document and communicate

Build as we go

Consistency with flexibility

Use technology


People administration

Hiring guidelines


Link tuition remission and career development

Annual development plan

Source: Sibson Consulting

Because HR needed some early wins to demonstrate to leadership that it was ready, willing and able to deliver on its charge, they led with compensation — it’s personal, visible and it gets everyone’s attention. Leadership was on board and a significant amount of work had begun prior to Basso’s arrival. Faculty and staff programs were redesigned and protocols for analyzing the market were developed. Seton Hall worked with Sibson Consulting throughout — to provide the credibility that an objective, experienced third party brings to the table, to bring best practices to the institution and to ensure that the programs were developed on a timely basis.

HR used the implementation process to strengthen visibility and credibility for HR throughout the university. In keeping with the university-wide theme of broad-based communication, HR and Sibson held open forums for faculty prior to finalizing the program. Faculty members were encouraged to ask any questions they wanted. Sibson came prepared to talk about the process, the data and pay practices in other institutions. In addition, HR and Sibson held several “Compensation Summits” — half-day tell-alls for faculty, administration and staff with open-ended Q&A time. Although the new program does not apply to unionized staff, a similar session was also held for them. This ensured that they heard the facts about the non-unionized program, rather than leaving it to the rumor mill.

The investment in time and money paid off: the consultant lent credibility and an external perspective; the openness helped reinforce the university’s focus on communication and understanding; and the high visibility of the work ensured that everyone stayed on task.

Throughout this long transition, the university learned that interaction with faculty and staff, regular communication and consistent messages are the key to moving forward. While thoughtful, deliberate communication takes time and energy, the payoff is substantial.

Susan’s Story

My story is about positive change, major transformation and overall success. It began just under three years ago when I accepted a position as the associate vice president for Human Resources at Seton Hall University. I knew from the interview process that there were going to be significant challenges and opportunities, and I was ready to embrace all of them.

The situation I inherited was positive in many ways: the university’s HR function was highly valued by executive leadership; significant resources had been committed to multiple initiatives; and the department was staffed with dedicated and talented professionals who seemed eager to follow my lead. There were clearly strengths on which to build. Despite the positives, the department’s emphasis seemed more transactional than strategic and transformational. There were few documented policies and procedures, including an employee handbook. Although everyone in the department was customer service oriented, there was a broad-based view that HR created barriers and unnecessary hurdles.

How was I going to lead this transformation? Where would I gain the support necessary to press forward? For one thing, this was not a cabinet-level position, and until then, I had always subscribed to the notion that I needed a “seat at the table” in order to succeed. It was going to be different at Seton Hall. I was told that although I would not be a member of executive cabinet, I was wholly empowered to “create my own table” and build my own team.

I report to Sister Paula Marie Buley, the executive vice president for administration, and within my first week she suggested that I read “The First 90 Days,” by Michael Watkins. Although I wondered what would be gained from this —I had been in higher education HR administration for many years, many of them in a leadership capacity — I knew I should take Sister Paula’s recommendation seriously.

The first sentence of the first chapter had a profound impact on me: “The President of the United States gets 100 days to prove himself; you get 90.” Not only did I have much to do, but I didn’t have much time in which to do it.

The following are 10 strategies that my team and I employed to successfully reinvent and transform who we are and how we are perceived:

Diagnose and prioritize the issues, and build an HR roadmap for change. Using a collaborative and active planning process, we fundamentally changed the way we operate in order to become more strategic and innovative.

Partner with institutional leadership and others. It’s important to identify and work with those who hold power and influence — both formal and informal. You don’t need regular meetings with the cabinet, but find ways to develop creative alternatives and solutions to their university-wide issues. Beyond that, learn who you need to influence and engage them in conversation about your change agenda early and often. Mostly, these are individuals outside of your normal span of control. When people are engaged, aware and involved, they will be your champions.

Identify key projects and initiatives that will lead to success and gain credibility. Identifying initiatives that are achievable and have high visibility and a probability of success if properly managed will help you gain credibility. At Seton Hall, we chose to accelerate the compensation initiative for all constituencies, including faculty. It had the highest degree of visibility and it would touch multiple lives in a potentially positive way.

Accelerate the change. Collaboration in higher education is essential in any success story, but can impede progress when not managed well. We were successful because we had a clear vision of what needed to change and how it could be managed most efficiently. We were persistent. We respected and learned from history and long memories, but didn’t get distracted by them.

Stay focused on the institutional mission. Work on those initiatives that are most directly aligned with the institution’s mission and strategy. Nothing is more important. We devoted significant time to broad organizational issues to improve our overall contribution. Because we redefined our traditional roles and expanded on emerging ones, we are now perceived as creditable contributors to the mission.

Work with strong partners, including consultants. We all have multiple external resources at our disposal. Many consulting organizations have outstanding products and expertise, but you need to identify and select those whose business philosophy is most consistent with yours and your institution’s, especially if resources are limited. These should be individuals who will sit by your side when you need to deliver a message to leadership and the campus community. They can provide perspective and add credibility. The choice you make can mean the difference between success and failure.

Utilize emerging technologies. Whenever possible, leverage technology to improve efficiency and allow the use of integrated information and data-based decision-making. Remember, however, that technology follows process — you must build efficient processes before automating them. If resources permit, commit to a centralized HRIS function.

Tell “truth to power.” The hardest thing we ever have to do as HR professionals is to let executive leadership know when something is not working. In our case, this meant recommending a delay in our long-awaited ERP implementation because we just were not ready. We knew, however, that given sufficient runway, we would ultimately realize efficiencies that would far outweigh the cost of the delay. Don’t be afraid to step out there. You will be respected for your vision and passion for what is in the best interest of your institution.

Know your boss. HR at Seton Hall enjoys tremendous support for its innovations and initiatives, but it did not take long to realize that the working relationship I built with my new boss would be critical. She is HR’s champion and has high expectations for us. I worked to balance her expectations with mine and those I have for my staff. Our positive alignment has enabled us to collectively achieve success, earn credibility and gain commitment for resources we might not otherwise have received.

Keep the momentum going! Wrapping up a project is no time to kick back and put your feet up. Celebrate your accomplishments, but stay engaged in an process of continuous planning and programming. The payoff will be sizeable.

We continue to enjoy successes within our campus community. Administrative and academic leaders regularly seek our guidance and direction. As a result, we have been able to make dramatic improvements in all areas of HR administration, including recruitment, compensation, benefits, training, performance management, employee and labor relations, HRIS and payroll.

We are now forging stronger partnerships with academic affairs and the faculty on a number of HR-related initiatives that affect them. Our expertise is being sought on such matters as faculty compensation, faculty guide revisions and sensitive personnel matters. Although HR involvement in these areas may be uncommon in higher education, it is possible and can prove to be very beneficial.

Our story is a demonstration of how real transformation can happen — and relatively quickly. The true benchmark of our success is now being realized as many fine academic institutions are reaching out to us for advice and counsel and we are happy to share.

We don’t think we are “world class” yet, but we are well on the way!

Susan Basso is AVP of Human Resources at Seton Hall University in South Orange, NJ. Ms. Basso joined Seton Hall in May 2006. Prior to joining Seton Hall, she was the Chief Human Resources Officer at East Stroudsburg University of Pennsylvania, where she was employed for 18 years. Susan can be reached at 973-761-9138 or bassosus@shu.edu

Karen Hutcheson is a Senior Vice President and a leader in Sibson's National Higher Education Team, based in Boston. She specializes in consulting with higher education clients in compensation, classification, performance management and human resource function assessments. Karen can be reached at 617.424.7346 or khutcheson@sibson.com.

Sibson Consulting, a Division of Segal, provides strategic human resources solutions to corporate and non-profit employers. Sibson's services include benefits, compensation, talent and performance management, communications, sales force effectiveness and change management.

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