Staff Training Breaks Through

March 1, 1998

Nick Marinello

Julie Nice, associate vice president for institutional advancement, couldn't put it more, well, nicely. "We have a fantastic group of people working on this," she says, exhibiting the kind of sparkling attitude she hopes will become commonplace on the uptown campus.

Since September, Nice and a small group of staff, faculty and administrators have met weekly to craft a "staff professional development" plan that will be test-driven over the coming months in a pilot program designed to train approximately 250 staff members.

If successful, says Nice, the program may lead to ongoing staff training geared toward affecting the way staff members view themselves, deal with clients and communicate with others across the Tulane community. The initiative, which is one of a handful of "breakthrough projects" to emerge from the campuswide forums held by the Strategic Intent Design Group last fall, is ambitious in its scope and seems largely focused on defining and enhancing the role of staff on campus.

"I look at it in the context of how to connect staff to ideas of Tulane as a learning community--a community of people who learn and progress as time goes on," says Nice. Nice considers every job on campus to be necessary, yet doubts that all staff members "understand the importance of their own jobs."

Beyond that, she views the collective work that goes on at Tulane as a kind of gestalt where simple actions by individuals affect the larger community. "The positive interactions you have with the people you work with daily can make them realize the importance of their jobs and every other job here on campus," she says.

Along with Nice, who is the group leader, committee members include Evola Bates, vice president of personnel services; Rob Hailey, director of the Stewart Executive Education Center at the A.B. Freeman School of Business; Jeanette Jennings, professor of social work; Mary Konovsky, associate professor of organizational behavior and vice provost; Phil Leinbach, university librarian; Kay Orrill, assistant dean of the graduate school; and Suzanne Valtierra, appointment coordinator for major gifts and a member of the Staff Advisory Council (SAC).

As a SAC representative, Valtierra says she senses that staff members are "grateful these issues are coming and that the administration sees this as important. This committee was formed specifically to deal with staff issues." Valtierra says she hopes the work of the committee reinforces in staff members the notion that Tulane "is not just a place where they make a buck."

To encourage that kind of investment, however, staff members should be included in the loop of campus communication.
"My first job at Tulane was as a secretary. Information does not get filtered down to that level," she says. "That can cause secretaries to be really frustrated." Along with circulating information throughout the staff, Nice wants to send responsibility and accountability down the chains of command. "We want to make sure staff members are able to deal with complaints, manage expectations of clients, customers and contacts and effectively solve problems. The whole thing is really about empowerment."
The committee's primary charge is to set up a series of training workshops. To do that properly, says Nice, the committee is also developing pre-training and post-training strategies. The first action is to prepare senior administration.

"We need to have managers and supervisors on board with this plan first," she admits. Nice plans to address the university's administrative council, composed of deans and upper-level administrators, in order to enlist its support and describe ways council members can encourage support for the project among managers and supervisors who report to them.

Next, in March, the committee will contract with a consultant to train a group of volunteer members from the administration, faculty and staff who will, in turn, lead training sessions. Each trainer, says Nice, will be armed with notebooks, videos and other materials that are generally geared to university staff development needs and issues but will be modified by the committee to reflect Tulane's personality and culture.

"For example," says Nice, "we are working on developing service standards for the university that will require a minimum level of service that all staff should be involved in." One such standard, says Nice, is for staff to exhibit a broader, universitywide focus. "It's not just thinking about your own unit, but about Tulane as a community and yourself as part of that."

The actual training, which Nice expects to begin in April, will likely take place in a series of four-hour sessions. Each session will comprise 25 participants and two trainers. The departments that will receive training are those within the library, accounts receivable, student loans, registrar's office and financial aid. All are "front line" departments whose staff members regularly come in contact with students.

"We have such an important service function at the university," says Leinbach, who volunteered his staff for the pilot program, "that I want to do everything I can to have my staff improve their dealings with library users."

Leinbach notes that primary users of the library are students and faculty but wants to see his staff also develop effective ways of dealing with staff colleagues across campus.

"We can remind ourselves of things like acting with courtesy, efficiency and going the extra mile to help people," he says. "I want our staff to feel like they have the power to do more for people and not feel that they have to refer to a supervisor to answer a question."

Beyond that, Leinbach hopes the training affects a kind of cultural change on campus. "Too often people around here feel isolated and don't understand how they fit into the overall picture of the learning environment. They don't understand how what they do is important to attracting and retaining the students who are our lifeblood."

Whether that kind of cultural shift or any other change actually does take place through training will be evaluated by comparing data compiled from surveys given to the participants before and after the training sessions. "With that information," says Nice, "we hope to either revise the training system if it is not working as well as it should or, if the model works well, roll it out to more uptown staff over the next couple of years."

Tulane University, New Orleans, LA 70118 504-865-5000