Erin Ascher

Ascher brings her private-sector prowess to the University of Cincinnati, where she’s shaping a culture that delivers a competitive advantage

Erin Ascher chief human resources officer Years in HR: 20 Direct reports: 9 indirect reports: 100 HR insight: “High performing HR organizations drive sustainable results through innovative people solutions and differentiating culture.”

QuoteI lead the HR function for the University of Cincinnati, a very large research institution. We have 14 colleges, approx-imately 42,000 students, and about 16,000 employees—it’s very much like a little city here. The opportunity to lead the HR function and bring good process, consistency, and focus on how we build faculty and staff is exciting.

We have a progressive leader who is focused on creating an environment where our faculty and staff are able to bring their best selves and proactively impact not only the University and community, but to educate students and the future workforce of the world. My department’s mission is to build a high-performing, engaged workforce that can deliver sustainable results that aid the development of students and the university’s research.

Universities are feeling the same restraints that corporations have felt for a long time—resources are becoming tighter and competition is increasing. We need stronger practices, and we need to focus on leveraging culture to propel the university. UC has wonderful micro-cultures here, but what we’re working on is binding that together. How do you create this overriding umbrella—a culture that supports the uniqueness of each of our colleges, but ties us together?

You’ve heard the saying: culture eats strategy for breakfast. Without strong culture you can’t engage what you want to do as an organization. From an HR leadership perspective, I have changed the focus of HR. We’re shifting toward a much more consultative and strategic organization. We acted more in a gatekeeper role, and now we’re focused on reaching out and helping our leaders elevate their organizations through strong people practices and processes.

What is appealing to individuals to grow and excel in an academic environment is freedom. When you’re trying to bring consistency to practices, it’s much more collaborative and involved than in a hierarchical corporate environment. Things don’t necessarily roll down from the top—they roll down from the top, up from the bottom, and in from the middle. It’s challenging, but it’s what makes it special.

There’s a technical side to HR, but there’s also a relationship side to HR. Build those relationships—listen to others and understand not only what the right thing to do is, but also understand what your customer needs to be successful. At the same time, it’s a business role. It’s a role as a business leader—whether that’s in a university or a Fortune 500 company. Quote