The Creative Mind-Set

Having spent nearly two decades in HR at the University of Illinois, Jami Painter has mastered the art of inventive problem-solving

Jami Painter, University of Illinois

Jami Painter believes that an HR department should do much more than hire and fire employees. For years, she worked in the private sector, where HR departments emphasized improving a company’s effectiveness and efficiency through its human capital. In 2001, however, she brought her private sector approach to higher education when she joined the University of Illinois as an HR specialist. Since then, she has been determined to showcase that HR can be an important business partner for the university, and she has ensured that her department has a seat at the table during critical business decisions.

Today, Painter is the university’s interim associate vice president for system human resources, a role she assumed in July 2016 after her boss left the institution to pursue another opportunity. She spoke with Profile and reflected on her time as an HR executive, how she’s approaching her current role, and how her leadership style and mind-set about HR has changed over the years.

Has your approach to HR strategy changed because you are currently in an interim role?

I’ve been with the University of Illinois for seventeen years. Over that time, I’ve seen a lot of changes in leadership and our approach to HR. I don’t think being interim at this point has really changed my strategy at all because, ultimately, my job is to provide HR services that are going to be a value-add to our leaders and our organization. That doesn’t change whether I’m interim or permanent.

My goal would be—if I’m not the permanent person in this role—that I hand over a department that is in good shape, that is stable, and that is really seen as a strategic partner to our leaders.

How are you trying to position the university’s HR department as a true business partner?

It’s really about building trust and relationships with the employees, managers, departments you serve, fellow HR colleagues, and the leaders you work with in the institution. I think you build trust through credibility, integrity, transparency, and always being responsive. The more that somebody calls you and they get credible help quickly, the more that builds trust over time to the point where they know they’re going to get a response from you, even on a weekend.

When has this approach been useful?

HR has experienced significant changes related to employment regulations and laws that impact our employees. In our department, we have been successful in educating our legislators on the impact that proposed changes to existing laws, or new laws, would have on our employees.

For example, when the Department of Labor proposed changes to the Fair Labor Standards Act in 2016, HR spearheaded a project to identify which employees would be affected and how we were going to address these changes. We participated in providing information to College and University Professional Association for Human Resources on how the proposed changes could impact our workforce, and in turn, we were able to show legislators in Washington how this change would have impacted employees at institutions like ours across the United States. We are always actively working on protecting our employees and institution from any regulatory change that could impede our mission of research, teaching, public service, healthcare, and economic development as a preeminent public university.

How has your approach to HR changed over time?

My mind-set has significantly changed from early in my career when I thought HR primarily focused on rules and compliance. Now, I don’t believe that at all. I think HR is about being a service to our institution by making it a premier employer, and we need to be flexible, innovative, creative, forward-thinking, and strategic because change is always happening, and we need to be one step ahead to help pave the way.

Can you tell me about some instances where having a more flexible mind-set has benefited the organization?

One area where it’s been helpful for our departments is in workforce and succession planning. Although we have policies on how you can be promoted and when the organization must fill a position through an open and competitive search, there are instances where departments will want to recognize employees who they deem to be rising stars. Their managers want to give them more opportunities and recognition but aren’t sure how to do that, so we are very creative in looking at ways and advising them on how they can develop those employees within our policies and guidelines. Maybe they can’t promote them today, but by the end of that conversation, we have figured out a plan to retain that staff member, develop them over time, and reward and recognize them for their achievements.

Another area is when we are addressing changes to our benefits or retirement plans, or when we do not receive the same level of state funding as in the past. When we are working with leaders to address changes to these plans or how we are going to handle the budget deficit, we have to think creatively about how we are going to offset the impact to our employees because many of our benefits and funding are provided by the State of Illinois. One example occurred in 2016, when we weren’t able to offer a salary increase program, so we offered our employees three extra days of paid time off over the holidays in December. Before that, they had to use their own vacation time on those reduced service days. That was a result of us thinking outside the box to identify something that wasn’t a high cost to the institution, but that went a long way in terms of employee relations and employee morale.

You were drawn to a career in HR from a young age. What about the field intrigued you?

What intrigued me is the significant impact human resources could have on an organization because its success is really all about its people. I’ve always had a desire to lead and inspire people to achieve at their highest potential, so it seemed like a logical fit to get into the field of HR. I chose business management as my undergraduate major because it focused on HR and would give me a strong foundation in business that would enhance my talents of helping organizations build and maintain their human capital. I recall having a management class where we had to simulate an HR director interviewing candidates in a corporate environment and how to select the right person for the position. I think that’s when I knew I had made the right decision, and this was the field for me.

What are your goals at the university moving forward?

I’ve always been a believer in leaving something better than you found it—even though I stepped into this role in an HR organization that was very strong—both strategically and operationally. Due to attrition related to budget cuts, I’m trying to streamline our operations and identify ways to be more efficient and effective for our clients and customers—whether that’s our departments, employees, external agencies, internal leaders, or fellow HR colleagues on the campus. But I think my primary goal for the department, whether I’m the long-term leader or not, is for us to be a value-add HR organization that helps the university achieve its mission, whether that’s through effective recruitment and retention of talented staff, development of innovative voluntary benefits, or implementation of cutting edge self-service applications that make employees’ lives easier. I want us to be proactive rather than reactive and to be seen as a crucial member of the executive team. I want people to say, “We’ve got decisions to make. We need to talk to HR.”

Photo: L. Brian Stauffer/University of Illinois Board of Trustees