University of California Is Nothing More Than People

When Dwaine Duckett arrived at the University of California to improve its HR strategy, he discovered there wasn’t one. This is how he created it.

Dwaine B. Duckett, University of California

When asked what the HR strategy was like when he first arrived at the University of California in 2009, Dwaine B. Duckett bluntly explains that there wasn’t one, which was not uncommon for higher education.

“The HR function lacked identity, purpose, and a strategic direction,” explains Duckett, who works from the university system’s Office of the President in Oakland. “It was almost purely transactional in nature, and very little time was spent applying organizational context to HR activity.”

As the vice president of systemwide HR, it was up to Duckett to change that. And with nearly two hundred thousand employees across the university system—including faculty, staff, maintenance personnel, law enforcement, and more spread across ten campuses and various medical centers—that wouldn’t be an easy task.

But Duckett’s HR strategy is designed to be ongoing and all-encompassing. And although it began in early 2009, it’s far from over. Here, Duckett breaks down his strategy into three distinct eras with varying goals, tactics, and analyses in place.

Preplanning (2009)

After starting at the University of California, Duckett’s first task was reconnaissance, asking HR employees at the Oakland office what they perceived their job to be and why they were doing it. That took place during half-day sessions with each of the various groups within HR and its respective leaders. His core question was hyperspecific.

“I asked them, ‘If you had a magic wand and were king or queen for a day, what would you change about what you’re doing?’” he says.

After hearing everyone’s answers, he extended the discussion to HR employees, the various campuses, medical centers, and eventually the university’s administrative leadership.

“What I found was that HR people wanted to share more of the perspective from HR’s point of view and didn’t know how to go about asking for that,” Duckett explains.

Another issue was that employees who weren’t in HR were spending much of their time on “the movement of people,” rather than it being designated as a distinct, valued responsibility. In short, employees were taking on staffing duties that were outside of their respective job descriptions as an afterthought.

To address all of that, the university president at the time, Mark Yudof, challenged Duckett to add strategic value to the HR function. That led to Duckett assembling the Strategic Value Continuum—a visual representation of his strategy consisting of stair steps that started with “reaction” and ascended all the way up to “vision.” That took about nine months to gather all of the data, Duckett recalls.

Phase One (2010–2014)

While the tactics ascending the Strategic Value Continuum’s stairs involved smaller, tangible goals such as solidifying compensation and benefits packages, one of the most essential components was building talent management and employee relations functions.

Essentially, Duckett and his team viewed talent management as placing a higher currency on the people within the company and their skills—something more than just a transactional relationship.

“We went through each of the major functions that I had responsibility for,” he says. “It ranged from benefits to compensation and labor relations, which was misunderstood. And I created a couple of new functions based on what I had learned.”

That involved ensuring that talent and people were always front-of-mind topics when discussing anything related to HR programs and becoming truly familiar with the skills of all 180,000 employees. The hope was to provide more advancement opportunities and have succession plans for key positions whenever someone left the university.

“At the end of the day, the university is nothing more than people,” Duckett says. “It’s really not buildings or equipment or specific technology. It’s just people. We need to be doing things that help us attract and retain the types of people we want in the jobs we want them in.”

Phase Two (2015–2019)

The second and current official phase of his HR strategy is all about sustaining progress on a steady pace, Duckett explains. It was important that these strategies didn’t become PowerPoint presentations regurgitating the latest buzzwords.

With newer initiatives in place, he’s made it a point to ensure they’re taking root and being accurately evaluated by everyone in the department so that he can decide what’s working and what’s not. This led to Duckett conducting the inaugural engagement survey across the entire University of California system in 2010. The current administration has continued to support the engagement process and its penetration has grown.

“We had done satisfaction surveys here and there. But this time, we used the Willis Towers Watson world-at-work format,” Duckett says. “The survey consisted of thirty or so questions conducted in a poll fashion. We started to learn what it was that people saw as being helpful or being a hindrance in regard to engagement and productivity. Previously, we were operating off of very heartfelt anecdotal information. Now we have data.”

Duckett also wanted to discover a way to use employees who weren’t in HR who had picked up HR skills along the way.

“They would go into those roles because they were good at transacting and were friendly enough and pleasant enough in terms of interacting with other employees,” he says. “But we need to get high-caliber HR professionals in roles wherever we can, move them around, and develop them in different environments. So, I created something called the HR Fellows Program to model a succession planning approach for the organization.”

Essentially, the University of California’s HR department takes in an annual cohort, then helps them get access to the field and sharpen their skills. The program’s also open to people who are in HR and want to accelerate their careers.

“We’re preparing these people for leadership positions for the future,” Duckett says. “The first cohort had six people, and all of them are going into higher-level human resources jobs. They’ve done assignments in all the HR functions. They’ve spent time on campuses and medical centers. We give them anywhere from five to seven years of additional HR experiences in a two-year period of time.”

The only problem? They tend to get plum offers from outside of the university.

“In some cases, we did too good of a job,” Duckett says with a laugh. “People have received attention from LinkedIn or Google. I’ve heard feedback from Google in particular that they think this is a great program, and they’re thinking about duplicating it in their environment. When people like LinkedIn and Google acknowledge that you’re doing something innovative, that’s a high compliment. Things do not happen the fastest at big research universities, but we definitely pushed and significantly picked up the pace at the University of California through the HR strategy.”

Photo: Courtesy of the University of California

Congratulations to the University of California System, Office of the President. 
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