Amy Byron-Oilar, Chief People Officer at the Ross School of Business, shares tips on rallying change amongst dispersed staff and the importance of transparency and feedback in leadership
Before becoming the Chief People Officer at the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan (U of M), Amy Byron-Oilar spent 17 years as an HR professional in the automotive industry. When she had reached the ceiling in her former role at Magna Seating of America, she decided to make a change – a big change. She wanted something new and different, and a former colleague urged her to consider opportunities at U of M. Because higher education was indeed a league apart from automotives, and the university’s mission resonated with her, Byron-Oilar thought pursing a role there made sense. And it didn’t hurt that she is also an alumnus of U of M. She said, “My blood runs blue, so that was the icing on the cake.”
When she made the dramatic shift to working in higher education in 2009, Byron-Oilar brought a lot of knowledge to the table. From working with a start-up company in automotives, she learned how to forge her own path, be sensitive to the needs of the staff, and lead by influencing rather than directing. These skills have been of great use in her HR role within the university’s disseminated structure.
The work environment at U of M is very decentralized by nature. There are numerous departments, degree programs, and faculty research initiatives that give the organization a very dispersed framework. This can make rallying change and developing cohesiveness amongst staff somewhat challenging. The goal, Byron-Oilar explained, is to create an “interesting balance between decentralized decision making but drawing upon shared resources for the business processes.”
Byron-Oilar shared a few key strategies for effectively rallying the team to get behind change or a common goal, namely stakeholder analyses, communication planning, and feedback loops. It’s a good idea to begin with a solid stakeholder analysis to identify the stakeholders, their needs, and how their goals implicate the changes you’re trying to make, she said, Next, it’s important to be mindful of communication planning. Deliver messages in a tactful, meaningful way to the people who will be most impacted by the change. Lastly, allow for feedback loops. In a decentralized workplace, providing a means for team members to chime in and give their insight will prevent feelings of alienation and will foster a more collaborative culture.
Transactional vs. Transformational
Byron-Oilar has helped develop the culture of HR at the Ross School of Business from reactive and transactional, to more proactive and transformation. A transformational culture is more thoughtful about its function, has a wider approach, and values consultation and cooperation. This has greatly helped solidify and electrify the team.
Byron-Oilar shared several examples to illustrate how HR operates in a much more transformational manner since she arrived. In a transactional workplace, when an employee’s role changes, HR simply “processes the change” and inputs the info into the system. Conversely, in a transformational setting, leaders will contemplate how work should be organized, how to better divide responsibilities, staff’s need for flexibility, etc. For another example, when Byron-Oilar began working at U of M, HR would simply follow procedures and process paperwork when hiring a new employee. Now, HR offers a boot camp training program and provides new staff members with tools and resources to better understand the company’s needs and their respective roles. It’s a much more dynamic, thoughtful, progressive culture.
Byron-Oilar explained that when leaders take on lofty challenges, openly take risks, and make mistakes, the team learns to value taking initiative and ownership of their actions. “To sit back and to wait for direction doesn’t get anything done. So, I think it’s important for people to see that we take risks, we experiment, we try new things, we put some skin in the game,” she said.
For instance, U of M recently underwent a major restructuring in which units across all sectors of the school had to pool and share their resources in new ways. The staff witnessed Byron-Oilar and the CFO manage the change, take major risks, and even make a few missteps along the way. “We threw ourselves into it. And by staying with a very difficult process, we were successful,” she said. “I think it’s important for the team to see someone go through that, take a risk, and to try something new.”
Transparency & Feedback
Byron-Oilar spoke about the importance of transparency in leadership. “It’s about demonstrating a little risk-taking, a little hard work, and being really transparent with your team as you go.” When leaders are intentional, open, and transparent, they can garner helpful feedback, as well as help staff develop a greater understanding and appreciation of the business as a whole.
Feedback is paramount to personal and professional improvement. It’s not only about making use of organized feedback opportunities, but also reaching out to others in your field to request constructive feedback. “Being open to the cues and signals, and deliberately reaching out and making it known to the people you work with that you are open and value their input, is a tremendous gift,” Byron-Oilar explained. ♦
Carryover Benefits of Fitness
With her executive role and family duties, Byron-Oilar leads a busy life, but still makes intense physical exercise a part of her regular schedule. After she hired a trainer and took her diet and fitness up a notch, she began seeing amazing benefits that impacted her health and general well-being, and carried over into her professional life. She highly recommends professionals make an effort to pay more attention to their fitness to collect huge payoffs.
- Stress Relief: “Exercise is an automatic stress release. It’s like hitting the reset valve at the end of a busy day.”
- Stamina: “Exercise also helps my mental and physical stamina. When you have a busy schedule, it can be very draining, and it’s good to make sure that you’re both mentally and physically strong.”
- Energy Management: “We all only have so much energy. I find that good nutrition elevates my energy and my mood, as does a really regular and robust exercise program.”
Professional profiles, photojournalism, and legal writing are Sunny's specialties; her personal, creative, edgy approach makes her stand apart in the industry. Her clientele has included over three dozen law firms around the country; international businesses such as LiveStrong and Howcast; American favorites like Family Fun and Natural News; and regional publications such as Rutherford Woman and Conch Color.
As a mom of six, fitness enthusiast, and self-employed business woman, she stays busy in her island home with her middle school sweetheart and husband Michael, and makes time to travel regularly. If she's not jogging on down the islands, shooting an event, or writing up a storm, you can find her at Sunfire Creatives or on Facebook.
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