Currents

Talking Shop: Why Workplace Culture Matters

Coach, counselor, connector—Amy Bronson is transforming how advancement manages its talent

By Theresa Walker

Amy Bronson

Amy Bronson
Associate Vice President, Advancement Resources and Strategic Talent Management Boston University

If you can't grow your staff, someone else will. That motto has guided former fundraiser Amy Bronson since she transitioned to strategic talent management in 2005. In her past seven years at Boston University, Bronson has helped the field take root on campus and beyond. "Talent managers have become true thought partners," Bronson says. "We're strategic consultants, we solve problems, we identify and impact culture." And culture is what most excites Bronson about her work. "If we can create a strong culture and get the right people in the right seats at the right time, that helps retention, grows the operation, and adds to the bottom line."

PHOTO CREDIT: MICHAEL J. LUTCH

Strategic talent management has emerged as an important focus for advancement in recent years. What changes do you foresee in the future?

We're finally looking at our human capital in a more strategic way. In 2005, it was all about the talent war. The turnover problem was huge, and we were all trying to recruit the same people. We needed to stop the frenzy and consider how to better attract and retain talent. We're looking at onboarding, succession planning, workforce development, and management training. Tying all of these pieces together lets us think about what is unique about our organization and the challenges we have as well as how to be strategic about filling open seats. We have to create career paths, and we have to create growth.

How important is culture to an organization?

An institution has a culture—a shop has a culture. It all starts with leadership, all the way up to the president. Day to day, a strong culture means you can come to work and be your best self, that people respect you, that your voice is heard, that you have a path to grow, that you feel your job impacts the success of the institution. Given that about 12 percent of the advancement profession is composed of people of color—the broadest view of diversity—they're going to view an institution's culture differently than I might. That means digging in and sometimes starting uncomfortable conversations. If we can identify what makes for a great culture and what people contribute to that culture, we can glean what success at the institution looks like.

According to Gallup surveys, 67 percent of U.S. employees are either not engaged with their work or are actively disengaged. Worldwide, just 15 percent of employees are engaged. How do you address engagement, which contributes to retention?

Being an engaged employee doesn't mean being the person who is happiest. Sometimes the engaged people are the squeaky wheels, the ones who speak up because they are invested and care enough to push back. Some of our coaching is to have managers be more open to and solicit that type of feedback. Engagement is closely tied to culture. By measuring how engaged or not engaged people are, we can address and remediate some of the issues.

You and your team seem to serve as staff counselors as well. Is that how you would view it?

Remember the Peanuts character Lucy with her "psychiatric help" stand? My team knows everybody. People come to us. We are connectors and counselors. Sometimes people just need someone to listen, to help them process things, or to offer another opinion. We let every new employee know that they can come to us with anything and feel safe, even if it's something that they may not be comfortable telling their manager. We don't handle what we can't handle, so we refer people to human resources when necessary. We've created a culture that everybody wants to maintain. One of our hallmarks is collegiality. People who visit remark on how wonderful and friendly everybody is here, and I say that's just the way it is. Sharp elbows don't make it around here.