‘We Can Move to a Better Place,’ CHRO Terri Winbush Shares How She Hopes to Establish a New Culture
Following a comprehensive nationwide search, Terri Winbush became UC San Diego’s Chief Human Resources Officer (CHRO) in June 2022. As the CHRO, she’s a member of the Vice Chancellor & Chief Financial Officer’s senior management team as well as the Chancellor’s Cabinet. Winbush has been a very strong advocate for staff and was instrumental in developing and implementing policies and services that kept our community safe through the pandemic. She has enabled campuswide conversations to fight racism and develop a more inclusive environment, and has also been a strong voice at staff town halls, advocating for giving grace and making space for us to bring our whole selves to our work at UC San Diego. We sat down with Winbush to talk about how she plans to use data, training and a constant feedback loop to establish a new culture at UC San Diego and beyond. “Instead of perpetuating what exists,” she says, “we can move to a better place.”
How long have you worked in HR at UC San Diego?
I just celebrated my eighth year in December.
How has the approach to Human Resources evolved in the time you’ve been here?
I would say pretty dramatically. When I first joined Human Resources, it was primarily focused on compliance, and in many ways, it was transactional. Meaning, someone presented HR with a need, for example, they need to hire for three positions, and then HR would post the positions and send the candidates. Now, we more typically help contribute to a strategic conversation, exploring what organizations are trying to accomplish and the impact of vacancies, also looking at different leveling of positions and if these are new positions they are trying to fill or positions where someone has left.
What is your priority as Chief Human Resources Officer? What do you see as the biggest opportunity?
I’m constantly saying, “don’t try to boil the ocean,” but my goals are pretty ocean-boiling. I want to reshape the culture of UC San Diego, and then, to the extent that I can influence the same culture change across the system, I want to do that. I want UC San Diego to be a place where people are energized to come here to work. I know it’s a lofty goal for all employees to feel that way, but that’s what I would like.
This is the grounding of the UC San Diego People Proposition—equity, inclusion, care, growth and purpose—all of those anchors drive people towards feeling good about coming to work, bringing their whole selves to work, being able to contribute constructive feedback and offer ideas and new perspectives.
One of the major purposes of diversifying the workforce is because we need UC San Diego to be a place where all areas have the ability to make a difference and create an experience that everyone can enjoy. Everyone can’t enjoy the experience if you are only taking ideas from one segment of the population. If everyone feels it is a comfortable place to be, they can all give that kind of feedback and we can reshape how we approach our work.
How do we get there?
The way we get there is being honest with each other. I want people to feel heard and seen. Year-on-year, we’ve heard similar themes in the results of the Staff@Work Survey. But what has changed this time around is what we do with that information. The Enhancing the Employee Experience IdeaWave campaign just closed on Jan. 13, and people shared some great ideas. Some we have control over locally, and some can be brought up systemwide. And, although some of the ideas are a reinforcement of things we already felt we need to do, it’s important to hear them directly from our staff. We are creating a continuous feedback loop. This starts with hearing from our employees about what they want and need, aligning that with what we have the ability to provide, being clear about what we want to achieve, holding people accountable and being honest about how we’re doing. It’s huge, but it’s also simple—listening to people and then being honest about what we are trying to do and why. This may include hard truths, for example, when an idea is not aligned with our goals, mission or budget, but we hope to be clear about the things we cannot do and transparent about why or why not.
Did the employment market change during the pandemic?
This will not be shocking to anyone, but there were a number of factors the pandemic and technology brought about that shifted the availability of people in certain industries in the workforce. There was “The Great Reflection,” where people reflected on what they wanted to do with their life, and if their work matched their true calling or skills. Also, some people found ways to leverage technology to monetize their skills, whether podcasting or posting to social media channels. Lastly, many people in the service industry felt they were not being treated well and not being paid well. Those people, if they had the capability to get out—whether through retirement or a job change—they left.
One of the things we’re trying to track is the movement of people. Let’s say I’m in my current job, but upon reflection, what I really want to do is be an administrator in facilities management. In the last few years, people are willing to make these kinds of big changes. This movement causes vacancies and has contributed to an employees’ market. That is the shift, but I am excited about it and I think it is a great opportunity.
There are so many variables that lead to retention issues. If you go through a challenge like the pandemic, you learn that people will go where they feel safe and feel like they can be developed—even if a lateral move, even if slightly less money. This is why it’s so important to invest in training supervisors to avoid burn out and promote growth. Also, HR also needs to demystify and help people navigate different career paths. We are looking at ways that our staff can review their skills and consider different types of jobs within the university that are a good match. This is important, because if we are able to provide growth opportunities and keep people with us, we’ll all benefit.
Does this pose a challenge for a public employer with limited resources? Absolutely. Does that mean we need to get creative in other ways to make this the best place to work? 100%. For example, we can offer full salary while you take care of a family member—that is amazing. One of the things we are looking at systemwide is making our benefits package competitive, in tandem with paying people fairly, which means in the market, but as a public employer.
What is the biggest challenge on the horizon?
I am concerned when I hear people say we will “get back to normal” after the pandemic. The change is here and people are not going back to a pre-pandemic mind-set. I believe hybrid work is here to stay. Also, for a lot of people, it is no longer a badge of honor to work 80 hours a week. Supervisors need to understand the best work modality for the people they lead, and how they will support and service their customers. They may have to think about how to deploy their talent and technology in a different way.
Why do people want to work at UC San Diego?
People tell me they’re drawn to our mission. They want to serve students and play a part in all that we do from educating the next generation to developing cures. Some people want to be with an employer that is helping to drive the economy of San Diego, they like the stability of that. Others like to be part of a community, and appreciate how the university creates opportunities to connect through campus celebrations and other channels like the staff association and affiliate groups. But these are the type of things we want to learn more about and track. It’s really important to ask people what they want, whether in an introduction, exit interview, staff surveys or other channels.
What do we want to see from prospective employees?
It is important that they have the capability to do the technical aspects of the job, of course. When I say capability, it does not mean they’ve done this exact job somewhere else, necessarily. You may want to look at someone who can step into doing the job and learn the ways that you’d like the job done here.
Beyond technical skills, you want someone who has a healthy curiosity. For example, wanting to understand the culture of the department in order to learn how best to navigate it. Someone who likes to find out ways to make the work easier, more effective and enable coworkers and the university to be successful.
We want them to demonstrate grace and be a champion for supporting people bringing their whole selves to work. Lastly, but certainly, not least, they have to buy in to the mission of the unit, department and the university, especially wanting to further our culture shift in line with the People Proposition.
The university has made great strides in the past decade, nearly doubling the number of women in management and senior professional positions. Also going from three women in the chancellor’s cabinet to 11 (including yourself). What are other areas of focus for the university?
We have to continue along that path. The Chancellor was intentional in his efforts. While the cabinet is diverse, a few levels down, we start losing that level of diversity. We all need to look at diversifying the entirety of our employment population in all dimensions, including racial, different abilities, gender and more, and we need to offer support to those trying to grow. I will do my best to help people understand what opportunities are available to them, and also help people to have self-awareness. Reflect on your skills, what you do well and what you enjoy doing. The marrying of the two will be beneficial to everyone going forward.
Talk to me about the meaning of grace and what it means at work.
During townhalls I have made a point to talk about grace. Our worst moments and our best moments can be contagious and influence our work. Sometimes a simple act of grace can help reset our day and put it on a more productive path. It is about being aware and showing compassion to ourselves and each other.
What is different about the culture at UC San Diego—set apart from the rest of higher ed?
One of the biggest things I experienced that’s different is that we focus less on hierarchy. There are always formal processes and approvals, but people feel they can reach out to pretty much everyone, and our Chancellor typically wants to hear from everyone. A perfect example was our response to the pandemic. We were best in class because everyone set aside their title and typical responsibilities to contribute to a broad discussion of what we knew, didn’t know and how we could solve this together. This ability to have difficult discussions, drive thought processes across the campus and make change is what sets us apart. We have that going for us, so I know we can accomplish anything.
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