Jeff Strese was already a veteran counselor and consultant when he began his SMU career in 1995 as an organizational development specialist. After more than 12 years with the University, he has been appointed as SMU’s director of human resources. He began serving in his new position in December 2007.
Previously, Strese served as director of recruitment and retention and associate director of human resources. As an adjunct faculty member in the Cox School of Business, he has taught undergraduate and M.B.A. courses in change management. He has a Master of Education degree from the University of North Texas. Learn more about his priorities for the department, his thoughts on balancing work and life, and how Human Resources is pioneering SMU’s “East Campus” initiative.
What are you biggest priorities for Human Resources, and what are some of the challenges involved in meeting them?
I’ve been with SMU for more than 12 years and have led several campuswide staff initiatives, so I have a pretty good idea of where Human Resources is meeting campus needs with services. In training, recruitment, employee relations and benefits, I think we’re doing a good job. The areas we need to explore involve helping staff and faculty as they think about retirement and retirement planning. SMU has excellent retirement packages and services, and I would like to see increased use of our more proactive counseling and education options so that faculty and staff have better peace of mind as they reach retirement.
I’d also like to see more people using our elective health and wellness initiatives. That’s where much of our program focus will be in the coming year or two. The HR staff has done a great deal of work in the past five or six years on cross-training and building bench strength, and we have a lot of strong leadership capacity. I think we need to further leverage technology to help ourselves with data management and make things more automated – not just with external customers like potential employees, but also with our internal customers like financial officers and the Payroll Department and other departments that have a lot of interface with HR. We’re putting a lot of emphasis on our human resources information system capacity in the next year or so.
How are you communicating this with your SMU constituencies, as well as the wider community?
We redesigned and relaunched our website about a year ago, and it’s very user-friendly. We have created a branding initiative around HealthyU, BenefitsU, DevelopU and RecruitU, and we’ve gotten a lot of mileage out of that.
That said, we can have all the technology in the world, but if we’re not integrated and all on the same page about programs and services, then it really won’t do a lot of good. So we’ve put a lot of effort into making sure that our programs are integrated and that people know what we’re doing. I do think there’s quite a bit more we can do to make our learning and development initiatives more accessible and impactful by using technology more to our advantage. We hope to do that through the use of our new training facility and through other innovative ways.
What are some other big issues in the HR area?
From a healthcare administration perspective, SMU is committed to keeping out-of-pocket expenses down as much as possible. We really want to be proactive from a wellness and prevention standpoint. For example, perhaps some of our faculty and staff, with increased wellness education, can move out of a cholesterol risk zone or make other lifestyle choices to minimize risk of more serious health problems.
We’ve gotten a lot of mileage over the years with our professional development and health and wellness initiatives, but we don’t want to reach a plateau in our enrollment and engagement. These programs are sophisticated and contemporary, but we do risk reaching an average level of enrollment and staying there if we don’t broaden our education initiatives. We want to take it to the next level, so we’re going to have to really get innovative about outreach.
What have been some of the challenges and advantages of your move to Expressway Tower?
We all had quite a bit of concern about moving over here from the Perkins Administration Building, about being out of the main flow of campus traffic. Personally, I grieved leaving the main campus, the beauty and the community sense of it. But we really like it over here. The environment is very nice, and this move has allowed us to do many things we’ve really needed to accomplish to build a strong, service-oriented work environment.
Along with the Payroll Department, we launched a task force several months prior to our move, anticipating the kinds of work stoppages we might encounter with a physical move. People are accustomed to walking over to Perkins Administration Building and doing all of their business. We tried to anticipate ways in which we could automate some of our processes with the campus community. We put drop boxes in Perkins and in the Hughes-Trigg Student Center for more direct, same-day type of transactions – payroll authorization forms, termination forms, things that were a little more mission-critical in terms of timeliness. We were really proactive about it, and I think that’s minimized any hiccups we might have had.
We’ve also worked to make this a very appealing place for people to visit, and we’ve tried to be the pioneers of the “East Campus” initiative. We’re really proud of that.
It certainly is a lot easier for prospective employees to conduct business without having to find parking on campus.
Absolutely. I think our new office environment is much more appealing and inviting compared to our old workspace. The workspace we have now allows for much better workflow between functional areas. We also have a really nice training room. It’s very user-friendly and has state-of-the-art technology for meetings and training sessions.
How do you bring your counseling background and team-building approach into your new role?
About eight years ago, I began to learn about human resources operations and strategy, which was a broader scope for me than just organizational development, and that learning curve really prepared me for this role. At the same time, I brought some competencies to recruitment and employee relations that helped to develop people and systems. Those are my strengths, developing people and systems. I think my core platform skills will always center on consulting and coaching, and I’ve tried to develop people in our department to do that same kind of work when it is appropriate.
I have learned to balance an initial people-focused philosophy with a more outcome-oriented, hands-on approach to solving HR problems. I’m very concerned with the well-being and life balance of our people here at SMU. I try to role-model that in my own life and in the relationships I have with my own staff, and I think our programs should reflect the same focus. That’s how Human Resources helps to add value to the University, by helping people find balance and equipping them with the resources they need to accomplish their goals.
I think what people can expect from us this year is that we’re not going to miss a beat on our service or quality. We’re only going to continue to grow in our innovation and our programs, and I think people will experience happy and productive employees when they work with us. I’m excited about the future.