ANAHEIM, CALIF. — When Rebecca Mathern of Oregon State University was given the task of restructuring her admissions office, she made it a priority to keep her focus on getting the right people in place to boost the success of students at her university. Before her attempts to restructure, Mathern found that, although nothing was really wrong in her office, her team lacked direction and had stopped feeling excited for what was coming next. “We had to stop feeling overwhelmed and start feeling empowered,” Mathern said. In a session at the recent Pacific Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers annual conference, Mathern gave tips, tricks, best practices and anecdotes from her own experience transforming her office into a successful student-serving team.

Identify what needs to change, not when to change it

Mathern said that before her restructuring, there was a strong sense within the office that other departments and organizations on campus were not fully involving her team, but team members didn’t have ideas about how to be more engaged with these departments. Mathern bumped up against the following questions while looking to restructure her office:

  • Where do we need to be as a team?
  • Who do we want to have on our team?
  • How do we help develop our staff?
  • How do we help staff decide to play on the team?
  • In what order should change occur? Does it matter what order?

Mathern decided to start with changes immediately. “Waiting for perfect timing means it may never happen,” she said. “As long as you’re engaging people, it doesn’t matter what you do first. Just do something,” Mathern said. Getting people moving and engaged in the process of restructuring gathers its own momentum.

Mathern reviewed her team’s organizational chart, both the number of staff and type of staff. She found that the institution served more than 28,000 students, and her office had only 21.25 full-time employees. In comparison, in 2005, her office had employed 20.25 full-time employees to serve 16,000 students. Although she didn’t have money in her budget to hire more employees, she wanted to better manage her resources at hand to best meet student needs. Mathern was invested in hiring only people who raised the average passion, intelligence or drive of her office. If you want to hire quality staff members on a budget, Mathern advised looking at, for each position:

  • The minimum qualifications of the position.
  • The tools missing that your team really needs to be successful.
  • The opportunities you can seize to effect real change within your office.
  • The most innovative ways to reclassify each position to the highest pay grade possible to find a more qualified pool of applicants. Midlevel management positions draw applicants interested in gaining leadership skills.

New hires create an opportunity to set office standards

Mathern realized that her office needed a better structure for formal training of new hires. The training the university provided, while important for the institution, didn’t cover the needs of the office or provide functional training for the new hire. “We realized we didn’t have anything internal to our office,” Mathern said. Finding a way to merge the two was key to setting the new hire up for success in her role. The training should ensure that the new hire has a solid understanding of the university, knowledge of how the office fits into the university, and the skills to perform her own job responsibilities in the office.

Mathern created a training plan grid for a new hire’s first three weeks on the job, with every 30 minutes blocked out with informational meetings or reviews. Each day, the new hire was given two 30-minute windows to decompress. This training grid was specific to Mathern’s office and not to the applicant. No matter who was hired for which position, each new hire had to participate in a thorough review of each different unit on campus with which Mathern’s office worked. There were no skipped parts, so that each person learned about all the offices’ responsibilities, Mathern said. Mathern stressed the importance of making clear to each new hire that she would have the opportunity to go back and ask to relearn any of the information imparted during this three-week period, and this high-level overview would help direct the new hire to the right department for questions. Creating the training plan grid ultimately saved time, since Mathern didn’t have to plan new training every time she hired someone new.

Find professional development opportunities within your own office

Once you make the right hire for your office, you have to find ways to keep her. “Create an opportunity for people to have upward mobility if they want to stick around,” Mathern said. Mathern advised asking employees within your office which professional development needs aren’t being met. Mathern suggested the following cost-effective methods to provide professional development opportunities to your staff:

  • Follow up with your staff three times: ask for feedback on opportunities; give and receive growth critiques for each employee; and, finally, create expectations for service in helping develop others in the office. A departing employee told Mathern that although there were great professional development opportunities in the office, she could never find the time to take advantage of them. “It doesn’t do any good to offer professional development if people can’t take you up on it,” Mathern said, adding that her office has now built time into employee schedules so that they can avail themselves of professional development opportunities.
  • Offer staff the opportunity to sit in on hiring and search committees. Mathern said this was one of the most effective ways her office helped current employees build their interview skills — both for internal promotion and other opportunities that might come their way. The chance to review what is successful and what could use work during internal hiring reviews for other applicants provides real-life models for interviewing.
  • Direct employees to online professional development resources, many of which can be obtained for free through professional organizations.

To improve your office, set and keep to standards

Mathern worked with her management team to develop standards for her office. First, they worked together to decide on the vision statement: “Clear the path for student success.” From there, Mathern and her management team worked to get the staff to agree on the values to use to operate. It was important to Mathern to get the support of everyone in her office for these values and goals, so that changes to the office’s processes would be viewed as a necessary step toward upholding those values.

Next, Mathern needed to decide how to determine if her team was performing its functions well. She also needed to determine how to measure the value of what the office brings to campus. Mathern and her team decided on a formal, 360 progress review from the campus offices with which they worked. She met with all her partner offices on campus and offered her office’s processes and webpage for review. From these meetings and reviews, she received a 42-page document of feedback. To keep the review process going, Mathern developed a basic survey tool to tack on to emails announcing the implementation of any new service or update from her office to the rest of campus. This quick information-gathering service provided Mathern with a monthly report on how her office was performing in the eyes of the rest of campus.

By the end of Mathern’s restructuring process, she had created a more cohesive office with strategic hiring processes; employees who understand the structure of the office and the office’s role within the university; professional development opportunities her employees desired; and clear feedback processes to determine whether or not her office was meeting its goals and mission.