When LaWana Richmond was selected as Staff Advisor to the Regents in 2015, she knew from her predecessors that it would be a learning experience. But it was not until she stepped into the role that she fully grasped the magnitude.
“The experience was a lot broader and deeper than I imagined,” said Richmond, a business analyst at UC San Diego. “You get exposed to different aspects of university operations, and get to understand the process a policy goes through to be developed and vetted, the attention that’s paid to even the most granular details. People really care about getting it right. I didn’t realize how much I would learn about UC.”
As Richmond prepares to complete her term on June 30, she looks back on the experience and offers some advice for anyone interested in applying by the March 10 deadline.
Were there specific issues you wanted to address when you became staff adviser?
I didn’t come with a specific agenda because I didn’t feel I knew enough to know what would be the greatest good. I started off listening and talking to people, and looking at what was happening.
Through that experience, a few things rose to the top for me:
One is mental wellness and finding ways to better support employees. I piloted a mental health first aid course at UC San Diego, where supervisors, HR contacts and staff leaders receive training on perception, scenarios, ways to respond when they recognize there may be a problem and resources to direct people to. I’m hopeful this will be considered at the systemwide level.
With the influx of millennial workers, our campuses were faced with the question of how to adapt to this new workforce. In response to this, we started holding sessions for early-career professionals during each campus visit. At each session, we asked three simple questions to help us better understand the workforce of UC’s future.
Another issue that emerged from talking with staff is providing support for staff parents to help them position their kids for college success. We’re working with university leaders to see what we can do.
How much influence do staff advisers have on the president's and the regents’ discussions and decision-making?
What we have is access and opportunity, and a great potential to influence. It’s incumbent on the individual to manage the situation. For example, we meet with the president every other month and for those meetings, we develop the agenda.
One example is the issue of supervision. There are skills that are critical to leadership that you just don’t wake up knowing. If we want our supervisors to be among the best, we need to help them get the best training. Between our staff adviser conversations and CUCSA [Council of University of California Staff Assemblies] leadership, the issue of supervision became more front and center, and the people management certification is now a big step in raising management and leadership skills.
A lot of it is like slowly pushing a rock up the hill. Perhaps you plant a seed and a few years later, it comes to fruition. It takes ongoing communication and dialogue.
What have you enjoyed about the role?
Building relationships and getting regents to see that staff cares about more than what people think we care about. We care about the institution as a whole, the students, the mission. Many of us are proud to say we work for UC.
Through campus visits, I’ve gained a new appreciation and respect for the contributions of staff at every level. We also met with campus leadership and it was wonderful to see how eager they were to hear about what they can do to make things better for staff.
Each campus is unique with its own culture, strengths and challenges. But the campuses have more in common than they have differences. For example, when it comes to affordability, the campuses are surrounded by expensive housing because the presence of a UC increases property value. To the degree that we remember we have things in common, perhaps that can help us be less siloed. We can reach out to colleagues at other campuses to talk about issues and concerns or run ideas by.
What impact, if any, has the staff adviser experience had on your perspective, both on your work at UC and in your personal life?
I look at things through a much different lens now because I have greater insight into the big picture. When you’re looking at how the system works as a whole and the choices that are made, you understand that perhaps something may not be the best choice for this small unit within a campus. But more holistically, it’s the best choice for the organization. If you want a sustainable organization, you can’t sacrifice the whole for the parts.
On a personal level, it’s given me appreciation for the time I spend with my family. As a staff adviser, you do travel quite a bit. So when I’m home, I try to make sure I’m present for my family. I put my phone down. I stay away from my computer.
What advice would you give someone who’s thinking about applying to be a staff adviser?
Make sure you have your supervisor’s support. Have a meaningful conversation so they’re prepared for what this means. Ideally, you can stay on top of your work remotely since being a staff adviser does involve travel. The staff adviser role is not in place of your job; it’s in addition to your job.
The staff advisor role is two years, but it feels like a blink [of an eye]. Be prepared to jump in, roll up your sleeves and get to work. The time goes by so quickly. Prioritize what your focus is going to be.
Make sure to appreciate the moment. And give yourself time to breathe and process.
What kind of support is available for a new staff adviser?
Even though you’re one individual coming into this role, you will have the support of many. That includes the other staff adviser, who will serve as a mentor. You will also have the support of past staff advisers and chancellors.
At the systemwide office, the HR office and senior leaders are very engaged in making sure you’re successful. I appreciated their willingness to take time to help us understand different issues and provide their perspective. When we asked questions, we were given meaningful answers. Even when the response wasn’t what we wanted to hear, we knew it came from a genuine place.