Ericka Smith almost thought it was a joke when a routine email from a popular jobsite landed in her inbox. There was an opening to lead the human resources department at UNLV, it said. Would she be interested and willing to relocate from North Carolina?
The coincidence seemed to Smith almost too good to be true. Her only child, daughter Tiesha, was planning a move to Southern Nevada for a job in the events field and had kiddingly told her mother that it would be awesome if UNLV had an opening for a vice president in human resources so that they wouldn’t have an entire country between them.
Before Smith could even look into UNLV, here came the email.
Smith, who had spent five years as vice chancellor for human resources at North Carolina Agricultural & Technical State University, a historically black institution located in Greensboro, hadn’t been planning to switch jobs, but she found both UNLV and the job to be great matches for her interests and skills.
Smith, who has two degrees from Virginia Commonwealth University and a Ph.D. from Nova Southeastern University, has amassed a variety of HR experience during nearly 26 years spent both in higher education institutions such as George Washington University and in the private sector.
One major factor that made UNLV attractive, she said, was its diversity.
“I wanted something more diverse and a place that is open to innovation and all the things higher education stands for,” she said. Also extremely appealing was the potential to be part of UNLV’s Top Tier initiative, which she said represents for her a standard of excellence for student success.
First 60 Days
Her first official day as UNLV’s new vice president and chief human resources officer was March 1, but even before that, she had spent time on campus to determine what her team in HR needed. Her first 60 days or so will be spent collecting and assessing those needs, she said. “I may think I know what they need, but they may tell me they need something else. I plan to listen.”
Of course, she particularly wants to get to know the staff in HR.
While UNLV already has a highly diverse student population, Smith said she wants to work on further expanding the diversity among its employee ranks as well.
Recruiting people to work in Las Vegas should be quite different from recruiting people to come to Greensboro, she said, noting that when you are wooing potential employees you are selling them not only on the university or the company, but also on its location.
Her North Carolina school was considered to be in an urban setting, she said, but added, “Surely not as vibrant as this area is.” Las Vegas definitely is in an urban setting and should provide many characteristics that are attractive to potential employees, she said.
While achieving a diverse population is a positive thing, it isn’t enough, Smith said.
Inclusion and retention — making diverse populations feel at home within the university so that they want to stay — are important corollaries that she wants HR to help the university work on, she said.
“You can have diversity all around you, but if you don’t have a plan to make people feel as if they belong, they may leave,” which defeats the purpose of having achieved diversity in the first place, she pointed out.
Improving the service provided by HR to the campus is another of her goals, she said, adding that no matter how good service already is, improvement always is possible. That’s one reason she wants to meet with key players such as other vice presidents and deans to find out what they feel they need from HR that they are not receiving right now.
She said she also is aware that the conversion to Workday, the university’s financial planning and human resources management software system, hasn’t been seamless and that some further refinements may be necessary.
Preparing for Departure
Don’t worry. She just got here; she’s not planning to leave. But Smith is aware that key players at every institution leave on a regular basis. She said HR can — and should — play an important role in preparing for what she called “leadership continuity.”
Most enterprises, whether universities or businesses, spend a lot of time concentrating on bringing people on board and then integrating them into the system. While that is extremely important, Smith said, it’s also important to prepare the institution for the inevitable departure of key players.
Too often, she said, processes aren’t documented sufficiently and people operate based on the institutional knowledge they carry around in their heads. When they leave the university, that knowledge walks right out the door with them, leaving others to figure out how and why certain things have been done in the past.
HR, she said, should play a key role in helping make sure that processes are documented and people are prepared properly so that departures don’t leave such voids.
Right now, though, Smith is concentrating on settling in, getting to know people and the campus, and integrating herself into the UNLV community.
And outside of work, she said, she’s preparing for the numerous visits from family and friends that people have told her inevitably follow a move to Las Vegas.
“I’ll probably see my family more often here than I did in Greensboro — and there I was about three hours away from most of them,” she said laughingly.
On campus, “I’m just excited to be here to join the Rebels and create that synergy and energy between HR and the rest of the university.”