Holly Kortright is the Senior Vice President of People at Ellucian. She has more than 25 years of experience in both Fortune 500 and mid-size organizations, working at companies like Deltek, Capital One, ExxonMobil and consulting firms Hay Group and Andersen Consulting with emphasis on organizational development, leadership and talent development, change management, consulting, and business process reengineering. She is a dynamic and insightful leader who thrives in fast-paced, growth and acquisition-oriented environments. Holly is results-oriented and has a track record of engaging in best-in-class talent to develop world-class leaders and companies.
Ellucian is global leader of innovative technology solutions for higher education institutions. Backed by private equity, the Company has grown from 2,702 to 2,944 employees over the last 3 years and is now over $725 million in annual revenue. More than 2,400 institutions in 40 countries across the globe partner with Ellucian to help enable student success. With more than 1,500 institutions subscribing to Ellucian’s cloud services and SaaS offerings, the company is one of the largest providers of cloud-based solutions.
I had the opportunity to speak with Holly soon after two new private equity companies took over ownership in Ellucian.
What challenges have you faced by transitioning from a large-cap organization such as Capital One to mid-cap companies such as Deltek and Ellucian?
In a mid-cap or smaller company, there is a greater sense of urgency. You have to be willing to make decisions on a day-to-day basis, and shift or redirect very quickly. You must continuously pull information from your environment and provide insights to be successful. You do not have six months to build a program and see if it will work. You need to be nimble, strategic, and make changes quickly.
I have to use my gut more now than I did in roles I held in Fortune 500 companies – where we had processes, approvals, and tons of people to weigh in. You also have to spend time convincing the CEO and the Board to go in your new direction or back your people initiatives, because sometimes, you are the only voice at the table.
From an investment perspective, it can be a challenge in a mid-size environment to carve out enough resources for human capital. We have to prove a direct return on investment in the short-term versus simply in the long-term. For example, if we feel we need to invest in leadership development, we have to gain buy-in from senior leaders as to why it is critical and how it will improve the operations of the business. You have to show how your investment will impact the organization because if you get that money another part of the business will not.
What has been your biggest achievement at Ellucian so far?
Culture. Ellucian fundamentally needed to shift from acting like a higher education institution to operating like a technology company that serves the higher education market. That is a big shift and critical given the pace of change and the intense competition.
We embarked on a culture transformation and involved employees across the organization – focusing on what we wanted to look like in the future and what would make us successful. We changed our core values to concentrate more on innovation (DARE), greater sense of urgency (Build Mindful Momentum), converting our customers to zealots (Enable Customer Greatness) and improvements in large scale cross-functional collaboration (Own Our Destiny). And with those new values, we had to figure out how we could sustain the needed behavior change.
We tried to build an employee value proposition when I first arrived, but there wasn’t enough engagement from the top; there was a disconnect and we recognized it. When Jeff Ray joined Ellucian as our CEO, he brought a new strategic vision to the company and we decided to build the value proposition together – from the ground up. We solicited input from all levels and built a culture coalition of 55 people. These were high potential team members and informal influencers from all business units and geographies; they all became culture champions among their peers creating a ground swell in cultural change. We met and talked about where we are today and where we need to go in future. Eventually, we got to a place where everyone could see himself or herself in this new culture, and then we built a performance and reward system around it.
Kevin Boyce, as COO/CFO, how has Holly and her team impacted the business:
The way that HR stepped in last year and ran a very broad-based process to redefine and establish the company’s values and culture was very effective. Values weren’t ground up in the past. HR led a very rapid but broad process where over 1,000 employees got involved to provide input and structure our values. Each business group selected one or two values that meant the most to them and then recognized employees around that. This moved engagement scores materially from 62% to 72% favorable and we achieved best places to work notoriety. They created a much higher level of champions than I thought possible.
What tips and advice would you give to other executives who are transitioning from a larger organization to a smaller one?
For CHROs specifically, it is a mistake to focus too much on HR programs. It is not about how many awesome HR programs you can pump out. Employees only have a certain bandwidth to consume initiatives. It is best to pick the initiatives that are aligned with business strategy and goals that will yield the biggest results. Then really execute quickly and with high quality which will enable you to drive change more effectively and efficiently. At the same time, be ready to make impactful decisions every single day and course correct quickly based on new facts and information.
Additionally, in a smaller company, you have to own the talent equation because you do not have a large team of people. You must hold leaders accountable for how they are developing and attracting talent. They don’t always see that as a primary part of their jobs, but it is critical to company-wide culture and performance – at Ellucian we encourage our leaders to spend 30% of their time on talent development and engagement.
Connect, engage, and care for your employees. Challenge leaders when they don’t. Be the conscience of the organization. You have to personally have a high level of integrity and ensure that the company cares about its employees in balance with business and financial priorities. Set the tone for everyone else. If you’re looking merely at utilization numbers and not human numbers, you are missing the mark.
It’s also important to maintain calm in the company and be the voice of reason. You need to have challenging conversations that may create constructive conflict, but you need to be able to get people back in a good place when you are done. Most people tend to be uncomfortable in a swiftly changing environment, and it is challenging. You need to help them. You have to get through your own learning curve more quickly so that you can support everyone else.
Lastly, keep in mind that your company isn’t so big anymore. There’s no reason not to know all the leaders and support them – take them to lunch and get to know them. Show that you want to support everyone in their careers while they are with the company and when they move on to other opportunities. One of the greatest impacts I have had over the last 25 years is coaching HR talent – to see them all taking on new opportunities and being Sr. leaders is one of the greatest rewards of this job.
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