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Nikki Jackson is working to make the state of Kentucky an employer of choice.

July 1, 2010
Related Topics: Strategy and Management

Nikki Jackson is working to make the state of Kentucky an employer of choice.

Nikki Jackson, secretary of the Kentucky Personnel Cabinet for the Commonwealth of Kentucky, is quick to point out that her organization is structured differently than the typical corporate HR department. But Jackson takes an approach similar to talent managers in the private sector.

“I see the personnel cabinet as [similar to] corporate HR,” she said. “We have all the specialty groups, so staffing and diversity and comp and benefits, and then the generalists all sit in each of the other cabinets [and] they report directly to their respective cabinet secretaries.”

Jackson oversees 33,000 state employees with a cabinet staff of 231. She discussed with Talent Management the challenges of addressing the talent needs of such a large workforce while being held accountable to a statewide government and citizenry.

TM: Describe your cabinet’s approach to talent management.

Jackson: We have four goals in state government. The first is to help the commonwealth emerge as an employer of choice. The second is to promote a learning and development culture across the enterprise. The third is to see ourselves as one employer and to behave as if that is the case. And then our fourth goal is to enhance customer value so that we’re out of the business of doing HR to our customers and in the business of operating based on mutually beneficial outcomes.

TM: What processes or programs have you established to improve the performance of the workforce across the state?

The first is our Leadership Institute, a yearlong program designed to promulgate a common understanding of what a leader is and what a leader does and to begin to introduce conceptually these principles in an academic setting to state government leaders supplemented by mentoring and buddying opportunities and adjunct professor visits, and by adjunct professor, I mean HR practitioners across the state who are not in state government, so largely private-sector employees.

The second is our on-boarding process. This may be a little staggering; state government has never had an on-boarding process. What I inherited was hit-or-miss orientation, so not even every agency or cabinet was doing an orientation program for new employees. So we never saw the benefit of seeing a consistently implemented view, nor did we have infrastructure to support welcoming new employees to the employer for purposes of helping to create opportunities to accelerate productivity. So we now have a full-out on-boarding program where employees are welcomed consistently irrespective of the cabinet to which they are assigned.

TM: How is performance management linked to the strategic objectives of the state of Kentucky?

Jackson: Full disclosure: It’s not. Our performance management process right now is codified, so it’s antiquated, it’s not effective … I don’t know how much more blunt I can be about it. It’s not a process that I believe is ultimately serving our interests going forward. It was useful at a time; it’s completely outlived its usefulness. That is on the radar screen for this year — a priority of mine is to finally revamp that process to assure that it’s more in line with our strategic outcomes.

TM: So who are you ultimately accountable to as manager of a state’s talent?

If you think about an HR vice president in the private sector, [he or she is] accountable of course to the employees that are serviced out of that department, to the CEO, likely to the board of directors, and to shareholders. In my world, I’m accountable to the governor, to employees and to employee groups, and to constituents and the media and the legislature. Oftentimes, as you might imagine with that broad of an audience, there are competing interests. So as I look at how can we move the needle forward in the way that we look at talent and manage talent, making sure that each of those stakeholders is aware, advised of, supportive of and knowledgeable around what we’re trying to do — our intended outcomes — managing those expectations is absolutely critical. So as we roll out new programs like on-boarding, as we try to revamp our performance review process, as we look at our wellness initiatives and all those programs that come out of our cabinet, I am accountable now to all of those groups to make sure they understand the extent to which they align to one of those four strategic goals and that they represent monies well spent, because I’m spending taxpayer dollars on this stuff.

TM: What is the nature of your role as cabinet secretary when it comes to collaboration both within and without state government?

The role is a policymaking role as much as it is a governance role. The leveraging of influence is very much an expectation. It’s an integral part of the role. So I work with my peers, the other cabinet secretaries. I work with legislative leaders of the House and the Senate and our General Assembly. I work with both parties, Democratic and Republican. I work with leaders even outside of state government for purposes of expanding our brand and helping to anchor the importance of this work across the state: HR leaders like SHRM and with an organization called the Institute for Workplace Innovation that operates under the auspices of the University of Kentucky in assuring there’s alignment to the work that we are focused around and the outcomes that we are intending.

TM: How do you develop organizational culture and employee attitudes to optimize workforce performance?

Jackson: It’s difficult. How I’ve chosen to approach it, and I’m certainly not suggesting this is the best way, but this is a way, is incrementally, starting first with my cabinet. There’s this notion of building the business and then building the organization. So I’m looking to build the organization of HR first and assure that it is formidable; that it is astute; that it is viable; that it is one that is continuing to evolve on its own. It needs to really survive; this progression needs to survive beyond me, or even without me, because of the finite nature of my appointment. I’ve been working so much with just the folks in my cabinet and the HR folks around state government to build ambassadors. We have employees in 120 counties in Kentucky, and there’s no way in two years that we’re going to transform our culture, but we can perhaps move the needle a little bit by using these ambassadors — people who have had very positive experiences with us, who are completely aligned to the work that we’re now about, [and] who do understand the importance of being visible and accessible and responsive in human resources.

TM: How does your cabinet use learning and development to manage talent?

Again, what’s different about us, our top talent, that is in terms of our top leadership talent, [is that they] typically are appointed folks who are in and out in two to four years. So we do the best we can with them while they’re here. We spend a little bit more time on our merit population. Those are the folks who tend to stay. So those are not necessarily the politically appointed roles but the folks who tend to be the longer-term state government employees — the ones that in my mind are really going to be helping to move the continuum in the years to come. So in terms of learning and development, we’re doing quite a bit, and most of what we’re doing really is anchored in shopping this idea of a philosophical change in learning and development. We have a wonderful training organization out of my cabinet. The issue though is our culture has heretofore been one that said, ‘We’ll send folks to training, but you’re not really accountable, employee, for doing much learning while there or transferring any of those new skills back to the workplace.’ So we’re changing the conversation around what learning and development means by using our strategic goal of being one employer as leverage. So we’re now saying, ‘Look, as you’re bringing people into this organization, it really is not about training as the event, it’s about making sure that as a leader you are growing that talent for the betterment of the enterprise, both in keeping with the goals and expectations of that employee, as well as the needs and the desires of the organization.’

What’s next for you in terms of talent management and workforce performance development?

Jackson: We’re going to be focusing much more on leadership development and fostering both an appreciation for and an understanding of strategic planning and thinking for our managers across state government, continuing in the work of revamping our organizational culture and then of course we still are continuing with those four strategic goals, working on learning and development beyond leadership and just ensuring that we’ve got some really robust, firmer understanding of how we manage and grow talent for the betterment of the enterprise. There’s still a fair amount of learning to be had for our folks as it relates to that doctrine.

We’re excited about our momentum; we’re excited about our brand identity that’s starting to emerge as an employer and as a state because of the work we’re doing in HR. But there’s still a lot more to go.

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