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In midst of high turnover, metrics and clear procedures for continuity help stay the course

Excerpted from the September 2022 issue of University-Industry Engagement Advisor. UIDP members can view the entire issue here.

With the advent of the ‘Great Resignation’ — from which, of course, industry partnership offices are not immune — corporate engagement leaders are more focused than ever on what it takes to get members of their teams on board and committed to a common set of goals. And, when individuals do leave, there is the added challenge of ensuring a smooth transition and the security of proprietary information.

At the heart of creating a unified effort towards team goals — and team continuity — experts agree, is a well-developed set of metrics. “One of the things we’re [focused on] right now is the question of do you have the metrics right based on what’s happening?” says Geanie Umberger, PhD, MSPH, RPh, associate vice president for research and director of Penn State University’s Office for Industry Research Partnerships. “We see companies really pivoting in terms of research, philanthropy, and talent, so you set the metrics where they also allow you some pivot.”

She adds that she is a firm believer in not creating two owners of metrics. — i.e., research versus philanthropy. “They can drive bad behaviors,” she asserts. “We do not have super stringent types of metrics; the giving side has more.” Umberger says her metrics focus more on whether things are moving forward, and whether more research dollars are being brought in.

“The giving side [measures] how many phone calls you make,” she continues. “That’s crazy; it’s my pet peeve. You should focus on quality, not quantity.”

“I’m all about metrics and metrics-based management,” adds Jim O’Connell, assistant vice president for commercialization at UF Innovate at the University of Florida. “You have to keep things simple for your own tracking reasons, but you also need to understand the reasons for the team.”

You shouldn’t have too many metrics, he notes, and they should be meaningful both for tracking results and assessing team performance. “If you have done [too many] different things [with metrics], people will not be able to focus,” O’Connell explains. “Mine out the correct focus, in a way that makes it easy to see in a tangible, believable manner how the needle is moving.” He says he runs staff meetings every Monday morning, where a “numbers-based” agenda is employed. “On a pure tech transfer piece, for example, you look at invention disclosures — year to date compared with the previous year, licenses and options, and then start-ups,” O’ Connell states. “Everyone knows what we’re driving towards.”

“You should look at what the strategic plan is for the university, and what your role is in facilitating that plan around research,” adds Peter Dorhout, PhD, vice president for research at Iowa State University, who developed his best practices in his former position at Kansas State University. “If it calls specifically for more corporate partnerships or an expanded research enterprise, I use that as a launch pad. If the university or regents has goals — say they want us to expand the research enterprise by 5% a year in five years — that gives us a target; we have to build our pipeline.”

Having the target, he continues, milestones must be developed along the way to the goal. “Otherwise, how do we know if we’re going to be successful or fail miserably?” he poses. Next, he creates dashboards. “More often than not they’re internal; you won’t find them on a website,” he notes. With the dashboards, he explains, the team can look quickly at how it’s doing.

And how are the goals met? “If we said we wanted to engage more faculty in the invention disclosure process in order to have more IP to grow the licensing portfolio, for example, we’d really need to think about how to facilitate more faculty participation, and how to help them by providing tools,” says Dorhout. “We’d do training, workshops, have engagements. Those are all the tactics that feed into the bigger strategy.”

Getting, staying on board

A key to managing through turnover — both with new and veteran staff — is ensuring each team member in on board with the team’s goals. “Involve them in the process,” says Dorhout. “You say, ‘Here’s our goal; how do you think we should get there?’ rather than me telling them ‘This is how we’re going to do things.’ I have my own ideas, but I involve them in the conversation about how we get there. I ask them how we can build this, who needs to be part of the building process, and what are the things we can measure. They look to me for overarching strategy.”

Umberger echoes the need for a bottom-up approach. “You need some buy-in from the staff, and have them be part of the mission,” she says. “I like having the team involved when we develop the goals; they have to live with them.”

That does not mean, she continues, that she necessarily accepts every one of their recommendations. “I give them a say; I may not agree with what they offer, but at least they have the time and feel they were part of it,” she shares. “A lot of change management is feeling you are part of it, and not dictated to. Then, you set expectations that tie into the strategy of the university, so metrics are driving the mission.”

Then beyond goal and metrics development, it is critical to stay in touch with staff to ensure they’re staying on track with those goals. “The first part is having conversations with the staff and seeing what they’re doing — are you actually seeing the input?” says Umberger. “Internal stakeholders are super important; get their feedback. If they’re supposed to support colleges or faculty, if you hear grousing [from those areas], then they’re not providing that support. Likewise with external customers — get feedback from both and pull it all together to form a full picture.”

If you find someone isn’t performing at the level you expect, “hopefully you monitor and get to them before it goes too far,” says Umberger. “You do not want to get to year-end performance time and not meet the metrics because someone was in ‘left field.’ You need to come in and do all the typical manager things — maybe they were not adequately trained. What’s keeping them from being successful? Maybe they need a change in portfolio. Maybe there’s some type of conflict. Maybe they need training in excellence with philanthropic dollars, but not in research, or they need additional mentoring. It’s really important as a manager that you peel the layers of the onion.”

“We do not set goals for individuals,” says O’Connell. “If I could tie a bonus to the top individual, I would. I have 17 [team members], and we’re trying to hit 134 deals this year, so they’re generally expected to do 19-20 deals. If someone comes in at 10, they hear about it.”

Staying in close contact

O’Connell says his management style is to meet with each staff member every two weeks for half an hour. “My form is they come to me with issues, but I track everyone on a weekly basis,” he adds. “If someone is trailing behind I ask them how they feel about it, and if they feel they will hit their target by the end of the year or if they have no ‘dry powder.’ Then, is there something we can do? Are they not getting enough disclosures?”

He adds that as a manager, he also has to be careful about what’s reported. “You can fluff up start-up numbers; that becomes the onus on the manager to make sure you’re not letting just anything through,” he notes. “I am the arbiter of what counts and what does not count.”

“What’s important for us are the regular series of meetings — weekly — and due dates,” notes Grant. “We’ll review a strategy document, we’ll all brainstorm around it, then send it out across the university. Then I keep a general log of everything in those goals. If I go visit a company, I put it in [the log]. If get a sponsored research agreement, I put it in.”

“Part of it is setting expectations, so everyone knows what their personal expectation is,” says Dorhout. “We have weekly meetings with everyone on my team, as we did at KSU.” These discussions, he says, are fairly typical workplace check-ins — ‘How are things going? What are you struggling with?’ “I do this to try to avoid surprises at my end-of-year conversation,” he explains. “When it comes time to do an evaluation there should be no surprises — positive or negative. That is an effective leader or manager in every organization.”

He adds that one tool he uses to help track progress is the EOS (Entrepreneurial Operating System), which is commercially available. “It’s a software management tool; I have my goals, dashboards, I see the workflow, and see who has which responsibility,” he says.

Turnover and transition

Thanks to the ‘Great Resignation,’ corporate engagement leaders are more cognizant than ever about the need to address departures without losing any momentum in terms of ongoing projects or relationships with internal stakeholders — as well as security issues.

“For our top strategic projects, each one of us on our team has a portfolio of companies,” says Grant. “For each of those we do a summary: how they’re expanding, who’s involved in our relationship, what’s upcoming, and key things that drive the relationship. The other piece is that we parse out key activities.”

In terms of the database, he continues, companies are placed in priority order. “Everyone has tier one, tier two, and tier three companies,” says Grant. “When someone leaves, someone else will pick up a tier one and maybe trade a tier two or three, since the higher the level the more intense the work.”

In addition, staff maintain an up-to-date list or tally of critical files for partnering initiatives. “You then do a transition of relationships — six to eight months ahead if you have that time,” says Grant. “The [outgoing] person will make introductions and sit in on some meetings. Internally, those are pretty well covered by the company, but you can work on having the professors involved in understanding what’s happening, and that the new person will continue with the role they are currently playing.” It’s helpful, he notes, that individuals on the team often get to know the same faculty members.

“It’s even more important with deans; a lot of power rests with them,” Grant continues. “You should have a conversation with them, as well as a transition meeting with the [corporate] team. We do some data analysis that goes to the unit level on the corporate side.”

As for information garnered during the departing staffer’s work, Grant says that confidentiality policies are an option with a university, but rarely exercised. “There’s no policy around it at the university or campus level — no standard for an exit interview,” he notes. “I’ve been asked about setting that up, but it’s not driven by any framework of the university.” Most of the confidentiality, he adds, is handled through computer access controls. “We all have university laptops, and the minute you’re leaving you turn it back and access ends,” says Grant. “If you retire, you end up getting an alumni account.”

“Thankfully, we have not lost anyone in the last three to four years,” says O’Connell. “My theoretical is if I had someone leave, they’d have a caseload. Assuming it’s not someone who was under-tasked, we would divvy it out.”

When a replacement comes in, he adds, there might be some additional shuffling. “Let’s say they’re strong in medical devices and the last person was strong in therapeutics,” he poses. “Maybe we’d consolidate all the medical devices in this person and parcel out the therapeutics. If there is a reason to move them around, we’ll do it.”

Succession planning

“This is about succession planning in all levels,” says Dorhout. “It’s ‘Leadership 101’ — have a succession plan. The best leaders leave; if your president wants to move you up the food chain, you want to make sure you have a good, deep bench behind you. Have that good, deep bench talent, continue to develop it, align them with professional networks and engaged in professional organizations like AUTM, APLU, and UIDP early on so they do not have to go ‘build’ themselves later. This way, you have a talent pool you can draw on.”

Maintaining continuity, he continues, is also aided by the EOS software. “The information includes ‘Here’s what I’ve been working on,’ ‘These are my recent projects,’ ‘This one is rocking and rolling,’ and so on,” says Dorhout. “This is legacy information that remains in a system. Private industry does really well at that because people do move around, and I try to follow that model; having legacy data systems and building leadership from within.”

“Make sure the information about their day-to-day work is backed up into the system,” Umberger advises. “Many files are routinely kept in the community portfolio. When someone decides they’re leaving, they come in and we talk, to get a lot of that transition [planning] over.”

One distinction she notes is that managers often have a checklist for onboarding, but not necessarily for offboarding. “You need to have that checklist so you’re not scrambling,” she asserts. “If someone is going to leave, what is it you must make sure to ask them to do before they go? It should be more than just an exit interview.”

What types of issues should be addressed? “Are they going to any type of conferences? Are there out of office messages we need to contact? Once they leave, we can’t access their stuff, so make sure it’s in place; get their keys, baggage, procurement cards,” says Umberger. “Do they have any meetings coming up? Make sure you have a copy of their calendar. Then, decide as a manager who will pick up what meetings, and notify them. Put out a message through the university.”

In terms of property related to their work, says Umberger, that should come back to the university. For example, she says, “their list of companies and contact information? That’s our property.”

As for projects, she continues, after reviewing the departing employee’s calendar, decide who is going to be re-assigned to those faculty members, and make an introduction letting the faculty involved know about the change.

“It’s the same thing with industry partners,” Umberger notes. “If the person leaving is assigned to work with various companies, reach out [and introduce them to] their new person.” In addition, she says, when companies have indicated specific colleges are very important to them, you should reach out to the deans to let them know how you are addressing the upcoming vacancy.

She adds that the impact of COVID has brought a new challenge to the long list facing corporate engagement managers, and one of the impacts has been the increase in job switching. “I personally think management is harder now with hybrid or remote work,” she says. “You try to go through and make sure not only that your staff is connected and feels that connection, but also to make sure people are actually doing the work.”

When it comes to corporate relations, she continues, you always want staff to be connected and available — even if they have a hybrid schedule. “If a company wants to come in and it’s your day to be remote, you have to come in,” she says. “With the Great Resignation people are struggling to hire employees, and emplyees want to have some flexibility, including working remotely. But we say that’s a privilege, not a right. You’ve got to look at the needs of the university and make a judgment.”

Contact Dorhout at 515-294-1785 or dorhout@iastate.edu; Grant at 206-543-2072 or tgrant7@uw.edu; O’Connell at 352-392-8929 or jimoconnell@afl.edu; and Umberger at 814-867-0137 or gqU5015@psu.edu.