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A Conversation with Elizabeth Zacharias, Vice President for Human Resources

Photo of Elizabeth Zacharias, Vice President for Human Resources

Joining Stanford’s staff in October 2015 as the Vice President for Human Resources, Elizabeth Zacharias recently celebrated her first service anniversary. CaW Insider sat down with Elizabeth to pose a few questions and hear more about her vision for addressing workplace challenges moving forward.

Q. Having just completed your first year, what is your advice to other new hires in their first months of working at Stanford?

A. I found that it’s important to learn as much as possible about our workplace culture and the way the university – and your own organization within the university – operates.  I also want to encourage new employees to get to know their colleagues and build relationships across Stanford.  An awareness of culture and the support of other Stanford employees can help you to proceed when you have an idea, when you have a problem to solve, or when you aren’t sure of what steps to take with your work. I know it sounds a bit simplistic, but really, my best advice is to tap into the knowledge and expertise of others here at Stanford by asking questions to get the information you need and hear others’ viewpoints related to your work.  I also recommend being as involved in the university as possible, and taking advantage of Stanford’s unique offerings, including career development and continuing education, sporting events, the arts and live performances, and the recreational facilities.

Q. In charting the course of Stanford's workplace, what are the top challenges you are anticipating in the years ahead?

A. As a major employer in Silicon Valley, we encounter the same challenges as other employers, including affordability, recruitment and retention, transportation, and the overall cost of living.  At the same time, we’re unique from our corporate counterparts in many ways, not just because we are a non-profit organization with a mission of conducting leading edge research to improve the quality of life around the globe and teaching students to solve the world’s challenges, but also because we feed and house over 10,000 students; we operate public facilities including the libraries, the art museums, and the stadium and pavilion for sports events; and, we manage patient care facilities. As a result, tough decisions about funding—such as considering whether to allocate more dollars to health care costs, a workplace concern no matter where you work—are made without the option to increase our prices as corporations that sell a product or service might consider doing. Our similarities with nearby employers are many, but our unique qualities may require us to take different approaches to address key workplace priorities.

In collaboration with university leaders and members of the human resources community, I’ve taken some time in my initial months to identify five areas of focus for the next several years:  workforce planning, talent attraction, talent management, employee engagement, and HR excellence. While each focus area has its own plan supported by key initiatives to achieve that plan, the areas are tightly related to each other. I feel that at the core of the strategic plan I’ve put forward is a set of initiatives that together are intended to create and sustain a workplace culture of excellence and high engagement, foster a productive work environment where people feel valued and respected, promote innovation and growth, and support the changing nature of work. 

Each of the five areas deserves in-depth discussion, but I think that talent attraction, talent management and employee engagement are of broad interest.

Q. What initiatives fall within your talent attraction area of focus?

A. Talent attraction has to do with how we attract, recruit, and deploy a diverse workforce made up of individuals who are highly qualified and motivated to perform to their full potential. There are many important elements to talent attraction, and over time, we intend to address each aspect. At the outset, we’re focusing on two initiatives:

  • Assessing requirements and developing plans based on the results of a recruiting services assessment:  We’ve recently started to evaluate what is currently done across all schools and units related to recruiting people to Stanford.  Our objectives are to understand current practices, identify opportunities to adopt what is working well more broadly, and determine needed improvements to recruitment methods.  While it’s still too early to say what new efforts might come out of our assessment, we have begun a redesign of the Stanford Careers website to include deeper, more extensive information, as we know that candidates rely upon our website to provide essential details about working at Stanford.
  • Further developing Stanford’s employer brand:  Our employer brand, “Cardinal at Work,” informs both prospective employees as well as current employees about our workplace values and the richness of our experience as employees. That experience includes a sense of purpose and meaning because the work we do truly matters, pride in our collective excellence and achievement, and the ways that we work as a team in a collegial and respectful way. Enhancing our workplace identity also means that current employees will see more events such as the new Cardinal at Work Cares Giving Campaign, and events and activities done in partnership between University HR and other areas such as BeWell, Land, Buildings & Real Estate, Residential & Dining Enterprises, Sustainable Stanford, University IT, and others.

Q. Are there initiatives aimed at retaining a talented workforce in a competitive labor market?

A. Yes. Our emphasis for talent management is to effectively support our employees’ continued development and professional growth and retain our workforce. We’ve identified three initiatives for the year ahead that will build a strong foundation for our future talent management initiatives:

  • Defining manager excellence at Stanford:  We want to equip and support our managers to be the best leaders, and this begins with clearly articulating what it means to be an excellent manager at Stanford, what behaviors are expected, and what competencies are required. We aim to identify the training, tools, and support needs of our managers and develop ways to address these needs. Excellence in managers will increase our ability to attract and retain the people needed as well as ensure that we are prepared for managing and leading change.
  • Preparing for Stanford in Redwood City:  HR is providing leadership to partner with a cross-functional team on the changes and new challenges associated with growing into two campuses. Core aspects of this effort include ensuring the culture at Redwood City is consistent with Stanford’s culture, that management practices, policies, and procedures effectively support both campuses, and that individual needs and organizational performance concerns are addressed.
  • Developing an improved performance management process for FY18:  Our culture places heavy emphasis on feedback and continuous improvement, so we want those values and associated behaviors to be part of our performance management approach. In the near-term, we will work with leaders and our HR community to determine an effective and easy way for managers and employees across Stanford to give and receive meaningful and timely feedback that enhances effectiveness and productivity and allows for organizational customization, if needed. Once we determine our performance management framework, we’ll evaluate the systems and tools required to best support it and look forward to the opportunity to improve what we are using today.

Q. What other initiatives do you want to highlight from your strategic plan?

A. I want to talk a bit about employee engagement. We’re committed to providing a workplace that allows all of our people to use their full capabilities. Doing this involves aligning, engaging, and rewarding staff members, ensuring all employees feel connected to and involved with Stanford's mission and community (whether working on-campus or elsewhere) and of course, for all employees to feel valued for their contributions and service. Our initial efforts toward enhanced engagement are:

  • Continuing actions based on input from the 2015 university-wide staff engagement survey:  The results of the survey informed us about areas of most importance to staff and where there are opportunities to make improvements on both institutional and local levels. HR’s role is to support leaders and individuals in developing and executing actions that will improve the main drivers of engagement. The results focused on improvements needed to streamline business processes, enhance communication and collaboration, and understand the connection between roles and responsibilities with the university’s mission. The actions that continue to be taken within schools and units based on survey results align to a large degree with initiatives championed by senior administrative leaders through the Administrative Planning Executive Committee (APEx), as well as formal projects/plans in the areas of talent strategy, process improvement, and ensuring effective transition to Stanford in Redwood City are underway.
  • Evaluating our benefits offerings and rewards programs: We’re initiating a process to review our benefits offerings and to identify new ways we can recognize/reward employees for their service and their contributions. While our current benefits programs are competitive, we want to understand the differing needs of our diverse employees and, where indicated, develop options to meet a wider array of interests. We also want to expand service recognition to be more inclusive and build on recent successes related to the annual Celebrating Staff Careers event.

Q. What is the most important learning you had in your first year?

A. It’s hard to talk about just one thing, as I’ve learned so much! If I had to boil it down to just one, it would be what I’ve learned about the amazing spirit that exists here at Stanford and what that allows us to achieve.  It’s hard to quantify, but it’s a unique energy and excitement that seems to come from the fact that much of what takes place here is forward-looking and has an inherent sense of creating and shaping the future.  The spirit of adventure, a commitment to innovation, and the value of collaboration are what I believe sets Stanford apart from other workplaces. I’m hopeful we all experience this feeling with colleagues, clients, patients, or others we come into daily contact with here at work – it’s the sense that we are all in this together, and together we can have positive impact.

Visit the HR at Stanford website for details and updates on the HR Strategic Plan and our guiding principles. If you have an idea or want to share feedback, email