Engaging & Empowering Early Career HR Professionals

cupa hr team 7.7.14Don’t just engage, empower!  That’s the rallying cry from our board member, Andy Brantley, CEO of the College and University Professional Association for Human Resources (CUPA-HR).  Andy (far right) is pictured here with coworkers Wes Harmon, Julie Boggs, and Jessica Waddell.  In 2012, Andy tasked this cross-functional team of early career HR professionals with an important member outreach project – and left it to them to figure out how to get it done.  Andy’s post below describes the project and why he felt it was important to not only engage, but empower this team.  Listen to the podcast here with the team about their experience and results.  (Spoiler alert: these young professionals are enthusiastic about the trust and respect their leadership expressed in them and are engaged proponents of CUPA-HR.)  


During calendar year 2012, the leadership team at the College and University Professional Association for Human Resources (CUPA-HR) determined that we needed to strengthen our outreach to and engagement of early career higher education human resources professionals. Our membership had been growing (and continues to grow) exponentially with more and more early career professionals using our services and participating in our programs. We were very excited about this, but wanted to make sure that early career professionals see CUPA-HR as their association and higher education human resources as their career path.

Instead of viewing this through the traditional lens of “which department should take the lead,” we chose to engage three of our own early career professionals to draft and implement the early career outreach and engagement program. By using this approach, we blurred department lines (Jessica was from member service, Julie from marketing and communications and Wes from learning and professional development) and created an opportunity for someone other than a “director” to lead the project.

Jessica, Julie and Wes did their research, created a focus group and developed actions to address the commons themes identified from the research and focus group. It quickly became apparent that they were doing exactly as we had hoped….working as a project team without the barriers of their “day job” in their respective parts of the organization. They then presented their project plan to the leadership team. I was so impressed with the quality of the work and the recommended actions that I asked them to share their plans with the entire CUPA-HR staff as a model for not only early career outreach, but a model for the development and implementation of any project!

Almost two years later, we have had great success in engaging more early career professionals in conference presentations, volunteer opportunities, board and other leadership roles. The key elements of the outreach and engagement plans developed by this group are now embedded in our learning and resource development, our publications, our connection opportunities and the assistance resources we now provide (such as scholarships to our annual and regional conferences). A similar template will be used to developed outreach efforts to other under served membership groups.

The outcomes for our members are cause for celebration, but the real cause for celebration is what happened for Jessica, Julie and Wes as a result of this effort. These outcomes are relevant for our organization, but similar outcomes are relevant for EVERY organization.

  • These early career professionals at CUPA-HR had the opportunity to lead a project that was clearly tied to four of our six strategic priorities. How often do we give early career professionals the opportunity to lead work that is related to our most important priorities?
  • They were able to spend time focused on a project for which they were passionate. By giving them to opportunity to lead, they were clearly able to incorporate their personal passions into the project.
  • The project emphasized the need for us to know our colleagues’ strengths, passions (at and away from the job) and areas for growth. There is never a one size fits all approach to leadership and collaboration. Taking the time to know our colleagues as individuals and making the effort to connect their interests and passions to their work is always going to be a win, win, win!
  • The project gave them more autonomy than would have normally been possible in their regular roles. Giving a group like this the autonomy to define the issues and the scope of the project was definitely a very positive and meaningful experience.
  • The work provided the opportunity for the three of them to more directly interact with the VP and Chief Operating Officer, the VP and Chief Learning Officer and with me. It’s sometimes tricky to “blow up the chain of command,” but it’s also quite liberating to emphasize that the “chain of command” can create hurdles and barriers to collaborative, creative outcomes.
  • Every “initiative” must be sustained and we will take the best elements of this initiative and apply them to other projects. The ultimate success is that the elements of this outreach and engagement effort are no longer owned just by these three individuals. The elements are now incorporated into every element of our work to emphasize our commitment to early career professionals.
  • Some work assignments fit neatly into one department or area, but most assignments do not and should not! Amen!

Did we hit some bumps along the away? You bet. We will continue to assess how Jessica, Julie and Wes continue to have some role in our early career outreach and engagement while ensuring that the key elements of their great work are incorporated into everything we do. We will also continue to minimize and eliminate departmental barriers that limit opportunities for collaboration and that also limit opportunities for each of us to utilize our strengths and our passions.


Andy Brantley

President and CEO

College and University Professional Association for Human Resources (CUPA-HR)

3 thoughts on “Engaging & Empowering Early Career HR Professionals

  1. Thanks for sharing Andy. It would be interesting to hear the lessons learned from the experience and how they will shape the organization moving forward.

  2. A few specific lessons learned:

    1. Have open conversations. As a leader, be approachable and understand you may need to coach your staff through these situations. As a young/early career professional, be brave enough to let your voice be heard and to speak up when you feel things aren’t going right or that you’re not on the same page as your leadership. There will be learning curves any time you try a new process, and it’s vital that everyone involved be open and honest with each other and adjust the process as necessary.

    2. We should have spent more time discussing the end in mind, especially upfront. Ultimate success of any targeted outreach and engagement effort should be fully integrated into the life (and expectations) of the organization. This is a balance between continuing to engage the passion of those who created the program and an expectation that everyone engage in the work, not just the initial champions of the effort. Additionally, metrics for success were set after the work had begun; ideally, we’d have been measuring from the outset. We have seen the work of this group permeate all parts of the organization and become a part of who we are. It is no longer “the group’s” work – it’s all of ours.

    3. In working directly with executive leadership, we learned that we should have, at the beginning, perhaps better established with our immediate supervisors how involved they want to be in the process. We needed to understand what they wanted to know, how often they needed updates and how this work may impact them. From a leadership perspective, it’s also important not to overwhelm staff by asking them to be involved in too many groups at the same time (we have a number of really engaged and hardworking staff members who are frequently tapped to contribute in ways that are outside of their normal responsibilities). They need to be able to integrate this work with their “regular duties” and with the bigger picture of what the organization is accomplishing.

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