Getting to Know: New HR Head Brian Dickens Discusses Priorities and Challenges

By Dan Verderosa, August 5, 2016

Getting to Know: New HR Head Brian Dickens Discusses Priorities and Challenges

Brian Dickens started as Ithaca College’s new vice president for human resources in June. He comes to Ithaca with 25 years of experience as a university administrator and over a dozen years as a human resource development and management consultant. Most recently, Dickens served as associate vice president for human resources and payroll services at Texas Southern University in Houston.

What drew you to Ithaca College?

Ithaca was not on my radar at first. I had just finished a search at Syracuse where I was a finalist, and the search firm said, “Do you know anything about Ithaca?” and I said, “No I don’t, but I’ll give it a shot. I’ll take a look.” I got here, and the energy, the warmth, the sense of community, the idea that I could make a difference, the level of intentionality that they put into the actual search process, the amount of credence that they gave this particular role in terms of HR – elevating it to a vice president – said to me that there is a culture here that’s hungry for a people-centric governance model. Now if I could be a part of that, it made all the sense in the world.

It was also the local community. The attention to the arts, the attention to the social and civic engagement, it was just very inviting. The community of Ithaca itself was also an attractive place for me to raise a family. I’ve got young children. I’ve got three kids – aged seven, nine, and 11. I also believe that both my background and professional experiences will lend a diverse perspective to the college.

Now that you have been at IC for a few weeks, what are your initial observations?

IC is going through a renaissance right now, from my perspective. So this state of flux, or this state of what people might characterize as uncertainty, I see it as ground-shaping or reimagining IC. It’s going through a phase of renaissance.

For me, personally, I feel like I’m arriving at a moment when I can make a meaningful difference on behalf of the college. That’s very energizing, and it’s part of why I chose to come here. It’s rewarding, personally and professionally, to be a new arrival in a community and on a leadership team that’s leaning into change with such intentionality and actively trying to be the best version of itself it can be. 

I have lots of other observations, but I’m going to refrain from sharing them until I’ve had more of a chance to listen. This year, I am going to make it a huge point to listen so that I can gain a deeper understanding of the culture, and a deeper understanding of the collective trust of leadership, and the different bodies that are responsible for guiding the movement of Ithaca College.

What are your strategic priorities for your first year at Ithaca College?

It is critically important to spend time listening and understanding. With that baseline, my next priority is to think about, “What can I bring to positively impact the culture here? How can HR really help drive the process of improving the culture? How do we mobilize the work force to be in alignment with the strategic priorities of the college? How can HR improve our visibility and campus engagements?”  It is hard to be visible and seen as engaged if we are always behind the desks. 

I am also excited about the current preparation for the upcoming search for the chief diversity officer position that will certainly better position IC for addressing issues of diversity and inclusion. 

The first year will also be about readying this campus for changes in leadership. How do we build a sustainable model that says no matter who’s at the helm, we’ve got good foundational building blocks in place that really position IC for a long-term, sustainable future? I think that’s really the call of the day.

More narrowly, our office has a few immediate priorities related to changes to federal regulations. We know that some employees in our IC community will be affected by the new federal regulations governing exempt and non-exempt employees and their respective wages under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) and the administration of benefits under the Affordable Care Act (ACA). It is a high priority for the HR team to continue preparing for the implementation of these requirements and how to communicate this with the campus community.  I plan to share more on these topics very soon.

How does it feel to be coming into a new leadership role at the college during a time when many top-level positions are held by interim or departing leaders? 

Any good organization is going to have turnover for all sorts of reasons, and it’s pretty common in higher education to have leadership changes during times of presidential transition. But it would be a huge fallacy to conclude from this that the college is treading water or that people are leaving because there’s something wrong on campus. And, remember, I’m not the only leader who has recently chosen this college. Vincent Wang, the new dean of the School of Humanities and Sciences, and I were in orientation meetings together a few weeks ago. Gerard Turbide, a longstanding employee at IC, chose to remain here and successfully competed for the role of vice president for enrollment management. All three of us were interviewing for our positions during the unrest of the past year. I obviously can’t speak for Vincent or Gerard, but the opportunity to help the college navigate these issues and face them head on presented an exciting challenge for me as a professional.

Some leaders have recently moved on to high-level positions at other institutions. You always hate to see top performers leave, but the fact that we have stars on our campus who are attractive to other institutions speaks to our ability to be a place where people want to come to make a difference. I think it’s great to be a place where people look for talent. What we’ve got to do, though, is think about new ways to engage and retain top talent in a way that makes it difficult for others to entice them to leave.

Departures also create opportunities for successions. When key positions open up, it gives us an opportunity to reevaluate and rethink what we’re doing for internal progression or maybe even succession.

How do you see the Office of Human Resources contributing to the college’s commitment to diversity and inclusion?

We have to weave this commitment into the very fabric of the IC culture such that it is pervasive and intentional. I envision HR working collaboratively with hiring managers and community stakeholders during our recruiting, training and employee relations efforts on a daily basis.  More specifically, I think HR can work with the various groups already doing this work and help to form a collective strategy so that we are all aligning our agendas to the larger IC mission and vision.  We will all have to be the change we wish to see at IC.

You mentioned the importance of learning the culture of Ithaca College. Why is campus culture important to you?

Culture is critically important to the long-term success of IC. It’s really the whole environment in which people work. We can shape the culture by building trust and making sure that people understand that they are not only observers, but are participants in the culture. Each one of us contributes in our own way to that culture. So, are we doing that positively or are we doing that negatively?

It can be hard to make something tangible, especially at first. For example, how do you measure trust? Sometimes you don’t know it until you see it, until you feel it. You don’t know that you’ve really made a marked improvement until you can feel on this campus a collegial, unified, collective spirit that says we are all on one page and we’re not divisive and we’re not afraid that something else is going to fall. I get the sense here at Ithaca that we think that there’s going to be one person who will come and help us fix the cultural issues, but it’s not dependent on one person, it’s dependent on all of us. So whether a president comes in or not, or a vice president leaves or not, that’s just one person. They admittedly have a lot of bandwidth and influence, but they’re still one person, and improving culture has to be a collective effort.

What would people be surprised to learn about you?

I think my team thinks I’m very by the book, professional and no nonsense, which I am. But I’m probably one of the biggest kids you ever want to meet in terms of having fun. I believe in the mantra of “work hard, play hard.”  My past times include anything off-road. Snowmobiling is one of the things that I am dying to try here.

I think people would also be surprised to learn that I have recorded demos with Motown as a vocalist, and I’ve shared the stage with Patti Labelle. Back in my student services days, I brought her to campus for homecoming. There was a moment in the show where she called people up to join her, and before I knew it, there was a crowd of people going behind me motioning for her to pick me. She chose me and I went up, and it was one of the most riveting moments of my life. We stopped the show. It was that good. I didn’t realize what was happening because it was an out-of-body experience.