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Lesley Hanak – Savannah College of Art and Design

For college HR leader, success is tailor-made

If employees are trying, but not hitting the mark, Lesley Hanak knows reprimanding can demoralize them instead of help them. So, she works with the employees and their supervisor to make sure they do well and use that strength to address the issue

The chief human resources officer says this success-focused approach sets not only her department, but her employer—SCAD—apart.

“This HR department is different because SCAD is different,” Hanak says. “SCAD lays the foundation for HR to operate in this way and to support employees the way we do.”

SCAD, also known as the Savannah College of Art and Design, serves more than 15,000 students through its locations in Georgia and France, as well as online. The university is known for its programs in interior design, digital media, film, fashion and more, and prides itself on having a 99 percent employment rate for graduates.

Lesley Hanak | Chief Human Resources Officer | Savannah College of Art and Design

Lesley Hanak | Chief Human Resources Officer | Savannah College of Art and Design

And as much as SCAD cares for its students, it cares for its 1,700 employees, too, Hanak says. The university has had a faculty retention rate in the mid- to upper 90 percent range for the last decade. In addition to offering strong benefits, a focus on success and career growth has led to high employee satisfaction, Hanak says.

“The word ‘careers’ is right there in our mission,” she says. “This means we take professionalism seriously at every level, from securing jobs for our graduates to ensuring rewarding careers for our employees.”

Measured success

According to Hanak, SCAD’s Founder and President Paula Wallace “radically reshaped” how the university frames success by ensuring its services meet and exceed student and employee needs.

After SCAD Student Services was renamed SCAD Student Success, and SCAD Career Services was renamed to SCAD Career and Alumni Success, Hanak began making similar changes in the HR department. Shortly after being named vice president for human resources in 2009, she changed the title of human resources generalist to employee performance and success manager. Then, she changed performance improvement plans into performance success plans.

“I wanted to create an environment where employees are rewarded and praised for their success rather than focusing solely on where they could improve,” Hanak says. “With that mindset shift, we’ve seen a drastic increase in productivity.”

Lesley Hanak | Chief Human Resources Officer | Savannah College of Art and Design

The new feedback model emphasizes what employees do well and helps them find ways to be more successful. For example, if an employee isn’t great at public speaking, but is good at writing, the plan can help them improve their presentation skills by building on their ability to share information in a clear, compelling way. Hanak says providing feedback with trackable goals helps employees by allowing them to measure their growth and success.

Each goal in the plan has a deadline, as well as metrics for how success will be measured. Additionally, the manager and Hanak’s department provide employees with support and training to help them meet their goals. She says professional development workshops now focus on “wins” and extending successes into other areas, rather than focusing on remediation.

“When I watch an employee start in an entry level position, like I did, and then grow into a leadership role, it’s so fulfilling,” Hanak says. “We’re doing for our employees what we do for our students and alumni—fostering rewarding lifelong careers.”

Added benefit

A point of pride for Hanak is ensuring SCAD employees have strong and affordable health plans. The self-insured plan allows for flexibility in benefits, with new ones being added each year depending on what employees request.

For example, the plans were recently upgraded to cover chiropractors, acupuncture and infertility services. Hanak says health insurance is consistently rated as the highest area of employee satisfaction.

“We know what our employees want and need because we ask them,” she says. “There’s nothing more positive and personal for our people than the health of their families.”

Lesley Hanak | Chief Human Resources Officer | Savannah College of Art and Design

Hanak also helps organize wellness challenges throughout the year where employees can earn points for working out and then use the points to win rewards, like gift cards. Employees also participate in local walks and runs as a team, which Hanak especially loves because there’s always a large turnout from SCAD.

“Our work, our interests, our calling, everything we do is about caring for one another and ensuring all of us cross the finish line,” she says.

Caring about people is essential to working in human resources, Hanak says, adding that it’s something she looks for when hiring for her department and the rest of the university.  Hanak and her team hire all the employees for each campus, create policies and procedures, and conduct professional development workshops.

Grounded in purpose

While SCAD has experienced growth over the past two decades, so has Hanak.

She started at the college in 2000 as a human resources recruiter and several promotions later, landed her current role in August 2009. She first became interested in human resources after running an assisted living facility and realizing that, while she enjoyed caring for the elderly as a gerontologist, she wanted to try her hand at helping employees and employers be successful.

Lesley Hanak | Chief Human Resources Officer | Savannah College of Art and Design

Earlier this year, SCAD hosted a celebration called “21 for ‘21,” honoring all employees who’ve been with the university for 21 years or more. Over 150 employees were recognized, including Hanak.

Loving what she does, and being surrounded by colleagues who feel the same, are among the reasons for her long tenure.

“No matter how hard you’re working or how stressed you are, you’re always reminded of your purpose here at SCAD,” Hanak says. “It’s very grounding.”

View this feature in the Vision Vol. 1 2022 Edition here.

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