By Adam King
Andraea “AJ” Douglass was quite taken with the idea of following her husband into retirement. As senior vice president of Senn Delaney, which was helping Ohio State’s culture transformation, Douglass was flying regularly to Columbus from her home in Tucson, Ariz. But as the time to ride off into the sunset was nigh, she scaled that back to once a month just to coach OSU’s senior leaders.
But then Ohio State President E. Gordon Gee, who had become quite familiar with Douglass, asked her to consider putting retirement on the shelf to become OSU’s vice president for Culture, Talent and Human Resources.
“I can think of no one better suited than AJ Douglass to ensure that Ohio State remains one of the best places to work in the country,” Gee said. “To our great good fortune, she brings a deep understanding of the university’s priorities and opportunities to the position and a wealth of experience in enhancing workplace culture. She improves all she touches.”
When Gee asked, Douglass couldn’t say no. The opportunity to make a difference was just too great, she said.
“There’s so many wonderful things going on around here and Gordon is the champion of making those things happen,” she said. “Gordon said, ‘You just fell in love with us,’ and I think I might have and not even known it. I believe so much in where the university is going and what the potential is and how wonderful the people are here.”
That belief in Ohio State’s mission only strengthened during her first six weeks on the job. Douglass said the dedication faculty and staff exhibit in educating young minds has amazed her.
“I have six kids, so when you start looking at that and you see people focused on making sure these students receive the attention and education they deserve, how powerful is that?” she said. “I see that in the people I work with every day. It’s just amazing to me, and as a mother who sent her kids off to universities and they didn’t all have good experiences, to know these people here are so focused on the students, that’s pretty incredible.”
Douglass said her role is to take all of these high-performing individuals at Ohio State and help turn them into a high-performing team with a “One University” mindset. She said there already are pockets of such transformation, such as dedication at the senior levels and the work done by the College of Arts and Sciences.
“It’s been phenomenal work, but this is where I’m not as patient because I’d like to see everyone continue to evolve and grow and grow until we all understand that,” she said. “There is give and take with One University. It isn’t doing it my way or your way. What One University means is we discuss and come together to find the best possible solution.”
One of Douglass’ first orders of business was organizing a Saturday meeting with her team and others from across campus to discuss priorities. The Office of Human Resources had a long list of items it was focused on when she arrived, including 18 projects and many operational efforts. She mentioned three areas she has zeroed in on:
- Organizing HR so that it reflects and can support the university’s needs: “I don’t want some faculty member worried about his or her benefits,” Douglass said. “I want them focused on creating curriculum that will help us educate the future leaders we have in our country and the world. As an organization, HR must better support their efforts. I know what the faculty do is not easy, and I also know it’s the most important work we do at the university.”
- Establishing best-practice methods in recruiting, retaining and building talent from within.
- Finishing the classification and compensation project that began before her arrival, which will reduce the number of job titles and create job families that will allow for career pathing.
Her leadership style, Douglass said, is conducive to getting things done. She is a strong collaborator and can be decisive in difficult situations. She also is skilled at bringing the right people together and asking the right questions to advance an organization.
“What you see is what you get,” said the soon-to-be first-time grandmother. “I’m too old and been through too many wars to try to be something I’m not. I’m not afraid to say I don’t know and I’m not afraid to ask for help or say that I’m stuck.”
Douglass, who spent 17 years in human resources at Mutual of Omaha insurance company, said staying real influences her everyday interactions.
“One of my favorite sayings is ‘people don’t care what you know until they know how much you care,’” she said. “I ask people how they’re doing, not because I have to but because I want to. I also kind of tell it like it is, but at the same time I’m listening to what people have to say and what their frustrations are. I want to understand what is driving that so when I think about how to fix it, we’re fixing the root cause for the long term, not just for tomorrow.”