Robert M. La Follette School of Public Affairs
Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Vaillancourt promotes leadership, healthy work environments


Allison Vaillancourt

Allison Vaillancourt believes people should be treated well and that organizations should have healthy cultures — so much so that the Chronicle of Higher Education asked her to write a blog to share her perspectives.

The 1990 alum provides strategic leadership in human capital and organizational culture at the University of Arizona, where she is vice president for the Division of Human Resources.

In her weekly "On Hiring" column, Vaillancourt shares her thoughts on workplace issues. A January post decried the lost of timely, personalized thank-you notes. Another explores the value of people who weep in professional settings — research that shows that expressing emotion with tears has not harmed people's careers. "My own perspective is that there is a right time to cry and a wrong time to cry and that too much crying and fake crying can both lead to trouble," Vaillancourt wrote. "I once had an employee who cried every time I provided feedback — and that just got annoying. … Genuine emotion, however, can be hugely powerful."

The Chronicle of Higher Ed column came about in 2011 after Vaillancourt received a random email one day. "Apparently someone heard me say something provocative at a conference," she says. "I have very strong opinions about the importance of treating people well and building a healthy organizational culture, so the Chronicle gives me a forum to express my views and start conversations about these topics on my own campus and across the world, even. On the downside, everyone seems to think I am writing about them — and they are often right!"

At the University of Arizona, Vaillancourt has improved organizational culture and leadership by helping to launch the Academic Leadership Institute in 2010. The institute enhances and diversifies the university's leadership capacity to help it meet ambitious research, educational and outreach goals by preparing employees for leadership roles. About 25 fellows participate in workshops and professional development activities throughout an academic year.

"The institute creates a pipeline to prepare people to fill leadership vacancies," Vaillancourt says. "It has been an opportunity to highlight the importance of organizational culture and create a community of leaders. We consistently receive three times as many nominations as we can accommodate, and I consider it one of the highlights of my career."

As vice president, Vaillancourt has broad responsibilities for competitive compensation and benefits programs; innovative faculty and staff recruitment and hiring; employment-related policies that foster organizational effectiveness; work-life, employee wellness and productivity programs; affirmative action planning and reporting, equal opportunity investigations; and professional development that supports management effectiveness and individual success.

In addition to overseeing the Department of Human Resources and Office of Institutional Equity, Vaillancourt is a co-principal investigator of the university's ADVANCE Institutional Transformation Program, and she teaches in the School of Government and Public Policy.

Vaillancourt has held leadership positions in several national human resources-related organizations. She holds the Senior Professional of Human Resources designation and in 2006 was awarded the Distinguished Service Award by the College and University Professional Association for Human Resources. She notes she "was surprised to receive the Medical Book Award from the American Medical Writer's Association for the textbook I co-edited, Pharmacy Management, Leadership, Marketing, and Finance."

Off campus, Vaillancourt is active in local and national public policy efforts. For example, she chairs the new Research and Public Policy Council, which functions as sort of a think tank for the Women's Foundation of Southern Arizona, an organization dedicated to increasing economic self-sufficiency for women and girls. "I believe strongly in being connected to my community, and I volunteer with nonprofit and political advocacy organizations," she says.

She earned her bachelor's degree at the University of Wisconsin–Madison in 1984 and worked as a research administrator for the School of Medicine and as district director for the America Cancer Society. She met her husband on the Memorial Union Terrace in 1986. "We are the proud parents of two curious, independent, brave, kind and fiscally responsible daughters," Vaillancourt says." One teaches English in Madrid and spends every possible free weekend traveling through Europe. The other is high school math wizard who maintains a fascinating (and useful!) beauty blog."

When Vaillancourt attended the La Follette Institute in the late 1980s, she expected to work for a public policy think tank after she graduated. "I almost did, but in the course of informational interviewing when we were about to move to Denver for my husband's postdoctoral fellowship, I interviewed with the director of human resources at the University of Colorado-Denver," Vaillancourt says. "About a week later, he called to say he was impressed with my understanding of health-care policy and asked if I'd be interested in serving as a benefits administrator. 'Oh, gosh, thanks,' I said, 'but that sounds really boring.' It turned out to be quite interesting, and it was my start in human resources."

While in Denver, Vaillancourt earned a doctorate from the university's Graduate School of Public Affairs and worked as special assistant to the chancellor of the University of Colorado at Denver. "I completed my Ph.D. in 1995," she says. "I had been working full time while in grad school, so I took a nine-week leave when my youngest daughter was born and crunched data while she took naps. It's all pretty much a blur."

She served as assistant to the president of the University of Colorado System, then in 1996 she and her family moved to Arizona, where she joined the university's staff. "I have had about 10 different jobs since leaving La Follette," Vaillancourt says, "though I have been fortunate to be able to remain with just two university systems."

Vaillancourt notes that La Follette professors Lee Hansen, Dennis Dresang and John Witte were fantastic teachers. "They provided me with excellent foundations for the roles I later held," she says. "The La Follette School faculty are amazing and responsive, and the students are impressive. I remember having a class with a state senator and he seemed incredibly normal – not like his evil newspaper persona at all."

The statistical training has been valuable as well. "La Follette taught me regression analysis, gave me a deep understanding of economic principles, and provided me with policy analysis skills that I use every day," Vaillancourt says. "I have managed to get by without ever needing geometry, but statistics have been critical: 'So, you say, you have reduced costs by 50 percent, but I see here they were twice as high as the industry average to begin with …'"