UofL’s new COO Joseph Han most recently served as VP of Operations at Central Washington University. It was a good fit for him and his family, who are originally west coasters. Prior to that stint, he was at Cleveland State, which is also where his daughter attended school.
Han thought she would make the move out west when he was hired at CWU, but she decided otherwise.
“I talked to my (CWU) boss right away and told him I didn’t think I’d be able to stay. It was pretty clear our family wouldn’t do that distance,” Han said. “Which was very unfortunate because I loved that job.”
Han comes across as the type of guy who would love most any job. He has stacks of leadership books lining his office, and he radiates energy and enthusiasm. He says this comes from staying active – his preferred hobby is running.
Prior to his March appointment at UofL, Han had never stepped foot in Louisville.
“When this job came up, I was really excited. It was within a good driving distance from Cleveland, so we could be closer to my daughter and it made sense. Then I saw everything that was going on (at UofL) in the media and my wife asked if I still wanted to come here,” Han said, smiling. “I love a good challenge.”
Han considers himself to be in the transformational business. As he describes his leadership style, it’s easy to understand why.
“The solution to most organizational challenges is getting folks to do what they love and align them to both their passion and to the institution at the same time,” Han said. “You’ve got magic when that happens.”
He admits is a simple principle.
“But it requires a tremendous amount of listening and relationship building, of getting people to own their decisions and recognizing they’re not a victim of their circumstances and that they actually choose their own destiny,” Han said.
The work is underway
Han, who has about 700 people under the COO umbrella, has hit the ground running with this philosophy. He has met with different departments and has hosted open houses in his office. He enjoys the casual conversation among employees the most.
“I love that people feel free to say some of the stuff they’ve said. I think folks just want to know what’s going on and have opportunities to vent. We will use that as a venue for sharing another perspective,” he said.
Han has also implemented a weekly newsletter, a climate survey among the operations units and, just this week, a customer satisfaction survey for everyone else on campus. He will use these results to develop a 5-year action plan alongside a best practices analysis facilitated by the leadership team.
“It’s all data-based. When we develop a 5-year plan, it’s based on something more than my opinion. It’s very intentional based on expertise with feedback from the community,” Han said.
Han put a call out to members of his team who wanted to be a part of this process. They are tasked with reading every comment included in the surveys and categorizing everything.
“They’ll tell me what the themes are. It’s really important that the team members who participate in this go back to their teams and say we are the ones who coded this; Han didn’t tell us what to put down,” he said. “That sense of control that is given to the team is so critical.”
Once this data is gleaned, Han will report back to each department to figure out what the next steps are.
“That’s the fun part – asking the team if this is what they expected. We’re going to talk these things through,” he said.
After this process is completed, another application-based team will come in – the innovation team – and will be charged with looking at the data, coming up with action plans and making recommendations to the leadership team.
“What are they going to come up with and will it move the dial? This all happens organically. People are always looking for an opportunity to grow and this is it. It’s all intentional,” he said.
He plans to create a new innovation team every year made up of different employees.
“It’s going to be neat. All of sudden, they’re doing something they didn’t know was possible,” Han said. “My path is about helping people discover their passion and creating a place where their passion can be nurtured.”
Han’s infectious enthusiasm doesn’t seem affected whatsoever by the challenges his wife initially referenced when he applied for the job; namely a budget deficit and low employee morale. He admits there are some morale issues, but believes they are manageable.
“I see frustration and I get that people have morale issues and I believe that’s the case. But I think sometimes we can flame it to the point where it seems more real than it is. What I’m really getting is good energy from everyone,” Han said.
Han added that any budgeting challenges will take a multipronged approach to solve.
“The wonderful thing about this job is I’m not alone – it is a collective effort,” he said. “My role is to make sure that whenever we make a decision to reduce the budget, it is data driven and that people understand the implications of the cuts before the decision is made.”
Han has committed to transparent communication about any such decisions. He has also started a comprehensive projects list to ensure the right projects are prioritized; for example, campus entry points versus individual offices.
Han’s to-do list is daunting to be sure, but he genuinely seems empowered by the work and the people of UofL.
“On this campus, I feel like there’s a lot of people who have a vision and are fully engaged. Many of them really love their job. This is a group that is resilient and has really demonstrated that,” Han said. “They’re not bitter about the fact that they had to be resilient. They’re proud of it. It’s a great place to be and you can sense that energy. It makes me feel like I made the right decision.”