Here at West Virginia University, we mold our students to be successful in the workforce, and love to see their careers skyrocket. Something we love even more is when we can bring these successful alumni back to campus, providing a milestone for them in their already-successful careers. A great example of that cycle is found in human resource management expert Cris DeBord, WVU’s newest vice president of talent and culture.
DeBord, a graduate of the Master of Science in Industrial Relations (MSIR) program at the College of Business and Economics, got the call in October about an exciting opportunity at WVU – one in which he felt a certain calling. Since WVU is adapting to modern technology and shifting its human resources process to better serve the next generation of employees, DeBord’s duties entail everything it takes to build a contemporary HR function for the University – a task, he said, that will take an estimated five years to complete.
He is responsible for managing the design, development and implementation of all human resources functions, including employment services, employee relations, classification and compensation administration, benefits administration, training and development and human resources operations, among other areas. He reports to both Narvel Weese, vice president for administration and finance, and WVU President Gordon Gee.
DeBord said he and his wife, who he met at WVU before graduating in 1991, have lived just about everywhere east of the Mississippi River, and spent their life trying to get back to his native Pittsburgh area. When he got the call from WVU to start in January, he realized that the timing was just right.
“I’m in the right stage of my career for this. I got my start here at WVU and especially B&E, graduating from the MSIR program with all the tools that I needed for the successful career I’ve had for the past 25 years,” DeBord said. “WVU helped me to have a wonderful and fulfilling career, and to be able to come back and help the next person in line get their career on the right track really means so much to me.”
He said that approximately a year ago, WVU’s HR function was paper-based, and much of what his job entails is to modernize WVU’s process for HR.
“Modern HR includes sitting with the leader of a unit and saying, ‘Where does this unit want to be three years from now, and do you have the right talent and culture in place to enable this?’ And if they don’t, how do we help them change that,” he said. “We want to increase leader effectiveness and help these leaders create the right environment and culture, and help them assess the talent to make sure we have the right people in the right seats on the bus.
“We want to have the best faculty, because it makes WVU the best product and that increases enrollment and retention of students, so talent is a gigantic part of that equation,” he said. “We’re at a time that 40 percent of our workforce is retirement eligible, so what we do over the next five years with who we bring in, and get into place, is going to set the course for about the next 20 years for WVU. That’s very fun to be a part of, because once you bring these people in, they tend to stay. The window of people who are retiring brings in the next generation of people, who will determine the course of the University.”
DeBord originally obtained a dual degree from Washington and Jefferson College in psychology and business administration, on a full ROTC scholarship, before considering a career in human resources. Based on of a tip from his professor while discussing his strengths, he decided to apply for the MSIR program at WVU, after which his career soared. After holding leadership positions in the employment and human resources fields with Westinghouse, Whirlpool, Pepsi, Highmark and Home Depot, as well as spending seven years as a member of the U.S. Army Reserves, DeBord stepped into the role of vice president of talent management at Dollar General, headquartered in Nashville, Tennessee. There, he was responsible for organizational development, training, human capital metrics, employment branding, recruiting and diversity.
Working in a higher education environment differs in many ways from corporate organizations, DeBord said. One pleasant differentiation is just how much talent there is within WVU.
“There is a large surplus of talent here, and one of our biggest jobs is to put them in positions where they can be the most successful and versatile,” he said. “While there are challenges in this environment in terms of the economy, the state of West Virginia really needs WVU to be great. It isn’t lost on me how amazing it is for me to be able to come back here and be a part of this effort.”
One of his personal goals is to get into the classroom with HR management and MSIR students to share experiences, whether it be as a guest lecturer or part of a panel, as well as encouraging his direct reports to have regular involvement with these students.
“One of the things we want to start doing with our team eventually, in the next five years, is be more purposeful with the career paths, growth and development of our employees, starting to move down the road of rotational assignments within our team. Once we’ve nailed that, my goal is to hire one or two students out of the MSIR program each year, rotating them through different functional areas within human resources and ultimately getting them into an HR partner role, where they support a large unit of campus,” DeBord said. “The end goal there would be to have these students recruited away by private industry, then create the openings again for one or two more the next year or so.”
DeBord said the work he and his team are doing at WVU can serve as a fantastic learning lab for anyone in the MSIR program to learn from.
“I truly do want students in the MSIR program to be involved in the things that we will start to do here, somewhere down the road, because I think it would be very beneficial for them to go through this process with us.”