National Conference on Public Employee Retirement Systems

The Voice for Public Pensions


Public Pension Profiles: Exploring HR Challenges and Strategies with Shunne Powell, Chief Organizational Excellence Officer at TRS of Texas

NCPERS spoke with Powell about challenges and opportunities for HR professionals, recruitment and retention strategies, and the talent pipeline at TRS.

By: Andy Muthoni, NCPERS
As part of our ongoing series spotlighting executives in the public pension sector, NCPERS engaged in a discussion with Shunne Powell, the Chief Organizational Excellence Officer at the Teacher Retirement System of Texas (TRS). She is an active member of NCPERS newest roundtable for human resources professionals at public pensions.

TRS has been honored twice with the national Top Workplaces USA award and recognized 12 times as a top Austin Workplace. What policies (or factors) do you think help contribute to these continually high levels of employee satisfaction? 
Our mission and culture come to the top of my mind. We deeply value our employees, actively involving them in discussions to collaboratively solve problems. We consider employees as an invaluable resource in supporting our membership, which ties directly into our mission.
The recognition as a top workplace is solely based on employee feedback which shows they feel valued as individuals, are experiencing a work-life balance, and are being offered developmental opportunities for growth. These aspects are key in our focus on employee engagement.
How would you describe the culture at TRS?
I would describe the culture as healthy and engaged. The strength of our mission resonates deeply—almost everyone here has been impacted by an educator or knows someone in education who's made a difference. Having that purpose drives us; it's something we can all rally behind. It gives us clarity in our goals and keeps us motivated, especially during challenging times. Knowing that “what I'm doing is making a difference” empowers us to push through any obstacles.

We are also an organization that has situational awareness around our core values. We really try to have fun and engage with employees to help them understand how they fit into the long-term strategic vision. Our current campaign ties in with our Executive Director's love of baseball – the TRS Strategic Plan Grand Slam. It's a game plan on how we're driving our mission home, and employees can interact with it online to see how their division and function fits in and supports the overall mission. We also feature different core values each quarter and have our leadership nominate staff who exemplify these values. Winners are then featured and placed in the running for the largest award an employee can receive, the Golden Apple Award.
What is your favorite thing about working at TRS?
In addition to everything I've mentioned already, working here feels like my HR dream job because of my incredible team. We've built trust and respect across the agency, allowing us to go beyond traditional HR functions and serve as a strategic partner. That's why our team is named Organizational Excellence. Having this responsibility daily fills me with gratitude. It's incredibly fulfilling to engage with such diverse and impactful work.
Employee recruitment and retention has been a growing challenge across industries, especially since the pandemic. How have TRS' recruitment strategies changed in recent years, and are there any tools you've found to be most effective?
Navigating the evolving landscape of recruitment has been quite a journey. We've had to be highly innovative, considering the competitive nature of the current workforce market. Our talent team has been instrumental in developing strategies that have made a tangible difference. One of the standout approaches has been the proactive engagement with passive candidates—individuals who might not actively be seeking employment but possess skills crucial to our operations. This personalized outreach has been incredibly effective. By identifying individuals with specific skill sets aligned with our needs, we've established connections that might not have been forged through traditional job postings alone.
Additionally, an interesting dynamic that played somewhat in our favor was the trend of layoffs in certain sectors. Our team leveraged this by reaching out to individuals affected by layoffs, inviting them to explore opportunities with us. This approach involved establishing connections through various social media channels and expressing our interest in their skill sets, often presenting them with relevant job openings.
What factors do you think are most important to employee retention?
As I've mentioned before, cultivating a purpose-driven culture, effective leadership that fosters connections, and a robust framework for continuous learning and growth create a sense of purpose that resonates deeply within our workforce.
Leadership sets the tone for culture, and that has to start at the top. Our Executive Director, Brian Guthrie, recently received a Specialty Award recognizing his leadership as part of the Austin Top Workplace awards. This award is given based on employee feedback indicating confidence in leadership, which is immensely significant. Our executive team engages in annual huddles with each division's employees, encouraging employees to voice concerns and share experiences. This practice fosters strong connections and a healthy culture throughout the organization.
Additionally, we prioritize providing diverse developmental opportunities. Our learning and development initiatives cater to various career paths, from aspiring managers to seasoned executives. We've revamped and expanded these programs in recent years, aiming to empower every employee with the chance to learn, grow, and advance within the organization.
What role does TRS' internship program play in the talent pipeline?
Our internship program holds immense significance in shaping our talent pipeline and fostering the next generation of professionals. Internships at TRS are not just about routine administrative tasks. We've been intentional in providing interns with a rich learning experience within a professional setting, emphasizing developmental opportunities and meaningful contributions to substantive projects.
Recognizing that some of our interns may not initially meet the qualifications for professional positions post-graduation, we initiated a fellowship program. This three-year program, designed for individuals within 12 months of graduating, offers comprehensive professional development, networking opportunities, formal learning, career management, and project involvement.
The success of our fellowship program has been remarkable. Fellows, placed in various divisions based on specific requests, have made tangible contributions. For instance, a fellow in our compensation team has actively engaged in market studies, connecting with pension funds, and aiding in board reporting. Another fellow in the legal department has been involved in policy creation, compliance research, and supporting discussions on employee relations matters.
This program, now in its third year, has been instrumental in bridging the gap between academia and professional practice. Moreover, TRS has forged strong partnerships with universities, both within and outside Austin, that support our talent acquisition and development.

How has the rise of remote/hybrid work impacted TRS?
The shift towards remote and hybrid work has had a significant impact on TRS, much like it has for many organizations. We've had to be flexible while prioritizing listening to our employees and understanding how these changes can affect them. Data has also played a crucial role in guiding our decisions.
One noteworthy adaptation has been the transformation of our contact center counselors and employer coaches to a fully remote status. Previously, these counselors and coaches were required to reside in Austin and work in-office daily. By expanding recruitment across Texas and enabling remote work, which has helped with retention, our service delivery has seen a positive transformation. We've maintained our service levels and, in most cases, even surpassed them since implementing this change.
This flexibility has extended beyond our contact center in our discussions with managers. We've reevaluated other hard-to-fill positions, exploring the possibility of recruiting talent from outside Austin. Some employees now work remotely, visiting the office only one or two days a week, residing outside the Austin area. This adjustment has been particularly beneficial in filling challenging positions.

Looking more broadly at the public pension industry, what do you think are the biggest challenges and opportunities for HR professionals in the next 5 years? 
The evolving employment trends since the pandemic have heightened the challenge of staying updated with various regulations at national, state, and local levels. Close collaboration with legal teams, executives, and HR counterparts aids in navigating these shifts. Data is both a challenge and an opportunity; embracing data for informed decision-making is crucial amidst the overwhelming volume of information.
The rapid pace of technological advancements poses a major challenge for everyone, including HR professionals. Embracing AI and navigating information security and legal implications are areas that require continuous learning and adaptation. Staying connected with a network of experts helps in deciphering complexities and maintaining compliance.
The job market's volatility demands one to be attentive, necessitating HR professionals to remain strategic in supporting their organization's mission. However, amid challenges, there are opportunities. Embracing change management as a tool for enhancing employee engagement stands out. Adaptability and readiness for change are important in leveraging opportunities presented by evolving landscapes.
Maintaining partnerships across business units and staying attuned to industry trends are critical for HR professionals. Engaging with specialized HR associations and unique forums like NCPERS Public Pension HR Roundtable fosters a deeper understanding of industry-specific challenges and facilitates resource sharing among peers.
Lastly, emphasizing inclusion, promoting public entity employment, and inspiring others while practicing kindness remain paramount. HR leaders must remember to extend grace to themselves, acknowledging the importance of self-care while managing the welfare of others.


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