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Vista College People Strategy

Vista College People Strategy


By Jim Tolbert, Chief Executive Officer and Stacy Dorsey, Executive Vice President, Human Resources, Vista College

Vista College, based in Dallas, Texas, is very proud of its growth and success since its founding in 2006. From a single campus in El Paso, we have expanded to eight campuses in Texas, New Mexico, and Arkansas, and added an online division. We have enjoyed the benefits of serving our students, hard work, a good strategy, adherence to compliance, and a favorable business climate. However, like many other schools in our sector, our growth over the past few years has been more modest. In addition to sustained low unemployment, we faced fundamental changes in our industry such as an evolution from TV direct advertising to digital marketing.

Despite this business climate, we understand that retaining and engaging top talent is the key to success.

According to a study by top HR consulting firm, Watson Wyatt, “HR is more important than ever, people are the only sustainable source of competitive advantage.”

This article focuses on how Vista College’s People Strategy supports our overall operational strategy to ensure our sustainability during these challenging times.

The key to a successful HR strategy

HR’s work is the work of unifying and enabling our employees, our business and our students. We are committed to driving value to the business through our people strategy. This entails:

  • Clearly defining our Culture including values imbedded into our day-to-day operations
  • Recruiting and retaining top performers
  • Being an employer of choice in the local markets
  • Having alignment and consistency in how we hire, manage, promote and exit our employees in the organization while treating our employees with dignity and respect
  • Being a HR-compliant organization

Understanding the challenges we faced in developing our people strategy

In creating a successful People Strategy, we understood that HR had not evolved with the business over the years. The HR strategy that worked in the past didn’t work today based on our growth and the changes in our industry. We started by identifying the gap between the operational needs and the current HR strategy at the time. We accomplished this by spending time at each campus, asking leaders what they needed from HR and asking employees how HR could support them.

A few examples of the information we gathered included:

  • The service from our HR department did not meet expectations. Some HR members provide great service and others were slow to respond. There were no service level agreements. The department was under resourced.
  • HR provided only tactical support. HR staff performed the day-to-day duties of an HR department, and assisted with reactive management of problems. However, HR was not seen as a strategic partner to the operational leaders. Operational leaders did not come to HR to assist as an advisor when working through challenges, but saw HR as the enforcer of the rules.
  • There was a lack of operational support. This was due to the silos that existed in our company. The HR department did not partner with other support departments to provide full-service solutions. The department became disconnected from operational needs.
  • Programs were started, but not sustained. The company implemented great programs like a High Potential Program and bench planning for future leaders. However, after implementation, these programs were not maintained. The information quickly became outdated and the programs were not adding value to the organization. Leadership training was completed, but the tools shared during the training were not integrated into day to day leadership so they never became imbedded into how we lead. When the trainer that completed the live training left the organization, the program was discontinued.

Solution to these challenges

After synthesizing all the information gathered, it was determined that the business needed HR to address strategic issues involving the competitiveness in the market and employee performance at Vista College. To do this HR had to move from a support function to a trusted partner:

We needed to evolve from:

  • Being a protector to being business savvy
  • Being an administrator to aligning with strategy
  • Functioning only as oversight to becoming a consultant
  • Being cumbersome to being simple while maintaining compliance
  • Being confusing to being empowering
  • Managing to the exception of holding people accountable

We took our learnings and evaluated every aspect of the employee life cycle to determine how to improve the HR support model. Our strategy included: better recruitment and onboarding, optimizing pay and benefits, improving employee development, engaging and retaining top talent, and appropriately separating from employees when needed.

Recruiting and onboarding: retention starts here

We had several components that focused on recruiting and onboarding, including:

  • Own recruitment – It is critical that we hire the right employees for the right positions, with the right experience. We were outsourcing recruitment and immediately in-sourced our recruitment function by hiring a full-time recruiter. In addition to doing a better job of recruiting, we save a significant amount of money by eliminating recruiting fees to third parties.
  • Be selective – We standardized the recruitment process. With the hiring of a recruiter, we started defining the recruitment process end-to-end, trained leaders and held them accountable for following the process. A major change to the process was the recruiter pre-screened all candidates based on criteria in the job description, expectations of the department leader, and fit to Vista College. We made no exceptions, candidates had to be pre-screened.
  • Be competitive and fair – We now complete market and internal salary calibration when promoting internal candidates and hiring new employees.
  • Find the best fit – We are implementing a behavioral assessment as part of our hiring process. Behavioral assessments will assist us in focusing on finding the right person for the right job.
  • Be prepared for turnover – We stopped waiting until a position came open to actively recruit. Our recruiter keeps candidates in the pipeline for key positions to ensure we don’t have long gaps without key staff.

Pay and benefits: tough decisions and non-monetary investments

Operationally we made the hard decision to forego annual salary increases for one year. During that year, we worked closely with leaders to focus communication on other benefits of working for Vista. For example, serving a higher purpose is very important to many employees, especially millennials. It was very easy for us to emphasize the work we do in improving people’s lives and the lives of their families through skills training. The average annual cost increase nationwide for medical insurance premiums is between 8-10%.

Through renegotiation with our benefits providers, we were able to keep the same level of benefits and have no increase in cost to the company or our employee population.

When we did re-implement annual increases the following year, we implemented a structured annual increase process that took into consideration performance, and calibrated across the organization to ensure we were maximizing the dollars allocated for pay increases.

Develop: going back to basics

There are so many wonderful development programs out there today. It is difficult to determine which to do first. However, when assessing our organization we realized we needed to focus on foundational performance management. We accomplished this through:

  • Rethinking programs that weren’t accomplishing the intended results. For example, our high potential program was not producing the next leaders for our organization. We slowly discontinued this program, with the intention of re-initiating it after we have a firm grasp on who our high potential employees are in the organization.
  • Beginning to hardwire performance discussions into our culture through implementation of a new performance management process, including standardized job descriptions, competencies and goals.
  • Implementing onboarding, training and development plans for new leaders
  • Focusing on becoming better, more consistent, and faster at managing people up or out of the organization.
  • Implementing HR training modules for all new leaders including recruitment, payroll, employee relations, and managing team training.

Engage and retain: results, not actions

The best way to retain employees is to ask them what they want. If we hire the right people, set expectations, ask how we are doing, and recognize as appropriate, the result is engaged employees that stay. Through gaining feedback from our employees in the form of our employee engagement surveys, we were able to identify what our employees expect from us. Our employees wanted to see:

  • More accountability
  • Better communication
  • More time celebrating success
  • Better benefits and merit pay
  • More training
  • Greater transparency and accountability

In response to this feedback, we implemented several initiatives. For example, to address more accountability and transparency we implemented Monthly Operational Reviews (MORs) whereby each of our campus directors shares their progress toward operational goals and budgets with the executive team monthly. These MORs also include healthy dialogue with the executive team regarding any shortcomings and the action plans for getting back on track. We also implemented an “Inspect what you Expect” process which taught our leaders to know their business and identified opportunities for more training.

We became more transparent regarding budgeting and financials. Also, we engaged our leaders in solving for our challenges at their campuses and in their functional areas. Finally, we enhance employee communication through enhancements to our semi-annual CEO campus tours and town halls.

In addition to being more transparent and communicating better, it was important for us to increase our peer to peer recognition and celebrate our top performers. We better celebrate our success through the use of a day-to-day peer and leadership recognition on a social media platform which we call The Torch and an annual recognition for excellence in each specialty which we call the Vista Outstanding Performance Awards (VOPAs).

Separation: the right decisions are sometimes the most difficult

As our growth began to slow down, we needed to be proactive and implement cost containment across the organization. Whenever an organization is looking at cost, the subject of staffing is discussed. To ensure we were being fiscally responsible we knew we had the potential of needing a reduction in force (RIF). These decisions are never easy to make and we worked hard to ensure we were doing the right thing for our employees. HR worked closely with the operational team and the finance and accounting team to create standard staffing models for all functional areas. These models were based on our student population and the needs of our students. This took the majority of the subjectiveness out of the decision to have a RIF. When it came time to implement the new staffing models, we also designed a standardized severance practice to ensure all employees were treated fairly as they left the organization.

We also became better at moving on from toxic employees and leaders. In the past, we were slow at performance managing employees who were performing well, but behaved poorly and creating a negative environment for other employees.

To mitigate our risk and the negative impact on the organization we created focused on ensuring our leaders proactively addressed behavioral issues.

It was a shift in mindset to see poor behavior as part of poor performance. This shift required educating leaders and employees regarding our expectations followed by holding people accountable to these expectations.


While I cannot say the challenging times are behind us and we have returned to the salad days of yore, I am happy to say that we have kept an incredibly talented and engaged team intact and we see the benefits of this through improvements in key metrics across our entire business. We realize that if we take care of our employees, they will take care of our students and that will ensure the sustainability of our company.

Jim Tolbert

JIM TOLBERT is the Chief Executive Officer of Education Futures Group www.educationfuturesgrop.com d/b/a Vista College www.vistacollege.edu, a company formed with Prospect Partners, a Chicago, IL based investment company in 2006. Vista College operates accredited, post-secondary institutions with program offerings in entry-level career training including: Allied Health, Business, Technology, Cosmetology, the Trades, and Nursing. Vista College is a degree-granting institution and operates campuses in El Paso, Lubbock, Amarillo, Beaumont, Longview, College Station, and Killeen, Texas and Las Cruces, New Mexico and most recently, Fort Smith, Arkansas. The school’s Online Division is based in Dallas, Texas. The corporate headquarters is in Dallas, Texas.

Prior to forming EFG, Mr. Tolbert was the Chief Financial Officer and a Shareholder of Virginia College, a Birmingham, AL based career college, until the sale of the company in December 2004. Prior to investing in and joining Virginia College, Mr. Tolbert was the Founder and CEO of Career College Loan Company, a specialty consumer finance company, providing tuition financing to the for-profit education sector. Mr. Tolbert has also worked for McKinsey & Company in the Financial Institutions Group and Morgan Stanley International in the Mergers & Acquisitions Department.

Mr. Tolbert is the former Chairman of the Board of Directors of the Career College Association, his company’s industry association, and served nine years on the Board Directors, four of which were as an officer.

Mr. Tolbert has a Bachelor of Science in Economics, summa cum laude, from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania and a Masters of Business Administration from the University of Chicago.

Contact Information: Jim Tolbert // Chief Executive Officer // Education Futures Group d/b/a Vista College // 205-283-7416 // jtolbert@vistacollege.edu // www.VistaCollege.edu

Stacy Dorsey

STACY DORSEY is the Executive Vice President of Human Resources. Employed with EFG in 2017.

Ms. Dorsey recently moved to the education industry after 20 years working in the healthcare industry.

Ms. Dorsey’s career has been focused on building cultures that attract, develop and engage top talent. Ms. Dorsey is passionate about our employees. She believes human resources should provide employee-centric programs to support employees total well-being, equipping our employees to deliver on our purpose.

Ms. Dorsey has a Bachelor’s of Arts from Iowa State University.

Contact Information: Stacy Dorsey // Executive Vice President, Human Resources // Education Futures Group d/b/a Vista College // 972-733-3431 x1723 // sdorsey@vistacollege.edu // www.VistaCollege.edu


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