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Leadership Course

Nancy Buffone

Nancy Buffone

Nancy Buffone has three degrees from UMass Amherst and has spent her entire career working for her alma mater. The job titles and long lists of responsibilities have changed over the past 23 years, but the one constant has been that she loves — really loves — coming to work every day. As a manager, leader, mentor, and role model, she says it’s her mission to make all those on the teams she supervises feel the same way.

Nancy Buffone says that as a manager — and as a leader — one thing she tries to do is put herself in the shoes of those she’s supervising.

And in the case of younger staff members, that’s not a hard assignment, because she’s certainly been in those shoes.

Indeed, not long after graduating from UMass Amherst more than 20 years ago, Buffone went to work for the institution in the Provost’s Office. A few decades later, she is associate vice chancellor of University Relations, a relatively new realm at the school, has two offices, and manages roughly 35 people handling a wide array of assignments, from planning commencement to putting out the alumni magazine to dispensing news.

Putting herself in the shoes of those carrying out that work enables her to better understand their wants, needs, anxieties, and challenges, she said, and overall, it makes her a better leader and the offices she supervises better places to work.

“If you don’t enjoy coming to work, it can be really hard to come to work every day,” she said, making an observation that essentially defines her approach to management.

Becoming a more effective leader is one of the few things not actually listed on Buffone’s job description (we’ll get into what is a little later on), but professional development is something she takes very seriously.

In fact, earlier in her career, while working for the university’s Provost’s Office, she developed a leadership program for academic department chairs — an initiative that filled what she saw as an enormous need.

“This was something brand new, and there was a lot to the job. It was a new challenge, and it was something just so out of the box, so out of the comfort zone for me.”

As part of her own professional-development efforts, she became a participant in the Leadership Pioneer Valley program, specifically as a member of its class of 2013. She said the experience not only provided her with a much better understanding of the four-county region — one of LPV’s stated goals — but helped her do something she said all good leaders need to do — step out of her comfort zone.

In this case, that meant taking on the additional responsibilities of the Communications Department with University Relations, which effectively tripled her workload and the number of people she was managing.

“This was something brand new, and there was a lot to the job,” she said. “It was a new challenge, and it was something just so out of the box, so out of the comfort zone for me.

“And to some extent, it still is, but I love it,” she went on. “This is a place to get creative and take a lot of the work that we’re doing here every day and think about how we’re going to tell that story; that’s fun, and that’s a challenge for me.”

Her ability to move well beyond that comfort zone has been invaluable as she has taken on that ever-growing list of responsibilities, many if not most of which have to do with telling the university’s story — and telling it much better than it was told decades ago.

In many respects, it’s better story to tell these days, said Buffone, who was in a particularly good mood on the day she spoke with BusinessWest because the new U.S. News & World Report rankings of the nation’s colleges had just come up, and the university had moved up a few notches in many of the categories.

“We keep moving in the right direction,” she said, noting, for example, that the school moved up from 29th to 26th on the list of best public institutions, and from 75th to 70th among all schools.

Meanwhile, her career has taken on the same general trajectory as the university’s. For this issue and its focus on women in business, we talked with Buffone about her multi-faceted role at the university, but moreso about the broad subject of leadership and her ongoing efforts to improve those skills.

Background — Check

There are two large bowls of candy in Buffone’s office at the Whitmore Administration Building on the UMass Amherst campus. And it’s the same in her other office on University Drive, where the Community Relations staff is based.

The candy serves many purposes, she told BusinessWest, noting that, in many respects, it is an icebreaker and a temptation that brings people to those offices, which they generally leave with more than a miniature Mr. Goodbar or Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup in their hand. Indeed, they also generally leave with a smile.

“We work very hard at our jobs, so I want to laugh very hard while we’re working,” she said of her general approach to management and leadership. “I want to make sure we’re having a good time while we’re doing this.

“As for the candy … my only rule is that you’re not allowed to ask — just take,” she went on. “But over the years, the candy has been a nice icebreaker for people, and it brings people in — it’s an opening.”

Stocking her office — and later her offices — with candy is just one of the traits Buffone has developed in a career that has seen her take on a growing list of responsibilities since she graduated from the university in 1995.

Nancy Buffone sums up her broad job description by saying that that many employees she now supervises are tasked with “telling UMass Amherst’s story.”

Nancy Buffone sums up her broad job description by saying that that many employees she now supervises are tasked with “telling UMass Amherst’s story.”

As a student, she took a job working in the Provost’s Office (the provost is the chief academic officer on the campus) and had the opportunity to work for and be mentored by Judy Barker, who, as fate would have it, retired soon after Buffone graduated.

She was offered a job approximating the one Barker held, thus commencing a 14-year stint in the Provost’s Office that turned out to be learning experiencing on a number of levels.

“It was an amazing educational opportunity,” Buffone recalled. “I learned so much not just about how UMass works, but also higher education and especially public higher education. Being in the Provost’s Office, I never knew from day to day what I’d be working on; my position evolved into more of a generalist position that allowed me to get involved with many different things.”

That list included everything from working on a number of search committees for many senior administrative positions to creating new events on campus, working with the news office to promote faculty honors, and much more.

Along the way, she worked for several provosts who also became mentors, and she also earned two more degrees, including a doctorate in higher education policy and leadership. She said she was given the opportunity by those provosts to take what she was learning in the classroom and apply it in the workplace, especially within the broad realm of leadership and, more specifically, the academic department-chair level.

“Looking at what universities did to train the next person to be in the chair’s role, it became clear that at most places … it was nothing,” she explained. “So I was able to create an orientation leadership program for new department chairs that still exists today, although in a slightly different format.”

That program was among the hardest things to give up as Buffone moved on to the next chapter in her career in early 2009, as executive director of External Relations and University Events as part of the new University Relations department.

That office, created by then-Chancellor Robert Holub, is tasked with a wide variety of assignments, including community relations, events, media relations, federal and state government relations, and more. Early on, Buffone was placed in charge of events, with one of the first being the school’s 150th anniversary, a party that was several years in the making.

“We work very hard at our jobs, so I want to laugh very hard while we’re working. I want to make sure we’re having a good time while we’re doing this.”

These days, she leads two teams, one handing events and community relations and the other assigned to communications — a very broad term covering everything from the alumni magazine to the college website.

As she said, the expansion of her duties and the title on her business card tripled her workload and put dozens more people under her supervision, giving her more opportunities to apply lessons learned in graduate school and also while working with and for many great mentors.

Leading by Example

When asked to describe her style of management, Buffone paused for a second before noting that she’s from New York (Long Island, to be more specific) and thus relies heavily on sarcasm.

And then gave an example. Sort of.

“I learned how to manage by making mistakes, and I try not to repeat my mistakes,” she said with a laugh. “I started small, managing one person, and then four, and then it grew seemingly overnight when I took on the communications team. But whatever the number is, it’s really about trying to understand what I can do for the people I work with every day to make their jobs easier.

“If they can focus on what they need to do, especially the creative people … if I can make it so they can focus on what they’re trying to accomplish and not worry about distractions, then that means they’re going to be better at their jobs,” she went on. “I’m trying to create an environment that will foster that creativity and foster collaboration; to me, that’s really important.”

As for her own professional development, Buffone said her involvement with LPV enabled her to do something she really needed to do but was hard pressed to find the time for — doing some reflection on what she wanted to do and where she wanted to go professionally.

“I think it’s hard to find the time to think about what you want and about how to get where you need to go when you’re moving from project to project — it’s just too fast sometimes,” she explained. “Leadership Pioneer Valley offered that opportunity to really think about what I wanted and what skills I needed to keep moving forward.”

Elaborating, she said that, through her LPV experience, she decided she needed to get more involved in her community (Amherst), and she has, serving as a town meeting member and as president of the Amherst Area Chamber of Commerce board.

Meanwhile, at the office — or, again, at both her offices — she works hard at her job and equally hard at making sure people enjoy their jobs, something she believes is key to promoting creativity and, ultimately, better, more effective telling of the university’s many stories.

That includes the staging of what she called ‘standing meetings,’ which are just that — 15-minute meetings, instituted about five months ago, in which the participants stand and, in this case, keep a huge inventory of individual projects (700 a year for the communications department alone, by Buffone’s estimate) on track.

“The meetings will go half an hour even though they’re supposed to go 15 minutes,” she explained. “But if you’re sitting, the meeting can go way too long; that’s the thinking, and they’ve been pretty effective.”

As have most of her initiatives, all aimed at not only getting the word out about everything going on at the school, but making everyone on the team as enthusiastic about their role as she is.

“I’ve been really lucky; I’ve been at UMass for 23 years now, and I love my job, I really do, and I love coming to work just about every day,” she said. “And that’s how I want the people I work with to feel.”

Grade Expectations

Unlike the university itself and several of its departments — from food service to the marching band — there are no rankings for communications and events departments.

But there are still measures of success, and plenty of them, Buffone said, listing everything from letters to the editor of the alumni magazine (they show that the material is being read) to feedback on a host of events, to the sense of satisfaction showed by her team members when one of those events is over.

Another measure might be how many times she has to fill those candy bowls — which is often. That shows that people are breaking the ice, coming into her offices, communicating, and enjoying their hard work.

Which, at this university and within this department, is an effective course of action — literally and figuratively.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Cover Story

Lean and Green

solar canopies

These solar canopies over a parking lot are part of a massive, campus-wide photovoltaic project.

Because its region is so environmentally conscious, UMass Amherst would appear to be fertile ground for sustainable practices like green energy, eco-friendly buildings, and a buy-local ethos in food service. But it’s still remarkable how broadly — and effectively — the university has cast its net when it comes to sustainability. A national report placing the campus ninth in the nation for such efforts is the latest accolade, but UMass isn’t about to rest on its laurels.

Call it a reward for a decade of work.

When the Assoc. for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education released the three-year results of its Sustainability Tracking, Assessment and Rating System (STARS), UMass Amherst earned placed ninth in the nation — a leap of 20 places from its previous rating in 2015.

That’s gratifying, said Steve Goodwin, deputy chancellor and professor of Microbiology at UMass, who has been heavily involved in efforts to make the state’s flagship campus more green. And it’s not a recognition that was earned overnight.

“Sustainability has been a focus for the campus for about 10 years,” he told BusinessWest. “There were some efforts even before that, but it really started about 10 years ago.”

When Kumble Subbaswamy became chancellor in 2012, Goodwin said, he ramped up those efforts by forming an advisory committee specifically around sustainability, which helped to raise the awareness of green issues around campus.

“Sustainability has been a focus for the campus for about 10 years,” he told BusinessWest. “There were some efforts even before that, but it really started about 10 years ago.”

“This new STARS score reflects the university’s continuing commitment to excellence in sustainability,” Subbaswamy said when the ranking was announced. “UMass Amherst is a leader in best practices for energy-efficient construction and sustainable food use, conducting world-class research, and preparing a new generation of students to be inspired stewards of our planet.”

But before any of that could be accomplished — through innovative food-service changes, solar projects, green-building techniques, and a host of other initiatives (more on them later) — there had to be buy-in from both the university’s leaders and its students.

“It gained a lot of acceptance early on because a lot of sustainability is doing what you do and meeting your mission with very high efficiency,” Goodwin said. “That’s not all of what sustainability is, but that was an appealing piece for us. A campus has a particular mission, and it has a limited set of resources to meet that mission.”

Steve Goodwin

Steve Goodwin says buy-in from students has been key to UMass Amherst’s sustainability successes.

Take, for example, the Central Heating Plant, a project completed in 2009 that replaced the campus’ 80-year-old coal-burning plant with a co-generation facility that provides electricity for 70% of the campus and 100% of the steam needed for heating and cooling buildings across the sprawling grounds — all while reducing greenhouse gases by 27%.

“That was a really big decision for the campus,” Goodwin said. “At the time, it was probably the best co-generation plant in the country. That really worked out well for us because we needed electrical power and we were heating with steam, so to get the efficiencies of co-generation was a really a big deal for the campus.”

Those early years of UMass Amherst’s new sustainability focus also saw a reduction in water use — by using recycled water where appropriate — and partnering with Johnson Controls to incorporate energy-saving devices on much of the campus lighting. And that was just the beginning.

“Since then, the sustainability committee has really taken the lead for the chancellor, and made it more of a campus-wide thing,” Goodwin said — in ways that continue to expand and raise the university’s green profile on the national stage.

Food for Thought

Early in the process, late last decade, UMass officials recognized food service as a prime area to boost efficiency and reduce waste. Not only did the sheer volume of food produced every day offer plenty of opportunity for improvement, but students were beginning to ask questions about waste.

“The initial step was to go trayless,” Goodwin said. “If you have a tray of food, it’s easier to heap a lot of food on the tray and not necessarily eat it all. But if you have to carry it all with your hands, you take less to begin with, and if you want more, you just go back.”

As a formal measure, in 2013, UMass Amherst became the largest food-service provider in the nation to sign on to the Real Food Campus Commitment, which requires participating universities’ food budgets to move away from industrial farms and junk food and toward local and community-based, fair, ecologically sound, and humane food sources by 2020. “For an institution this large,” Goodwin said, “we purchase a very large percentage of local food.”

In 2014, UMass Amherst Dining Services was selected as a gold recipient for procurement practices in the 2014 Sustainability Awards given by the National Assoc. of College and University Food Services — just one way national experts were taking notice. Around the same time, the university’s sustainability staff and faculty team from Environmental Conservation, the Physical Plant, Dining Services, and University Relations won the state Department of Energy Resources’ Leading by Example Award.

The UMass Crop and Animal Research and Education Farm in South Deerfield

The UMass Crop and Animal Research and Education Farm in South Deerfield is home to the Student Farming Enterprise, which allows undergraduates to gain hands-on experience managing a small, organic farm. Produce generated there is sold to local stores and a community-supported agriculture share program.

Building design has been another focus, a recent example being the John W. Olver Design Building, completed last year, which uses a wood-concrete composite flooring product that was developed on the UMass campus. The contemporary wood structure, which houses the Building and Construction Technology program, the Department of Architecture, and the Department of Landscape Architecture and Regional Planning, includes sustainability features such as LED lighting, motion sensors, ample natural light, electro-tinting glass, heat-recovery systems, bioswales, rain gardens, low-flow faucets, and public-transportation access.

Meanwhile, the Integrated Science Building, constructed in 2009, employs cooling systems that reuse rainwater, state-of-the-art heat exchanges and ventilation systems, passive solar collection, and extensive use of eco-friendly materials like bamboo, to name just a few features.

“Obviously building is a big chunk of where our resources go, especially energy and water resources, so building design has a big impact,” Goodwin said, noting that UMass typically aims for some level of LEED certification on new buildings.

“But we’ve also done some things that go above and beyond those certifications to try to make our buildings more suited for their particular uses,” he went on. “There’s a whole variety of passive solar issues, lighting issues, energy and water use around buildings, reclaiming ground water, those sorts of considerations.”

Textbook Examples

On an academic level, Goodwin said, sustainability has made its way into the curriculum of nearly every program on campus. “I don’t think there’s any school or college that doesn’t have something that deals with an aspect of sustainability. They range from the obvious — an environmental science course, for instance — to a social justice course where they’re making connections back into sustainability and how that impacts the way people experience their communities.”

He stressed repeatedly, however, that raising up a culture of sustainability has never been a solely top-down effort, and that students have long been engaged on these issues.

“One of the things we did early on was to establish a culture within the dormitories and among the students — in part because the students really want this. They care about these issues a lot,” he said. “So we spend a lot of time building various aspects of sustainability into the curriculum, but also extracurricular activities.”

For example, ‘eco-reps’ are students who are specifically trained around issues of sustainability and are responsible for a floor of a dorm, to help students understand the impact of their day-to-day activities. “We run competitions between the dorms — who’s going to do the most recycling or use the least water this year, those kinds of things.”

Students had a direct impact on one of the university’s most notable green decisions — to divest its endowment from direct holdings in fossil fuels in 2016, becoming the first major public university to do so.

The John W. Olver Design Building

The John W. Olver Design Building is a model for green design and operation.

A year earlier, the board of directors of the UMass Foundation voted to divest from direct holdings in coal companies in response to a petition from the UMass Fossil Fuel Divestment Campaign, a student group. Energized by that decision, the campaign staged a series of demonstrations to call for divestment from all fossil fuels, and the foundation board followed suit.

“Important societal change often begins on college campuses, and it often begins with students,” UMass President Marty Meehan said at the time. “I’m proud of the students and the entire university community for putting UMass at the forefront of a vital movement, one that has been important to me throughout my professional life.”

It’s an example, Goodwin said, of the ways university leadership and the student body are often in alignment on issues of sustainability, both locally and globally. “So it’s been a balance of having sustainability in the curriculum, having demand from the students, and also having the central administration realize the importance of sustainability university-wide.

Numerous people on campus are tasked with making sure UMass continually improves its efforts, including the creation of a new position, sustainability manager, seven years ago.

“We’re having a huge impact in the region, and we’re proud of the impact we’re having — and at the same time, we’re also proud of what the students are experiencing,” Goodwin said. “Not only are they learning about these issues, but they’re living this approach as well. They’re living within an environment in which sustainability has a higher priority, so now we hope that impact will increase as they go out into their communities and spread the impacts of sustainability.”

Green Makes Green

Last year, UMass Amherst made news on the green-energy front again, installing more than 15,000 photovoltaic panels across campus, providing 5.5 megawatts of clean electrical power for the campus to use for a heavily discounted rate. The initiative is expected to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions in the regional grid by the equivalent of 31,000 tons of carbon dioxide and cut the university’s electric bills by $6.2 million over 20 years.

“It’s a situation where doing the right thing is also a very smart business decision as well,” Goodwin said. “As time goes on, some of those challenges will get to be a little trickier. Now we’re trying to make decisions about the need to increase the amount of electricity that we’re currently generating, so we’re going to expand the base, but how, exactly, is the right way to do it that’s efficient, a good financial decision, and also a good decision for the environment? It gets very complex.”

For now, he went on, the campus has a strong foundation in decreasing its carbon footprint and decreasing the amount of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases being emitted — efforts that have run the gamut from large-scale energy production to UMass Amherst’s participation in ValleyBike Share.

“The campus had been trying to run an internal bike-share program with some success, but we were hoping to do better,” he noted. “Now, with ValleyBike Share, the campus is working with other communities to develop a program that will actually bring a little more connectivitity between the university and the surrounding communities. So it has multiple benefits.”

Clearly, the impact of sustainable practices on not only the campus, but potentially the world, through the continued efforts of alumni, is reward enough for the university’s broad sustainability efforts — but the STARS recognition is nice too, Goodwin admitted, as it showcases UMass Amherst in the top 10 among some 600 participating institutions.

“We’re very excited about that, but it’s a huge amount of work, to be perfectly honest, because it’s all self-reporting,” he explained. “It covers so many aspects — the academic side, the financial side and investments, energy use, and the social side of sustainability. So it’s a very wide-ranging analysis. And, of course, after you do all that self-reporting, they go and verify everything as well.”

The end result is certainly a source of pride on campus — and a little more motivation to continue and broaden these efforts. Not that UMass needed any.

“Sustainability means a lot of different things to different people,” Goodwin said. “But to me, it was always a way of thinking: ‘OK, yes, we have a set of decisions to make; let’s make sustainability a part of that decision-making process.’ And I think our students are picking up on that as well.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]