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University Gazette

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Shayna Hill takes on a role of a lifetime as forum chair

Shayna Hill

Shayna Hill had no say in her stage debut.

“I was in my mother’s belly,” she explained.

That was more than 50 years ago, at the Colorado repertory theater company where her parents – both actors – met and fell in love. Acting, Hill said, “is in my blood.”

Hill, the business officer in the Department of Dental Ecology in the School of Dentistry, spent 20 years in New York and Los Angeles pursuing a career in acting, writing and directing before she returned to Chapel Hill, her hometown, and went to work at Carolina, her alma mater.

But the role she took on this summer – as the newly elected chair of the Employee Forum – is one that no other stage prepared her for, even though many of her friends thought otherwise.

“Since I was an actress, people thought standing in front of a group of people a couple of hours each month would be a cinch for me,” Hill said. “I kept saying, ‘No. If I understand the material, then it’s nothing, but this is all new.’”

Heeding great advice

Shayna Hill and the other Employee Forum officers started their terms in July.

She prepared by seeking the counsel of chairs Charles Streeter and the late Jackie Overton, whom Hill first met 11 years ago when she was a parking control officer, her first job at Carolina.

Hill and Streeter went to visit Overton this spring soon after Overton’s doctor told her she had only days to live. When Hill asked for advice, Overton told her the three rules she tried to follow during her three years as chair.

First: Set limits on how much you will do. The job is big and can overwhelm you if you let it.

Second: Don’t bring a personal agenda. The forum is the one place employees go to be heard. Before you can become their voice, you must first give them your ear.

And third: “Always stand in your own truth.”

Hill also credits her supervisor, Lauren Patton, for challenging her to think more deeply about the leadership position when Hill went to her for permission to seek it.

“I fully expected her to say, ‘Is this going to get in the way of your duties?’ She just looked at me and said, ‘Well, what would be your platform?’ There is not a day that goes by that I don’t think about that.”

Growing better employees

Hill thought about the great job that the forum does and about the delegates who work, often on their lunch hours, always without pay, in service to others.

For years, forum delegates have volunteered in the campus community garden that produces healthy food for Carolina’s lowest-paid workers, Hill said. They have helped to promote and organize annual blood drives and championed the Carolina Family Scholarship that helps lower-paid employees pay their children’s way to college.

And then she thought about how Streeter and Overton had assured her that she would grow into the job as chair, just
as they had – by doing it.

All the delegates who serve on the forum grow into their roles, too, Hill realized. As they do, they develop new skills that transform them into better University employees.

And so her higher purpose began to take shape. What if she could change the campus culture so that, instead of employees going to managers asking permission to serve on the forum, managers went to employees encouraging them to do so?

“I hope to see the day when every manager suggests to their employees, ‘Hey, here are some professional development opportunities that the forum has to offer. Have you considered them?’”

Creating magic

That change, she knows, will take time, if it happens at all. For now, she wants to encourage forum delegates to experiment, even if it makes them uncomfortable, and to work together to accomplish what they cannot do alone.

She remembers performing with improv masters such as Robin Williams and Ryan Stiles when she belonged to the Los Angeles Second City Touring Company.

In improv, the moments of gold are spun from the mistakes, Hill said. “Mistakes create an opportunity for team members to come to the rescue, a way of thinking together to not just fix this, but transform it.”

She hopes to bring to the forum that same spirit of teamwork and spontaneous collaboration to meet whatever challenges lie ahead.

“I am really at my best when I am plugged in and feel like I am in service to something greater than me,” Hill said. “If you want to talk about what my search has been, it is to connect with people on a heart-to-heart level. That to me is magic, and I want to be part of that here.”