Distinguished Staff Award
Photograph of Pamela Mitchell

Ujima Donalson

Professional and Organizational Development

Nominated by Sandra Hines, UW Today

Awarded 2011

It was the summer of 2009 and the Professional and Organizational Development office was coping with the elimination of two positions because of budget constraints, as well as the departure of two staff members who wanted to pursue new options. Another staff member was recovering after being hospitalized with a near-fatal illness.

Then, in the same week the office director made public her plans to depart, another longtime staff member suffered a heart attack and died.

“POD was in extreme crisis. Ujima not only shepherded us through an extremely difficult time with grace and compassion, she gave us a much-needed sense of security and consistency, and over the past year she has moved POD forward with her dynamic strategic vision and through her work with others at the University,” writes office member Renee Hanson about Ujima Donalson, director of Professional and Organizational Development, who has been chosen for a Distinguished Staff Award.

“Ujima truly exemplifies grace under pressure,” Hanson continues. “She stepped into a leadership position with little warning or preparation and at the absolute worst time. Yet, throughout this time of extreme crisis, Ujima was a steady, compassionate and positive presence, and she made those of us in POD feel cared for and supported. . . . POD could have fallen apart as a team. But Ujima helped to keep our team strong and cohesive and then transitioned us from a time of crisis to a new beginning.”

Profession and Organizational Development, a division of UW Human Resources, provides training and consulting on all three UW campuses. Among other things, the office conducts new-employee orientation, offers courses to hone faculty and staff skills in areas such as fiscal procedures and supervising employees, and provides help to employees as they chart their careers at the UW.

Donalson was with Professional and Organizational Development for two years when she stepped up as interim manager, later becoming the director. Long-time employee Anthony Graziano had just died and Donalson led the effort to plan a memorial service, relieving his college-age son of that burden, and helped the staff both grieve and celebrate Graziano’s life.

“The office then took the opportunity to figure out how to pull ourselves together and grow our business,” Donalson says. She suggested focusing on the activities where the office was already getting good feedback from faculty and staff. She says she asked her staff, “What are our strengths and how can we crank that up a notch? How do we move from excellent to premier?”

“Ujima has a gift for setting a strategic vision that is both practical and inspiring. She articulates a vision that we, in turn, aspire to achieve, but her vision is never simply a lofty ideal. Ujima understands what’s important to our core business (POD operates as a self-sustaining unit) and, consequently, sets solid priorities.” Hanson writes.

One change involved tightening new employee orientation from 3 hours to 2 ½, something that’s been met with an increase in approval ratings from participants. Strategic leadership courses are offered twice a quarter, instead of monthly, to free up staff so they can provide more consulting and coaching. An example of cost savings resulted when Support Professionals Staff Day—workshops for those who provide support for offices or individuals—was brought back to campus after being conducted at Bell Harbor Conference Center on the Seattle waterfront.

Donalson came to the UW four years ago after 15 years as assistant vice president for training and development with Bank of America. Although relatively new to the UW, her staff says she has forged countless relationships with leaders and other staff across the University.

One such person is Elaine Jennerich, director of organization and training for UW libraries, who wrote, “Ujima is a master trainer and teacher who is genuinely dedicated to improving the campus climate at the University of Washington. Unflappable and well organized, her straightforward approach is laudable and effective.”

Another is Ruth Johnston, associate vice president of finance and facilities (and a former director of POD’s predecessor), who wrote, “Ujima is delightful, very positive, encouraging, a fast thinker and problem solver, and incredibly collaborative. She has added confidence and expertise to the POD staff, and when taking over for the former director, slid into the position confidently and competently.”

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