Getting to know Yale leaders—Jane Savage

Jane Savage, associate vice president for Union-Management and Strategic Initiatives, is responsible for union-management relations at Yale, including Labor Relations, which supports the University’s relationships with its five unions, and Best Practices, a collaborative problem-solving initiative between Yale and UNITE HERE Locals 34 and 35. She also is responsible for Organizational Effectiveness and Staff Development, including Yale’s learning center as well as organizational consulting to departments across campus. Prior to joining Yale, Jane was a senior consultant and leader of the organizational change group at Cornell University’s School of Industrial & Labor Relations Extension Division in New York City. She holds a B.S. in Engineering from The Ohio State University, and a Master’s in Public and Private Management from Yale’s School of Management. One of nine children, Jane grew up on a farm in Ohio, and today lives with her husband, Mark Van Allen, and college-aged sons Will and Myles in New Haven.

What do you like to read?

Reading has always been a love of my life. In middle school, I read Dickens and Austen and kind of learned to appreciate human foibles. I read fiction voraciously until about a decade ago. Now I read non-fiction, mostly historical accounts and biographies. Given my profession, I’m curious about change in lots of different contexts. I spent a few years reading books about the institution of slavery, about Lincoln and the Civil War. I found Lincoln to be such an impressive change agent. He was an imperfect person, yes, but he was also amazingly patient about finding his way through the seminal crisis of his time. 

When faced with a challenge/adversity on the job, what do you do first?

You know it’s a great question and I would say my learned technique is to ignore it for a little bit so that I can manage my emotions. I try to just say, ‘Whoops, here’s a challenge,’ and then I stew over it, sleep on it. This usually helps me to organize a path forward. In labor management relations the adversity that we encounter usually lasts for months. I have to think a lot and process all the things I’m hearing. And usually I’ll get a breakthrough. These breakthroughs almost invariably come to me when I’m least expecting them and usually when my mind has been engaged on something other than work. Once I can see a path forward, executing the solution is the easy part. I just have to visualize my way through it. Of course, none of this is done in a vacuum. Sometimes you have to slow things down, but mostly you listen while people express themselves and share multiple points of view.

What musical artist are you listening to right now?

My musical tastes are not that sophisticated. My Spotify account has the stuff that pulls at my heart strings, songs from my younger years—Steve Winwood, Steely Dan, Tracy Chapman, Natalie Cole. I have a friend who likes the Proclaimers so now I like them. I’ve also been listening to the Hamilton sound track for almost a year although I’ve yet to see the play.

What are you most grateful for?

I’m most grateful for my family of origin and the family I’ve created with my husband. 

What would be your ultimate vacation destination?
Well, I love the Rhode Island coast; it’s so easy and restful. And now that my boys are older, we’ve been traveling again. I would love to travel to more of the world’s great cities and our national parks. My husband has been to China more than 70 times and one of my sons is studying Mandarin, so I would definitely go to China. We have friends who live there, and you know, it is an important place to understand right now.  

If you could solve one human problem in today’s world, what would it be?

I think I would pick Central America to focus on. So many people are fleeing from there at tremendous risk—literally life and death. Then they have to come and deal with our border. There is such an incredible divide in this country about immigration rights. This issue hits close to home, right?  I think we should absolutely do better.

What New Haven restaurant would you recommend to a new employee?

Sometimes on a Saturday night, my family and I like go to Mezcal in New Haven. It’s simple and relaxing and reminds me of summer when we go there. It attracts a fun crowd and the people who run it are really warm and sparkly. They’ve just got a glint in their eyes and we feel welcome. My kids like Barcelona when we have a milestone to celebrate together as a family.  

What has helped you develop as a manager over the course of your career—relationships, courses, making mistakes, hard work?

I have to say that mistakes have helped me develop as a manager. I feel like I’ve made every mistake in the book, but mistakes are experiential, right? You learn from them, you suffer through them, you hate when they happen, but in the end, you learn.  They teach you to be resourceful, and in some cases, you discover something new and wonderful. 

What do you find most rewarding about union negotiations?
The most fun and engaging part is the problem-solving. I like the process of triangulating our way through the interests of two different parties to a new solution none of us considered. The most satisfying part of negotiations is achieving an agreement, when “the eagle has landed!” We all love completing a task or a project, and it’s especially meaningful when it involves a big group, took much effort, and is a significant accomplishment. Through the process, we’ve formed bonds and learned more about each other, despite our different roles, points of view, and life experiences.

What is one of your favorite memories from childhood?

My childhood memories have to do with living on a farm. My parents wanted to escape suburbia so we all moved to a farm, but they didn’t know anything about farming. We had cows, which would get loose and go in the road, and ponies, chickens, and puppies galore. Once my dad went to a livestock market and came home with three pigs. I think they took on more than they could handle.

My dad, who was a high school literature and math teacher, was interested in learning how to bale hay. So one of my favorite childhood memories was baling hay together, my siblings and I and my dad, as a team. It was fun…and sweaty. I felt powerful. I’d learned to drive a tractor by middle school. I could do the whole cycle – cut the hay, rake it, bale it, stack it. It was the 70’s and women were trying to break through barriers…and in our own way, my sisters and I were right there, doing that too.

What do you think is the best advice a manager could receive?

When I was helping to pay my way through college, I worked at this theme park near us called Kings Island and I was promoted to an operations manager for their retail stores. My boss was just a few years older than I, and on the first day while we were touring the operation and I was asking questions, she said, “Don’t worry, there’s nothing you might do that we can’t fix.” I remember this because she was basically expressing confidence in me, and encouraging me to think outside the box, and not be fearful. I still think it’s great advice to give new managers, to convey that you want them to try new things, that it’s OK to make mistakes because you have their backs, you’re confident in what they bring to the table.