Staff Q&A with Silvana Burgese

In their November letter to the Models of Excellence Committee nominating their manager, Silvana Burgese, for the Model Supervisor Award, members of the Faculty Support Staff Office at Penn Law School wrote that they have never had a supervisor “as supportive, intelligent, and dedicated to their employees as Silvana.”

They lauded her for her “grace” and “aplomb” in a “high-stress, difficult, and demanding environment,” praised her problem-solving and workplace proficiency expertise, and said she treats everyone equally, with dignity, and with respect.

“After 20 years, she is still engaged with her job and with her staff,” the staffers wrote. “She demands excellence not only from us, but from herself. … She is always smiling and laughing while continuously looking out for the best interests of her employees. We are better employees, and our department is better because she is our manager. Silvana Burgese is truly a model of excellence.”

“She’s just a really good boss,” says Katie Beers, administrator coordinator for legal practice skills in the Faculty Support Staff Office. “You can talk to her literally anytime, day or night, and she’s never bothered, she’s never annoyed, she’s never short-tempered. She’s really always there for us. It’s a very stressful job and she never appears stressed.”

“She definitely takes an interest in our lives, too,” Beers adds. “If something is wrong or if you’re sick or something, she’ll text you to see if you’re all right. She’ll say, ‘Do you need any help? Do you need me to drive over to your house? Do you need me to pick anything up?’”

Burgese, who was honored with the Model Supervisor Award at the Models of Excellence Ceremony in April, is a South Philly native and Penn alumna who graduated from the College of Arts & Sciences in 1990. She has been working at the Law School for more than two decades, and she first began working at Penn in high school when she was employed as an office assistant.

Since 2002, Burgese has been manager of the Faculty Support Staff Office, where she oversees nine staff members, three work-study students, and temporary workers who assist 50 full-time faculty members at the Law School and 70 adjunct professors, visiting professors, and lecturers.

“My staff is great and everybody works as a team,” Burgese says. “That’s a very important component to being in the support team. They’re really a great group.”

The Current sat down with Burgese in the Law School to discuss her management style, her Model Supervisor Award, and the importance of giving employees positive feedback.

Q: What does Penn Law’s Faculty Support Staff Office do?
A: We post class materials on Canvas for the faculty, adjuncts, and lecturers. We print exams for the students. We proof exams. We edit manuscripts. We scan pictures, and photos, and copy materials for the faculty. Once a year, [faculty members] want to send out their reprints or their books that they published and we’ll have a mass mailing for that. We fax, we send UPS, we help with grading; we do it all. I’m the point person so I assign a task to the rest of the staff through Task Manager. I never turn down a professor, no matter what the job is, and there are a lot of professors so you have to be able to get it all done. We try to get all tasks done within the day. For the year, we probably have 10,000 tasks.

Q: Do you have a particular management style?
A: Throughout my life, I try to treat people the way I would want to be treated, so whenever I approach things in work and outside of work, I try to think before I say something, and think about what that person is going to feel like with whatever words come out of my mouth. If it comes out hurtful or insulting, then I’m not going to say it because how would I feel if I was the person who was being spoken to like that? I try to treat them all with respect and dignity, and they treat me with respect. I take into account if they’re going through something or if they need time off. I’m flexible and I work with them, and I really care about them as my staff. I think if you’re in an office for seven hours, I don’t want anybody to be unhappy. I tell my staff, ‘Don’t wait until evaluation time to sit and talk to me, come to the office, tell me if there’s a problem, and I’ll try to correct it.’ Most of the time, they come, I correct it, and it’s fine. I have that open relationship with the staff, and I think that’s really important. Open communication, I think, is very important because I think some staff members in general are afraid to approach their supervisor or their manager. I don’t believe that. I think that there should be an open communication and that will solve a lot of issues that sometimes happen in the workplace.

Q: How did you go about creating such a positive work environment?
A: I kind of put myself into their spot and I say I would like positive feedback and also constructive criticism. If somebody makes a mistake, you go to the staff member and you say that they made a mistake so that they can correct it. If you don’t tell them, they can’t correct something. But I try to give positive feedback whenever I can. I try to say, ‘Thank you,’ or ‘It was a tough task and we did it and you accomplished it, thank you very much.’ If a faculty member mentions it in an email, I’ll forward it to that staff member and say, ‘Professor so-and-so said that you did a great job.’ Then during evaluation time, I actually do a whole memo and I put in all the positive feedback that professors gave for that individual staff member. I keep it in a folder. You need to feel appreciated and so I appreciate my team and I make every effort daily to tell them that.

Q: Do you think positive feedback and feeling appreciated is important for staff members?
A: I think it’s very important. That’s why the system works for us because, to me, that’s very important. And every staff member is different so if one staff member has something going on—either personally or with anything, even at home—I need to be conducive to that and listen and try to work with that staff member. I am very flexible and very willing to work with that staff member to not stress them out more. I think it’s important no matter what job you’re in. It’s very important to give people that positive feedback. Also, you can approach a staff member and give them constructive criticism, but there’s a way that you can do that without having any ill feelings. I try to really take that into consideration when I have to talk to my staff about stuff.

Q: How was the Model Supervisor Award process? Did you have any idea that your staff was going to nominate you?
A: I had to sign a paper so they had to tell me because they weren’t going to tell me at first, and then I got nominated and I was very emotional. My team is what makes me great. They’re an awesome team; they’re always there for me. Nobody complains about anything. When they nominated me, I was surprised and I was just very happy and thankful. And then when I won, that was really exciting. It was really nice. They had my face on these big posters. They really were pushing for me to win.

Q: I imagine it is a rewarding experience.
A: It really is because I do try hard and I love my job so when you’re recognized, it’s even more of a rewarding experience. I just appreciated that the staff recognized that I do care about them in general as my staff members. When I saw the actual words that they used, it was really touching to me. When you get that positive feedback, then you know you’re doing a good job.

Q: Am I correct that President Gutmann presented you with the award?
A: Yes, and I think she didn’t even know who won until she opened up the envelope. It was like the Academy Awards [laughs].

Q: Did you know you wanted to come to Penn when you were working here in high school?
A: I did. I liked the whole look of the campus. I liked how you felt part of the campus. I just thought I would fit in. It’s a great school. I liked the campus and I liked that it’s a family environment. Working here and then as a student, I had a great experience.

Q: Has the campus changed a lot since you were an undergrad?
A: I think there are a lot more buildings; before, there was open ground. Across the street [from the Law School], there was a big parking lot right where Domus is. That was a big parking lot; you could park hundreds of cars. I think that the campus has changed, but it’s good change. Penn Park is beautiful. I think the University changes with the times and that’s great.

Q: What is the most enjoyable part of your job?
A: Interacting with the faculty and trying to help them out. They’re brilliant professors and to support them really does make you feel that you’re helping them. I think that’s really rewarding for myself and for the staff.

Silvana Burgese