Sara Honen Leupp loves connecting with people. The current executive director of benefits at Columbia University has over two decades of human resources and benefits experience including at the American Federation of Musicians as well as St. John’s University. However, it might be her willingness to engage authentically that has been most useful in her career.
Currently, Leupp, along with a full team of exceptional total rewards professionals, oversees benefits for an employee population of over eighteen thousand full-time employees and their families. She may not be able to connect individually with each and every one of those thousands, but she continues to find new ways to creatively connect with employees at one of the most prestigious educational institutions in the US.
“I think it’s important to highlight that Columbia provides eligible faculty and staff with a comprehensive health benefits package, in addition to retirement offerings and planning, tuition programs, well-being resources, and childcare benefits,” she says. “These benefits speak to the university’s support of our community members’ lives while they build and define their career.” The benefits team is exceptionally proud of the recently published Build Your Future brochure.
Benefits and well-being are personal to Leupp. “Early in my journey, I wish I would have taken better care of myself,” she admits. “I was not in the best mindset to embrace opportunity. Meetings, travel, and presentations were all challenges as I struggled with depression and severe panic attacks. For me, mentorship proved one of the first steps towards my recovery, along with supportive friends, family, and behavioral health professionals.”
She credits Michael Bloom, associate vice president of benefits and compensation within Columbia University human resources for his exceptional leadership and guidance. Leupp says Bloom sets high expectations and, through his example, she has honed her own leadership skills with kindness, gratitude, and curiosity at the center. “We believe in collaborative, authentic teams and are passionate about bringing well-being and self-care further into Columbia University’s benefits offerings,” she adds.
Going forward, the team is working to develop pathways to meet individually with employees to address the obstacles to meaningful lifestyle changes. “When lifestyle is addressed, we can have a positive effect for our workforce, as well as our healthcare costs,” Leupp says. “We address well-being, one employee at a time.”
Often times, it is those small changes that prove to have the most meaningful impact to employees—both to those who directly utilize the benefit, and to those who do not. For example, the addition of a breastmilk pump-and-carry program for nursing parents traveling on university business, or gender-affirming care plan design changes.
These enhancements support the university’s mission to recognize the importance of its location in New York City and desire to attract a diverse and international faculty and staff. Even if a faculty or staff member does not necessarily utilize a particular benefit, her hope is that they feel a stronger tie to the university as a community and are proud to continue building their career at Columbia.
This is also true for individual supplemental disability insurance, administered by Unum in partnership with the Baker Group, a benefit leveraged by a relatively small number of faculty, but helps to ensure financial well-being should they become disabled.
With respect to family building benefits, Columbia has made strides in recent years to support all paths to parenthood, providing maternity, fertility, surrogacy, and adoption benefits through a diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging lens. Access to a variety of holistic support professionals such as doulas, lactation consultants, and career coaches is included in its benefits.
Lastly, the team is extremely proud of the strategic communications plan, conducted in collaboration with Columbia’s internal communications department, physician partners, and benefit vendors, that educates the eighteen thousand faculty and staff with in-person events, virtual forums, emails, and home materials to share practical and actionable information about all of the available services.
Since 2018, this collaboration has moved Columbia away from communicating largely only during open enrollment, a once-a-year purchasing decision period, to a year-round robust education campaign.
Through effective communication, Leupp is able to connect and advocate for everyone at Columbia University—one employee at a time.
The Baker Benefit Group is a specialty firm working with a select group of clients. Through use of disability and long-term care insurance products, our team focuses on developing and implementing comprehensive income protection strategies for our clients and their employees.
We have long-standing relationships with our clients and function as an extension of their benefits organizations. We partner with them to develop an education and enrollment strategy truly tailored to their employees and their culture. We serve as key points of contact for the employees as well as the benefits team throughout the life of their policies.