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Northwell Health's Culture-First HR Approach

Analysis  |  By Melanie Blackman  
   September 15, 2023

Northwell's chief people officer, Maxine Carrington, shares HR insights for a changing healthcare workforce.

HR leaders are responsible for their organization's workplace culture, impacts on employee wellbeing, ways to combat burnout, and recruitment and retention efforts. They are an important part of any organization's C-suite.

During this past week, HealthLeaders celebrated Workforce Week by sharing thought leadership and strategies from different C-suite leaders to help you better serve your own organizations.

To close out the week, we bring you a special HealthLeaders podcast interview featuring Maxine Carrington, the Chief People Officer at Northwell Health.

During the interview, Carrington shares insights on HR for a changing healthcare workforce, including the importance of culture keeping up with current recruitment and retention trends and effectively making organizational change as an HR leader. You can also listen to the interview here.

HealthLeaders: How has human resources and the importance of workplace culture changed over your career?

Maxine Carrington: There's been so much change in the broader environment of healthcare, the industry, and then our own organization. As the place in which HR exists is evolving, HR has to be evolving as well so that you're relevant, and whatever services, programs, processes are in place, are resonating with what the business needs.

As the tools get better to give us insights, and as we have more access to insights, it has helped HR better target decision making and strategies with better data. There's been evolution there.

If you think back to the personnel days, there was a focus on getting people paid, the regulatory and compliance pieces. We saw a big evolution toward the science of experience, because that's going to differentiate you from others and help with retention and attraction.

Approaching the pandemic, during the pandemic, and after, there's a huge focus on workforce planning: looking at the supply of labor more intentionally, more strategically, and in a fiscally responsible way. That's inclusive of succession planning, as well as equity, diversity, inclusion and belonging.

HL: How are you leading initiatives around workforce recruitment and retention?

Carrington: Northwell has always had a focus on culture first. Even when we do M&A, the conversation for us with the potential partner starts with culture. Let's talk about your values. Let's talk about what's important to you. What are the behavioral commitments? What's your culture like? That's where the conversation starts for us.

That helped us through the pandemic in terms of morale and retention. Our turnover never went up that high relative to others nationally and locally. The differentiator for us was how much we demonstrate a level of caring and investment in our workforce and our team members. Culture always helped us.

The other thing that worked for us was we created our own staffing agency a few years ago, and that has added so much value. It allows team members to have gig work opportunities within our own staffing agencies,  so they don't have to go elsewhere, but also fulfilling short term gaps. It's also revenue producing; our staffing agencies staff for other companies as well.

We actually brought in one of our operators to lead recruitment for us and to lead talent acquisition because we said it would be great to bring a customer mindset in a leader. When you look at our scale, we're almost 86,000 people just employed, not to mention volunteers. [We brought] in an operator to look at our infrastructure and where we should be focusing our effort.

The recruitment strategy, [we're looking at] how do we get more targeted in where we recruit, who we recruit to, and how? How do we raise the visibility of the brand to make us more attractive?

And then the last thing I'd say is just to focus on retention, not just recruitment. We look at our data to see where we've got hotspots, we try to understand why we're vulnerable, and then we try to address those vulnerabilities to ensure that we're retaining. Our turnover has come back down to our pre-pandemic numbers very quickly, and I think all of those pieces have definitely proven helpful to us.

We have amazing team members, amazing leaders. It's not only an HR thing—everyone wants to step in and help and be part of the solution.

HL: How do you effectively make change in your organization as the Chief People Officer?

Carrington: We stood up within HR a change management function. They support the whole organization because we know that change is constant in healthcare. They think about the psychology of change, and that means everything from how you communicate change, the timing, how you assess people's readiness for change. They've gotten more sophisticated and refined in that assessment, which helps us determine how much we push change, to what degree, and how. They partner with our internal communications teams, and our marketing teams, and our finance teams, and so many others. Having a dedicated function that they become expert at it and help guide the rest of us, has given us the right infrastructure to better effectuate change.

It's not enough to just articulate why the change is important. You also have to articulate what will happen if we don't change. That is an important distinction. I have found in my experience that it's a bigger justification.

We really do try to [have] a thoughtful process in driving any change and I'm grateful for the support of our change management team.

HL: What advice do you have for aspiring HR leaders?

Carrington: One is this aspect of learning, that you never allow yourself to get stale. Learning takes on multiple shapes. It's not always formal classes, it's learning through conversations, it's podcasts, it's books, it's studying your environment. Having a learning mindset keeps you open to growth and the change that has to happen, and it enables you to never get stagnant.

Creativity is a bone I tell people to develop. It helps with innovation. Anything that allows you to turn that aspect of yourself to become more creative allows you to become more innovative.

And then networking and building relationships. It benefits you from a growth standpoint. It helps you to contribute and help others get better, and it certainly helps the organization get better.

Melanie Blackman is a contributing editor for strategy, marketing, and human resources at HealthLeaders, an HCPro brand.

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