Todd Gilchrist on Refining a ‘People Strategy’

Todd Gilchrist is VP of People, Legal & Privacy at Alberta Health Services. He believes that supporting employees to feel safe, healthy and valued can improve patient and family experiences, quality and safety.

In this episode, Todd discusses:

  • How a clear ‘people strategy’ can help employees reach their full potential and ultimately deliver the organization’s objectives.
  • The connection between employee engagement and patient outcomes.
  • Why relying on traditional performance assessments is counter-productive for an organization and demotivates employees.
  • That moving forward means moving away from a process that’s not working for the organization.
  • How a ‘leader as coach’ model focuses on the development path of the employee.


Full Transcript

Michael: Everything is changing in the world of performance management. We all know that. We’re both excited about that and a little anxious it, and that, of course, is the genesis of this podcast, Performance Management Stories because in stories is wisdom, is experience. Scars of what we’ve tried and hasn’t worked and insight as what’s been tried and has worked.

It’s been such a pleasure talking to senior leaders in different organizations about how they’ve approached performance management, and I’ve got a wonderful guest for you today. I’m speaking to Todd Gilchrist. Todd is the VP of People, Legal & Privacy at Alberta Health Services. Todd is a strong believer in supporting people to feel safe and healthy and valued, so, of course, they in turn can improve patient and family experiences, quality, and safety. A classic insight about how you build a brand experience is you focus on the people to be champions of that brand experience. Todd’s a member of the Human Resource Institute of Alberta, the Canadian Society of Safety Engineering, and the American Society of Safety Engineers. So, Todd, welcome.

Todd Gilchrist: Thank you, Michael, good morning.

Michael: Tell us a bit about the Alberta Health Services. I know a little bit about it, as a fellow Canadian, but some folks listening in won’t have heard of you. What’s your sector? How big is your employee base? What’s the purpose of your organization?

Todd Gilchrist: Yeah, for sure. Alberta Health Services was Canada’s first fully integrated health service entity or organization, regional health authority that encompasses the entire province. There’s been a couple of provinces since that have followed our lead: Nova Scotia and, at present time, Saskatchewan is in the process of pulling together their system.

Michael: Right.

Todd Gilchrist: Alberta Health Services is Alberta’s largest employer by quite a stretch. We have 108,000 employees.

Michael: Wow.

Todd Gilchrist: We have about 9,000 or so physicians, and about 15,000 volunteers that work within our organization every day. If my math is correct, and you do the addition there, it totals about 130,000 people, and that’s what we refer to them as is our people that make Alberta’s health service delivery work in the province.

Michael: Wow. I can only imagine that this is a complex beast, different roles, different positions being played out.

Todd Gilchrist: Yeah.

Michael: Were you all kind of brought together under a single banner and, if you were, how long has that been the case?

Todd Gilchrist: Sure, great question. The organization came together with the signing of new legislation, in 2009 was the official timing. At that time, it brought together 12 prior entities, so there were nine former regional health authorities and three provincial entities across the province. It was and, to the best of my knowledge, still is the largest merger in Canadian history.

Michael: Wow. I’ve just enough work in the world of mergers to only imagine the messiness of all of that because it’s hard enough to do a merger between just two entities, to try and bring together a range of different entities with their own cultures, their own opinions, their own ways of doing things, that must be quite the adventure.

Todd Gilchrist: Yeah, I think the team, teams plural, I think have done an excellent job over the last … what are we now, nine years old or so, to pull the organization together. But as you can appreciate, in the early days, it was about getting the basic foundational pieces in place.

Michael: Sure.

Todd Gilchrist: We were focused on payroll systems and benefits plans and collective agreements and so forth. As time has moved on and we’ve gotten some of that business largely dealt with, now we can focus our attention on continuing to evolve certainly our culture as an organization, which is where I think we’re doing some fantastic work right now. But also on some of our people programs, such as what we would have historically called our performance assessment process.

Michael: Perfect. What are you calling it these days?

Todd Gilchrist: Now we refer to it simply as development conversations.

Michael: Aha. What’s changed over the last few years as you’ve turned your attention away from that kind of foundational infrastructure to some of the stuff that drives culture and that next level up in development?

Todd Gilchrist: Well, I think in general terms, we have really put a focus on, again, what we refer to as our people strategy. It is rooted in the principles of ensuring that all of our people, irrespective of your role, your level, or what you do for us, but that you feel healthy, safe, and supported, so that you can reach your full potential within our organization and pursue the career that it is that you want to pursue.

Michael: I’m curious to know what the organizational driver of that is because I know when I talk to people like you who are champions of HR or champions of OD, they stand in the perspective of championing the people within their organization. But often if you’re a VP or you have a responsibility in a different area, your focus is more on different organizational outcomes, rather than the health and safety and the sense of being valued in the people. To take on this culture change and these development conversations across over 100,000 people is a significant undertaking. I’m wondering what made the senior team sit around and go, “This is something that we really need to do.”

Todd Gilchrist: Yeah, great question. Beyond the obvious caring that our senior leadership and our executive have for our people, the business driver behind it is quite straightforward. It follows the principle that, if you look after your people, your people will look after your customer, your client.

Michael: Right.

Todd Gilchrist: The way that that manifests itself in health services is that healthcare workers, when more engaged in the work that they do, the literature and research would prove that that then drives better or stronger patient experiences and health outcomes. Healthcare workers are then further engaged by those positive outcomes where their patients and the experience of their patients and their families, and their engagement then goes up again. You end up with a bit of a virtuous cycle, if you will, where the higher level of engagement drives better outcomes, the better outcomes drive higher engagement, and so forth.

Michael: Gosh, I’ve only got 30 minutes, and I really want to spend about six hours talking to you about this because it sounds so interesting. But did you start with a commitment to shift a culture and then the performance management and the development conversations become part of that? Or is the development conversation seen as a kind of separate strategy on its own?

Todd Gilchrist: Yeah, no, I would suggest that the development conversations are the outcome, or one of the outcomes, I should say one of many outcomes, of the work that we’ve done in the area of our people strategy.

Michael: Right.

Todd Gilchrist: Our people strategy initiative, if I can call it that, started about three and a half years ago now. It started with a very broad and a very inclusive consultation with our organization. Through a series of some surveys and thousands of individuals that we discussed this topic with face to face, we touched about 60,000 or so of our people.

Michael: Wow.

Todd Gilchrist: We gathered their input and their perspective on our organization, on what was working, on what wasn’t working. From that consultation came themes from across our organization, and from those themes, we formed our strategy and identified our strategic priorities.

Now, the area in which our development conversation comes from is actually captured in what we would call our strategic priority around empowering our people. Through helping people to define their goals, their individual goals, align their goals with the organization’s goals and objectives, and through using a coach-type approach, we are able to help people pursue those goals and ultimately deliver on the organization’s objectives.

Michael: Fantastic. You keep pointing to that this is an ongoing strategic initiative. We know the business driver for it, the organizational driver. We’ve understood the driver from the organization through interview and conversation. That develops a key strategy to empower our people and the development conversations as part of that. There’s this real rigor in terms of why we’re doing all of this. What changed in your approach to performance management?

Todd Gilchrist: Yeah, great question, Michael, and I should be clear, just because I recognized my last comment wasn’t. The development conversations and this change that we’re in right now is a change that is in flight, so we’re living that change right now.

Michael: Right.

Todd Gilchrist: But I would suggest that what has changed, and I say this somewhat tongue-in-cheek when I talk to people about it, but I don’t think it’s too far off, is that AHS, like many organizations, has used a circa 1940s type foundation to perform its assessment, which worked really good in the manufacturing era, where Worker A was supposed to develop 22 widgets today, and instead they developed 25 widgets today, so they exceeded expectations.

Michael: Yes.

Todd Gilchrist: Now, of course, it wasn’t that cut and dried, but that was certainly the foundation. We had, of course, incorporated some competencies evaluation into that. We had incorporated an assessment of our values into that. We had incorporated a conversation around what that person would like to see for their development in the future in the organization. So it had evolved.

But what we were finding is that the focus of those conversations were on the annual process. It was all a rear view mirror look. It relied heavily on ratings, giving people a score or a number. All things that I think we know today, when we look at the neuroscience of the brain and how humans think, that are really counterproductive to what it is that we’re trying to accomplish around motivating people, making our organization a place that they want to come to every day, that they can see a future in, that they feel fulfilled with the work that they’re doing, and they can see how the work that they do every day aligns with the health and business plan of our organization, and by extension, to the delivery of healthcare to 4.5 million Albertans and their families every day.

Michael: It’s a significant shift to move away from a process that, even as you say, had evolved, was still kind of built on a foundation of a kind of 1940s style way of thinking to this process, which is conversation-led, coach-led, without ratings. How did you, or how are you managing the change process around that? Because that’s a significant shift in thinking and behaving.

Todd Gilchrist: Yeah, it certainly is. The first thing I’ll say is that our organization follows the Prosci Change methodology framework. That’s what we loosely use for all of our change management, so I won’t necessarily get into the nuts and bolts of that.

Michael: Okay.

Todd Gilchrist: What we have, I think, learned and what we are experiencing is that, when we initially communicated this at a conceptual level was about probably close to a year ago, and it was at a senior leaders forum within our organization. The excitement that came from that room was palpable.

Michael: Wow.

Todd Gilchrist: It was almost a standing ovation type moment, and I think that is-

Michael: That is fantastic. That must have been thrilling.

Todd Gilchrist: Well, it was, but I think what it signaled, maybe more importantly, is the level of readiness in our organization to be able to move forward and to move away from something that everybody recognized was not working. It was not achieving what we wanted it to achieve. I would anticipate that many organizations that are at the phase that we are or that we were historically probably feel the same level of frustration.

Michael: Yes, right.

Todd Gilchrist: It’s a process that you go through the motions of because you have to, not necessarily because you recognize a lot of value from it. That excitement then put our human resources function in a situation where, to be honest, it almost felt like we’ve been playing catch-up now because we planted this seed of what it was that we wanted to do, and now it’s time to deliver.

Much like we did with our people strategy consultation that I spoke about earlier, what we decided to do was to go out to the organization and to seek guidance and input and involvement. Last fall, we conducted a series of three-month, or sorry, a series of pilots, if you will, over a three-month period, September, October, November of last year. Those pilots have helped to inform what the program will look like going forward. That feedback has been invaluable in not only helping to define the program, but also helping to define what the tools for rollout should be, what the support mechanisms should be, what the training should look like, and so forth for managers and employees to be able to use.

Michael: This may be kind of your best guess, but do you anticipate this being a standardized experience in roll-out and process across the organization? Or do different audiences have different needs? I’m partly thinking in healthcare, physicians are often treated and managed in a different way from front-line staff, who are different from other staff, for instance. I’m just curious to know what you’re mulling over in terms of how that might roll out through the 100,000+ people.

Todd Gilchrist: Yeah, again, fantastic question, Michael, and causes me just to reflect. I should stipulate that, at this point, the initial implementation will focus on what we call our non-union exempt staff.

Michael: Right.

Todd Gilchrist: That’s about 8,000, 8,500 in this first phase.

Michael: Yeah, got it.

Todd Gilchrist: From there, then we will look to, I’ll say, scale it across the entire organization through all disciplines over a period of time. Now, as far as the experience or the tools, if you will, I would say that the tools and the process and the expectations will be consistent across the organization. But I think what we would realize is because we are employing, I’ll say, a leader as coach model, of course, how every individual experiences it will be different based on that leader and based on that individual’s own aspirations, development path, and objectives.

Michael: Wonderful. It’s early days. You’re in that process of conversations, getting ready to test, getting ready to pilot. I’m curious to know if there are lessons you’ve already learned, having got this far. Is there anything you look back on and go, “We could’ve done that differently” or “We might have taken a different approach to this”?

Todd Gilchrist: Yeah, as you say, it’s early days. I think two things sort of immediately leak to mind. One would be don’t let historical thoughts and perceptions limit what can be done in this area.

Michael: Yeah.

Todd Gilchrist: I mentioned the fact that we were using sort of a 1940s-vintage logic. There has been a lot of advancements in this area over the last 80 years or so. If I were speaking to others, I would say, “Don’t be limited by perception, and don’t be limited by what everybody else is doing. Really take a look at what is best for your own organization and pursue that.”

I would, maybe just by way of extension of that, I would say one of the lessons that we’ve learned is, whether it’s this initiative or any other initiative, I think really involving a good cross-section of stakeholders to help inform that is critical because, at the end of the day, it’s them that’s going to have to use these tools and these processes.

Michael: Right.

Todd Gilchrist: Probably a last one that comes to mind, and I alluded to it earlier, is this seems to be an area in particular where the excitement and anticipation about moving forward is so great, that you’re gonna want to make sure that you are properly positioned to be able to deliver on any commitments that you might make.

Michael: Yeah. So often, when we’re in the change process, sometimes in kind of an HR role, you gear yourself up, going, “Okay, we’re gonna do some selling into the organization to get them excited.” If you light the fuse and the fuse catches, you’re like, “Oh my goodness, now we’re running to keep up.” You want to be aware that that’s a possibility.

Todd Gilchrist: Yeah, correct.

Michael: Todd, it’s been such a pleasure talking to you. It’s exciting that, when you look at an organization that is historical as Alberta Health Services, when you go all the way back to the different organizations, the complexity as you’ve merged your nine different organizations, the size, over 100,000 people, to have you taking such bold initiatives in terms of rethinking this as part of the bigger strategic change within AHS. Thank you so much for sharing your insights today.

Todd Gilchrist: Yes, well, thank you, Michael. I appreciate your time and just want to acknowledge that the good work that I get to do and that my team gets to do is really enabled by 130,000 just fantastic people that work for and that support AHS and the delivery of patient and family-centered care to 4.5 or so million Albertans every day. It’s a great place to work. I think that I have one of the best jobs and one of the best groups of people to be able to work with in Canada.

Michael: What a pleasure. That’s lovely. Thank you.

Todd Gilchrist: Thank you, Michael. Take care.

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