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C-Suite conversations: Charlene Wilson, CHRO of Rochester Regional Health

Soon after Charlene Wilson landed her first job working in human resources for a healthcare organization in El Paso, she knew she had found her calling. Charlene’s passion has led to a long and successful career, including HR leadership roles at Loma Linda University Health, Vidant Health, and Rochester Regional Health, where she became CHRO in May 2023.

Rochester Regional Health is a physician-led integrated health services organization serving Western New York, the Finger Lakes, St. Lawrence County, and beyond, offering comprehensive care from more than 400 locations, including nine hospitals.

Key Takeaways

  • HR leaders need to understand how to connect with the younger generation of workers and future leaders. We are obligated to ensure they are prepared to run this business in the future.
  • AI is going to play a major role in the talent acquisition space. Some worry that this could lead to unintended discrimination, but Charlene is reassured by what providers have shown her. A far bigger concern is the talent shortage.
  • An emerging challenge that CIOs are going to be faced with is enabling a virtual clinical workforce, such as virtual nursing.

Q&A with Charlene

Judy Kirby: When did you realize that an HR leadership career was of interest to you, and why?

Charlene Wilson: My journey has been a little different. I went to law school and then decided that I was not going to be Perry Mason like I thought I would. Then I entered a master’s program at Villanova University, and for my internship I worked at the Housing Division of the City of Philadelphia in their human resources department. And that was it! I had found my calling and my passion! My husband was in the military, so when we moved to El Paso, I got my first job in human resources at a hospital system and this the only career I have known, HR in healthcare.

JK: You’ve done this for a while, so maybe you have given thought to how the CHRO role will evolve over the next three to five years. What might some new responsibilities and qualifications be?

CW: Since I started my career, the expectations of the workforce have changed drastically. Leaders can no longer afford to take a command-and-control approach to leadership. They’ve got to learn how to inspire, how to motivate, and build a culture of trust.

Human resources leaders of tomorrow really need to understand how to connect with the younger generation, the up-and-coming leaders, in a very profound way that is different from how my managers connected with me. As we confront the whole retention and commitment issue in both clinical and non-clinical positions, we must be able to relate and lead in a much different manner.

JK: How are you doing that today?

CW: I’m now more of an executive coach to the senior leadership than I was before. 10 years ago I was doing very tactical, traditional HR, building compensation models, building total rewards, talent acquisition, et cetera. But the majority of my time now is spent coaching the C-suite. HR leaders of tomorrow must be very strategic. Every facet of the workforce in healthcare is now leaning on HR for answers that they didn’t necessarily ask for a decade ago. “Charlene, how do I create these tools to help me deal with this younger generation?”

JK: How have you learned to deal effectively with the younger generation of workers?

CW: I learned very early that they are smarter than I am. They have access to information very quickly. They are barraged with data constantly. That wasn’t my career experience. We had to search long and hard for answers, but they know it instantaneously. But what they don’t have is wisdom.

So, I feel that my calling is to share my wisdom so that, coupled with their expertise, coupled with their knowledge, I can rest assured that the young leaders I have touched know how to run this business.

You have to do a lot of introspection and be okay with being vulnerable with this new generation. But at the end of the day, you need to take responsibility for preparing them for tomorrow.

JK: Succession planning is the responsibility of all senior executives. Can you talk about the status of your succession plan and the approach you’ve taken?

CW: As you know, I’ve been here just five months, and we do not have a succession planning framework or model as of yet. I am currently working on developing that as well as an appraisal system to complement the succession plan. There is a three-year commitment for me to get an enterprise succession plan done.

JK: What tools or frameworks do you rely on, especially when it comes to hiring great leaders, and retaining and developing them?

CW: Gallup’s Strength Finders (now called CliftonStrengths) gives you the ability to understand the strengths of an individual, which is good to use not only when you’re hiring, but also for succession planning and career development opportunities for people. Where are their gaps? What do they need to be strengthened in? How do their strengths complement or clash with your current team? There’s another tool by David Lapin, which takes a different approach to understanding what your strengths are. He looks at it through the lens of your values. That is another tool that could be used to help navigate with the individual.

JK: How do you think generative AI will affect you and your team over the next few years?

CW: Oh, I believe that AI is going to play a major role in the talent acquisition space. Based on algorithms, we will be able know whether a person has the potential to do really, really good work in our healthcare system. Some will argue that this could lead to unintended discrimination, but the algorithms in the system I saw recently at Workday’s annual conference in San Francisco have been tested and validated. So, I’m not as concerned about that as I am about the talent shortage. I’m excited about what AI can do in terms of helping us find and manage talent. We will be implementing the Workday AI solution probably in 2025.

JK: What does a really strong partnership between the CHRO and the CIO look like?

CW: I’ve always had a very close relationship with IT, but it’s a little different here. Rochester Regional Health adopted Workday in 2013 as the HR platform, but IT has nothing to do with it at all. HR runs the platform, we monitor it and we manage it, which has been a change for me. Our connection with IT is really about bringing folks into the IT team and working with the CIO to develop career paths. The IT talent market is so volatile and hot due to intense competition for good people.

JK: Over the course of your career as an HR leader, how have you partnered with the CIO to improve the culture of IT?

CW: This new generation of workers is seeking more. They’re seeking more purpose, they’re seeking more flexibility, they’re seeking more opportunity to grow and develop. They’re no longer expecting to come into an organization just for the job. They expect to come in and see a career progression.

My work with our CIO is about building job profiles and complementing them with the career progression from the very beginning. Therefore, when he’s hiring or presenting our company to candidates, they know right from the start that they’re not in a dead-end job.

I’m working with Rochester Institute of Technology to help me develop that career progression and we are going to test it out on some RIT students. We’ve got this well-known, renowned technical school right here in Rochester, and so why not test it with them? I’m working very closely with the CIO on this now because that is what he’s going to need from HR the most over the next couple of years.

JK: What other work have you done to help strengthen the culture in technology, especially with remote and hybrid work?

CW: The real trick is ensuring that people are engaged. Not with just the work, or the work product, but engaged in the IT community here. Gone are the days when we believed that if you’re present, that means you’re engaged. No, it doesn’t.

You could have a leader who is a director living in Kansas. How do you create the atmosphere so that that director can lead and still live in Kansas? I am helping the CIO to utilize different tools to make sure that his people are engaged with one another.

I’m excited about it, about being able to see in my lifetime such a major seismic shift in the workforce, and being able to contribute to it.

JK: The virtual workforce has been a major focus for CIOs I speak with.

CW: Let me tell you about another challenge that CIOs are going to be faced with: the virtual workforce on the clinical side, like virtual nursing. We’re getting ready to launch virtual

nursing internationally here. When you call your credit card company, or get software support, you’re often talking to someone that isn’t physically located in the United States. We’re going to start using that same approach to providing our clinical services. I think we will see more of this due to the nursing shortage.

JK: Looking back on your own journey, what career advice do you have for rising professionals interested in becoming a CHRO one day?

CW: My advice to them is to remain relevant, and that means understanding not just what’s going on today, but to also what the workforce is going to need tomorrow. CHRO leaders must accept the fact that they need to serve. If they have issues with being servants, if they have issues with leading not because of the job title, but because being a leader is sacred, I don’t think they’ll be successful. This is all due to heightened expectations of the workforce I have mentioned. We need to position ourselves in such a way that people see us as serving them in a manner that is sacred and purposeful in healthcare.

JK: When you are not working, what do you like to do with your free time?

CW: I love to travel. I’ve been to more places and more countries than I could ever imagine. I’m also a vegetarian, pretty much vegan, and I love to cook. That’s a stress release for me, so when I am heading into a tense time, like when I’m getting ready for a board meeting, I go cook a whole bunch of stuff. And reading also.

JK: What do you like to read?

CW: I like to read things that are inspirational. Right now I’m reading Trust and Inspire, the book Stephen Covey wrote after The Speed of Trust. I also like to read John Maxwell’s books because, as I said before, I believe that my career in HR is based on a calling.

JK: What has been your favorite country to visit?

CW: My favorite one was Dubai. The countries where I could actually live would be Germany or Korea.

I have a question for you, Judy. What do you see on the horizon for healthcare talent and recruiting?

JK: One concern of mine is the mergers and acquisitions. The organizations are getting so big, and I’m not sure the leadership is prepared for the scaling, where suddenly you have a CEO or a CFO in a much larger organization. Are they prepared to really lead that large of an organization and bring the cultures together? And do they have the money to really hire the talent they need? For a long time, technologists in healthcare didn’t have the skillset to take to jobs in other verticals, and now they do.

CW: You can’t compete, not financially.

JK: And now we’re having nursing and physician shortages, which are going to continue. As all the aging baby boomers need more healthcare, Charlene, where are they going to get it? How are we going to pay for it?

CW: And that impacts the workforce, Judy. We now have five distinct generations in the workforce because the older generation won’t retire if they can’t afford the health insurance they need. They’re living longer and they are working longer, and that creates this very interesting situation here where you’ve got the younger generation needing to move up, but the older generation deciding to work until they are 70. That’s something we’re dealing with.

JK: How are you dealing with quiet quitting, and individuals who aren’t performing?

CW: I’ve implemented what are called human resources strategy partners. They’re really working with operations on strategy and we’re changing the way in which we collect and analyze feedback. Instead of just once a year or every 18 months, we go in for interviews after the first 90 days, and very regularly after that. The data points us very clearly to where our gaps are. Workday has a robust analytical component for looking at employee survey data. We can slice and dice the data any way you can think of to understand where gaps are and where my strategy partners need to work with the leaders to deal with this culture issue.