What it takes to be Named HR Strategist of the Year

I recently had the pleasure of speaking with Deborah Slayden, Director of Workforce Development Straegy with VCU Health System (VCUHS), regarding her incredible journey to be selected as the 2011 Human Resources Strategist of the Year by the Titan Group and Richmond Society of Human Resources Management.  When she learned she won the award, she was very surprised and elated, especially given the talented competition, and the stature of previous winners including Bonnie Shelor, Bon Secours and Dr. Christopher Lee of the Virginia Community College Sysyem.   “For me this is like winning a lifetime achievement award” noted Debbie who has worked with the VCU Health Care System for over thirteen years.

 Debbie began her career after graduating from Braxton Business School and became a secretary as many of her peers did at the time.  She worked at Henrico Doctors Hospital for the head of Personnel, Steven Bryan, who was instrumental in shaping her future in Human Resources (HR).  He gave her many opportunities to try out different roles such as the front desk, benefits coordinator, employment manager and eventually, she served as the HR Director.  Knowing that her career climb would be slowed down without further education, she decided to complete not only her bachelor’s degree, but also her MBA and MSHA, both of which she did under her VCUHS’ educational program with little cost to her.  She realized that to be even more effective and able to think strategically as an HR pro, she needed to better understand how business works, which was the main reason she decided to earn her MBA.

Debbie attributes most of her success in her current role to the “huge support” she gets from her manager, Maria Curran, and her team.  When she moved into this role about five years ago, she was given a clean slate and the reins to create whatever she thought was needed to create a work environment worthy of being an employer of choice.  This was a strategic initiative for VCUHS particularly given the competition for highly skilled medical candidates.  She envisioned a place where job applicants would be so excited to work for them that they would form a line wrapped around their building.  As a result of Debbie’s leadership and the HR team’s ideas, she developed a program called H.O.P.E., which stands for Housing, Opportunity, Potential and Education.

 To help employees with Housing needs, VCUHS offers first time home buyers up to $7,500 on closing costs.  They also will assist in educating their employees on how to improve credit scores and consolidate debt. 

 Within the Opportunity bucket, Debbie created a multitude of professional growth and training programs.  Many classes are focused on preparing employees for their future and honing their management skills or offering scholarships for nurses who want to earn their RN status.  They try to develop whatever programs are needed to help employees achieve their dreams from basic needs like babysitting, to offering transportation or housing.  A really fresh program aimed at youth is JRIIS – “JumpRope to Stethoscope” that partners their nurses with local schools to introduce middle school students to the world of medical careers.  It works!  JRIIS has resulted in kids choosing careers in nursing and pharmacy programs.

 Potential is aimed at valuing people’s potential, recognizing them, rewarding them and working with leaders to identify rising star.  For example, recognized employees are invited to attend the Grace E. Harris Leadership Institute through VCU, which is a 9-month program for developing leaders.  Also, instead of producing a stuffy annual report, VCUHS recognizes twelve employees each year by telling their stories throughout the report.

 Education is focused on offering formal education opportunities for all employees.  VCUHS pays up to 18 credit hours per year and it is prepaid, not reimbursed.  Further, the organization believe so strongly in the value of education that the program is not limited to just VCU Health employees, but also to their spouses and dependents.  In fact, Debbie earned both of her graduate degrees under this program.  To make it even easier for employees to earn their degrees, management will change and consider alternative work schedules.

 Debbie believes the H.O.P.E. initiative has changed the work environment significantly as VCUHS has received many awards such as Employer of Choice and Best Places to Work.  Because employees the incredible support from their employer, they feel more loyal.  So while employees are hard at work, they know that their employer is trying to make the rest of their life needs simpler.  As a result, employees feel more motivated to “give their all to the patients.” 

 Kristin Druhot, Nurse Practitioner, and mother of three, has relied on several work-life benefits offered by VCUHS to help her successfully manage her personal and professional lives. This includes a flexible work schedule where she works four nine-hour days, leaving the other four hours “flexible.” She can work those four hours whenever her schedule allows–either from home or from the office.

 Financially, the impact of the program has been huge in terms of retention of employees.  In fact, VCUHS research indicated that during the past five years, their turnover rate has reduced by four percent and they attribute this decrease largely to their rich benefits and work/life programs and offerings.  Furthermore, they have experienced an increase in the number of qualified job applicants and overall employee engagement has increased.

 For the future, Debbie says that they look at the HOPE program every year and will add to the more than 400 programs in place already.  Some things under consideration include offering Relay Food services, Wellness for the family, expanding elder care services, backup child care and homework assistance for employees with school age children.

 After Debbie won the award she did not take off for Disney World, instead she decided to figure out a way to give back.  She would love to offer her expertise to other organization in the community who want to learn how to offer similar programs in their companies.  She can speak to logistics, costs, partnerships etc.  She wants to conduct more research to stay at the forefront of what the future may hold for our workforce and figure out how to continue to attract and retain engage employees.  If you are interested in an onsite complimentary consultation with Debbie, please contact her directly at dslayden@mcvh-vcu.edu.

 Debbie’s advice for future applicants of the HR Strategist Award is to continually think about how to partner with your CEO and business leaders to see what they need and lead them into the future.  Be prepared with specific action items and costs and estimated return.  “Don’t worry about the past and just focus on the future”, recommends Slayden.

Genevieve Roberts

Partner, Titan Group LLC



Genevieve Roberts, Partner



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