Throughout 2020, healthcare organizations were forced to turn inward to help staff not only confront the stress related to a global pandemic, but also issues around social injustice. At Novant Health, leaders were able to quickly build on existing work to get new resources to staff. For Tanya Blackmon, executive vice president and chief diversity, inclusion, and equity officer at the North Carolina-based health system, the focus is on creating a workplace where differences are celebrated and diversity is a “strategic lever.” Blackmon, who was named one of Modern Healthcare’s Top 25 Women Leaders, spoke with Managing Editor Matthew Weinstock. The following is an edited transcript.
MH: Can you talk about the impetus for Thriving Together?
Blackmon: When you asked me that question, it made me think about Maya Angelou’s quote, “People will forget what you said. They’ll forget what you did. But they will never forget how you made them feel.” For us, particularly during a time of crisis, it’s so important that our team members know that we care about them. As we started looking at this, it was a collaboration with our wellness officer, employee assistance program, spiritual care, lots of people who came together and said, “We really need to make sure that our team members know that we care for them, and that they have the resources and the tools to use without having to look very far.”
Some of the things that we did: We created a Hope Fund, where we put $11 million in a fund—and part of that money was from the executive team members, out of their personal pockets—to help team members who were financially needy or in need of assistance. The foundation raised about $2 million … I think we have about $4.7 million left over. We’ve been really very generous in giving out dollars to help our team members. Of course, they have to meet certain criteria, but they have said to us, “This has helped us. This has gotten us over the hump.”
We find that team members, spouses or significant others have lost their jobs. We did not furlough anyone, but sometimes hours were cut. Children are at home, and they’re needing to eat more. There’s more (being spent on) electricity. There’s the internet. So there are a lot of things out of team members’ control, and we felt like this was a way to help them.
We also did a lot of work from an emotional standpoint. COVID-19 has lasted for a very long time, so emotionally, it takes a toll on you as well. We have our employee assistance program. We (now) have emotional health advocates who are actually trained as peer support people to help our team members who are stressed. We really think about a lot of things. Our spiritual care team conducts Code Lavender for the whole team. That’s really like psychological first aid. It’s a real sense of calmness and a time to reflect and to take care of yourself at that moment.
MH: Can you detail some of the work you are doing around social injustice and structural racism? You’re running a program called Courageous Conversations.
Blackmon: I’ll talk a little bit about when Novant Health actually made a commitment to embed diversity, inclusion and equity into the system. Our CEO (Carl Armato) asked me to take the role. We talked about what that would look like. And we made a decision that for us, diversity and inclusion is a core value. And equity is important in that as well—that we were not interested in creating programs, but more of a culture change strategy. As we did that, as we’ve been doing that for the last six years, when the social unrest or the social injustices happened … we had something called Zoom chats, where we had Courageous Conversations, and our Zoom chats really are a safe place for team members to have dialogue, to share their thoughts and feelings, to listen and understand the perspectives and experiences of others.
It’s not a debate session, but it is a way to have dialogue so that we can understand where people are coming from. I think we are all shaped by our own life experiences, and that’s how we see the world, by what we’ve experienced in life. Sometimes we need to hear that from others so we know their perspective as well. We’ve had several of those. If I count total participants, and that’s including live participants and people who have viewed the Zoom chat later, we’ve had about 13,000 people who’ve been involved.
We also have a way for people to have tips. We give them tips and tools on how to have conversations across differences. In one of those Zoom chats, our CEO and I had a Courageous Conversation about our similarities and our differences and how do we come together to really create the magic; I call it “the magic” at Novant Health.
MH: How do these program manifest themselves on the patient-facing side?
Blackmon: All of our roads lead back to our patients. We are reflective of our patients in the community, and so when our patients come into the system, if we’ve done a great job as team members to understand each other, our similarities and our differences, and really value each other for our strengths, then when we have patients that come into our system that reflect who we are, we’re better able to take care of them.
Diversity and inclusion and equity really are about people. You want to be able to understand people better than anybody else. The more we educate ourselves and the more we take care of ourselves and understand each other, the better we can understand our patients. And they all have unique needs. No patient is the same. They come from different populations, different countries, different environments, different socioeconomic statuses. Some are male. Some are female. Some are transgender. There are lots of differences in our patients, so it really makes sense that as a healthcare organization, that you know that, you understand that about your patients. And I think it starts inside. It starts with us.
MH: How do you sustain a commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion when healthcare as a whole is dealing with some financial challenges?
Blackmon: During a time when you have financial challenges or any other challenges, you really need to do more, not less, when it comes to diversity, inclusion and equity. As I said earlier, it’s really about people. And what we’ve done as an organization, and I credit our president and CEO for this, he really sees—and the whole executive team sees—diversity, inclusion and equity as a strategic lever. When you realize something is a strategic lever, you don’t let go of it. It cuts across every fabric in your organization. From a financial standpoint, we use this lever to help us grow our market share, to help make sure our patients are satisfied, our team members are engaged. So we don’t see it as something separate and apart. It really is interwoven into everything that we do.
MH: Pivoting to gender diversity. You have a program—Leveraging Internal Female Talent—that’s focused on advancing the careers of female staff members. What kind of results are you seeing?
Blackmon: When I took this position, I did a listening tour across our organization. And one of the things I looked at (in) our data is that our organization, and probably like a lot of other healthcare organizations, is 82% female. We realized, though, that 82% of the leadership was not female. We started looking at what do we need to do in our system to make sure that we are recognizing and strengthening the women in our organization. So we created a program … called LIFT that helps to develop women who are high-potential, performance-type women in the organization. And we make sure that there’s education related to executive presence, communication, (and) working across the system.
What we have found in this program that is a little unique from some others is that we give each woman who graduates from the program a sponsor for six months. And that’s important because I think more women need sponsors. Mentors are great. They support you, guide you, advise you. But sponsors really speak on your behalf when you’re not there. That’s been a really big component of our program. Probably 45% end up having a larger scope of responsibility, or they’ve been promoted. And I’ve been really excited to hear my male colleagues say, “Tanya, when we interview someone who’s gone through the LIFT program, we can see a difference. And we think that everybody should go through the LIFT program, including the men.”
Because of their presence, because of how they communicate, their confidence level is very different. We’ve really been proud to be able to lift the women in our organization.
MH: What are some recommendations for your peers across the industry about trying to create more diversity within their C-suites?
Blackmon: One thing I look at is, and I said this during the crisis, too, when you’re pulling people together, look at who’s on your team. I’m always looking at what voice is not here that I need to leverage. If the female voice is not there, I’d say make sure that you’re doing that. Closing pay gaps is really important to do. I think flexible hours and policies and procedures would help women to be in the workforce and to continue to excel in the workforce.
One that we put in place was paid parental leave. We had maternity leave, but it was not paid unless you had your own paid time off. But we put into place parental leave, and it’s paid. That really has made a difference. We have a women’s business resource group that is a network of women for people to have a support at work. Those are some of the things I think would be important. The other thing I’d say is look at your slate. When you are recruiting, make sure that you have a diverse slate of candidates that includes women.