A Healthy Transformation
Kathleen Wilson-Thompson has led Walgreens' HR function -- and even the organization at large -- through a massive change as the company focuses less on growing outlets and more on enhancing customer experience.
By Kristen B. Frasch
As Walgreens CEO Gregory D. Wasson tells it, when Kathleen Wilson-Thompson came into her interview for the job of senior vice president and chief human resources officer, the post she accepted in January 2010 and currently holds, she brought with her a "vision and passion for HR excellence [that was] incredibly strong and incredibly gripping, [and a] background as comprehensive as any CEO could hope for."
She also, he notes, so convincingly "presented her ideas, her strengths and her grasp of what a complex organization like Walgreens needed -- and will need -- during a period of historic transformation and beyond" that he -- in turn -- was convinced she could become his "trusted business partner" and adviser, whose HR organization would impact -- as it has -- "every area of our enterprise."
Indeed, the HR leadership she displayed through that transformation was a key factor in Wilson-Thompson's selection this year as one of HRE's 2014 HR Honor Roll recipients.
At the time of the interview described above, Wasson was in his second year of directing a companywide strategy shift from growing the 240,000-employee business by increasing the number of stores in its portfolio to improving customer experiences, focusing more on diversifying products, enhancing health and wellness services within each store, and expanding channels of delivery through its e-commerce business.
"Greg had a vision of reaching this new customer in the wellness experience," says Wilson-Thompson, "and he was bringing together a new management team -- different leaders from different companies -- to help execute it. I wanted to be part of building that out." At the time, she was heading into her 19th year with Kellogg Co., where she was senior vice president of global human resources. A lawyer as well, she had years of experience as corporate counsel -- for Kellogg and others. She knew what it meant to understand the business.
She also knew the kind of shift Wasson wanted would entail new ways of teaching, supporting and engaging employees to ensure a greater emphasis on customer care and enhanced responsibilities for more than 27,000 pharmacists. She knew she would need to introduce a different means of measuring performance and quickly moved to institute a new pay-for-performance structure, a new competency model, and a stringent and measurable new performance-management process emphasizing accountability. She launched and led the development of Walgreens University and its new focus on developing and training employees through various channels -- live classroom, online learning and affiliations with accredited university programs. Since its opening last year, employee-engagement scores have soared.
"Walgreens University is one of the things I am most proud of," says Wilson-Thompson. "It truly was needed to ensure our people would get all of those skills [to enable us to] fully shift;
we were literally building a new infrastructure."
She has also established new and similar learning channels, and business-partnership opportunities, within HR so her own team members could understand the business and gain all the business leaders' trust.
"As I always encourage
all my HR team members," she says, " 'Continue honing your business skills, ensure our business acumen is on point; we owe that to ourselves and our business leaders' " in whatever direction they aim to go.
Wilson-Thompson also helped create Walgreens' Leadership Academy, a training and development program for the organization's top 200 leaders that incorporates action-learning programs into its design. For instance, a number of projects created by Leadership Academy teams have since been vetted, tested and adopted by the company.
She created the company's first Office of Diversity and Inclusion and established its first chief-diversity-officer position and accompanying team. She introduced the My Walgreens, My Voice survey to measure employee-engagement levels across the enterprise and to establish action plans based on survey responses in order to enhance those levels. Some of the changes made as a result of those responses include leaders' tours of all business units so they can hear directly from team members. Wilson-Thompson also now holds periodic divisional town halls, appears on a "Live Q&A" panel at Walgreens' all-company team-member town halls and creates video messages that are delivered to employees via the company intranet.
The changes she has helped put in place have laid a foundation of global people practices that now guides the company through its anticipated acquisition of Alliance Boots, a Nottingham, U.K.-based pharmacy-led health-and-beauty retailer, that will bring the company's total headcount to 350,000. When complete, the merged company is slated to be the world's largest buyer of pharmaceuticals with more than 11,000 stores in 10 countries and a drug-distribution network serving 180,000 pharmacies.
In addition to all this momentum in support of cultural and strategic changes, Wilson-Thompson is a master communicator, which has been integral to strengthening working relationships among leadership-team members. She's even a ready traveler to company locations in times of need. In the wake of the Joplin, Mo., tornado in May of 2011, for example, she flew to Joplin to offer comfort and solace to retail and field-team members who'd lost their homes. "She truly embodies humility, excellence, integrity and leadership," says Wasson, "[and] is an excellent role model and mentor, friend and colleague, to her peers and her team."