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Steady at the Helm

Michelle Kirby, CHRO at Texas Health Resources, draws on many strengths as she guides her department and organization through a changing healthcare landscape. 

This article accompanies Leading the Talent of Tomorrow and The 2012 HR Honor Roll.

Monday, October 1, 2012
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For someone who oversaw the HR ramifications of one of the largest acquisitions of a physician group ever in the nation -- and this, at a time of profound uncertainty and anxiety over medical > costs and care in this country -- Michelle Kirby has a strikingly calm demeanor that almost sits at odds with the enormity of her recent responsibilities.

On Jan. 1, 2011, Arlington, Texas-based Texas Health Resources -- where Kirby, 49, has been senior vice president and chief human resources officer since 2005, and with the company for 22 years -- announced its purchase of Dallas-based MedicalEdge Healthcare Group and PhyServe, the management-services company that administers to the physician group.

The transaction was extremely complex, since the groups being acquired represented a different line of business -- i.e., clinics, physician practices and imaging centers -- than THR's historical core business of acute-care hospitals.

"We all of a sudden had roughly 3,000 new people -- most of them physicians working in clinics -- entering into the organization," bringing the headcount to 21,400 for the $4-billion-revenue, 250-location company, says Kirby. "So, for those of us who have spent our entire lives in and around hospitals, this idea of looking at the broad healthcare continuum -- to clinics -- was really a shift for us."

It was a mind-set transformation, from "waiting for people to come to us in hospitals [to] keeping people from coming to our hospitals," says Kirby.

Throughout the transition, Kirby was in high gear, heading up four primary plans of action for her 160-person team: gaining as much information as possible about the new culture and business model to make appropriate decisions; moving employees and their histories onto new payroll and benefits structures in only 90 days; anticipating the challenges of integrating two disparate sets of people, processes and systems, and preventing costly turnover and lost productivity through effective leadership throughout the ranks; and addressing the new sets of people challenges that emerged.

She also made sure the guiding principles and mission of the organization -- "to improve the health of the people in the communities we serve," she says -- were being emphasized and communicated. She ensured critical information such as compliance, infection prevention and safety was communicated thoroughly and quickly to the newly acquired doctors and health professionals.

Following the acquisition, "We said, 'Oh my gosh, how do we get that cultural information to them without treating them like every other employee?' " she says, "so we created online orientation in some cases, we compacted crucial bits of information down into sound bites, so they could [go through orientation] at any time."

She also served as the conduit between the newly combined culture and the steering committee, bringing intractable issues to the latter and helping find quick solutions.

What drove her through it all and, in turn, drove her team, she says, was "the promise behind our principle, 'individuals caring for individuals, together,' and the 13 behaviors [such as 'I promise to treat you with dignity and respect' and 'I promise to listen and earn your trust'] used to carry the promise out."

What also drove her then and drives her every day, she says, is something she learned at an annual THR Quality Conference years ago -- the Hawaiian word for flawlessness, Kinaole.

"What it actually means," says Kirby, "is doing the right thing, in the right way, at the right time, in the right place, for the right person, with the right feelings the first time. It's very powerful.

"I heard it being talked about in terms of < medical > quality, that it is innate in all of us to do the right thing" for everyone in one's midst, she says, so she has made it her own motto and the motto of THR; often, through personally drawn placards she leaves throughout the organization. It's behind her deeply held conviction that, just as she got to where she is now because of key mentors and supervisors who gave her the chance to prove herself, so too is it her "obligation, as an HR leader and a person, to reach out, find out what people want to do with their careers and give them the chances they deserve."

Kinaole has kept her steady and focused through other initiatives as well.

She developed a comprehensive Be Healthy Program for all THR employees and was instrumental in establishing full-care-continuum solutions for them, including the integration of < medical, pharmacy, wellness, care management, disability and workers' comp.

She's been instrumental in bringing employee-satisfaction-survey participation and results to record levels, and setting up a system for managers to ensure they communicate the survey results and continue to improve their processes.

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She was instrumental in the creation and oversight of a regional strategic-workforce-planning system in 2011, through which THR partners with other healthcare organizations -- i.e., competitors -- in the Dallas/Fort Worth area to ensure current and future workforce needs are met throughout the entire region.

"This will vastly improve our talent forecast and pipeline," says Kirby, adding that, in light of healthcare reform, "we are all at a crossroads, transforming from a hospital system to a healthcare system," and regional collaboration is imperative.

It seems whatever she touches becomes the better for it. "Her very presence in any room -- from employee focus groups to engaging with executive leadership -- raises the level of discourse," says Bonnie Bell, THR's executive vice president of people and culture, and Michelle's boss, though her responsibilities include areas of expertise considered outside the realm of HR, including learning, diversity and service excellence. "I've worked with Michelle for 18 years, and she has simply gotten better and better with each."

Perhaps Kirby's steady compass has something to do with the faith she learned through her Baptist-preacher father and the strength she needed when he joined the military and "moved the family around a lot," she says, from her Rockingham, N.C., birthplace to various corners of the world, including Texas and Schweinfurt, Germany.

Perhaps, as the happily married mother of a 10-year-old daughter, it's also rooted in her family life.

Whatever its source, it will be very necessary and called upon, she says, as she helps her organization evolve away from what it's always been into what most health organizations are becoming, "a system that addresses the entire care continuum" with all the cultural nuances that entails.

Read also:

Michelle Kirby: In Brief

Leading the Talent of Tomorrow

The 2012 HR Honor Roll

Past Winners

About the Competition



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