Courage in action
Novant Health’s chief diversity, inclusion and equity officer on what it takes to transform a culture
At a time when the social justice movement is gaining widespread attention and momentum, many organizations are asking themselves an important question: How do you embed diversity and inclusion as part of your business’s mission, vision, values and brand?
When Tanya Stewart Blackmon was faced with that question, her answer was simple: She listened.
Blackmon is Novant Health’s executive vice president and chief diversity, inclusion and equity officer. She accepted the role back in 2016 and immediately embarked on a listening tour across the Novant Health footprint. She heard from more than 700 team members across all levels of the organization over the course of that tour.
“That really served as the foundation for everything we’re seeing and doing today,” Blackmon said. “I was able to create a comprehensive diversity and inclusion strategic plan for the system, and that is aligned with our strategic imperatives.”
Blackmon’s approach and leadership have yielded tangible results. Case in point: On the tour, Blackmon learned that the executive team at Novant Health did not reflect the workforce across the system. While the workforce was 82% female, there was only one woman serving on the executive team. Four years later, those numbers have transformed dramatically as the president and CEO wanted to ensure that he had multiple perspectives represented. Today, 40% of the executive team are women, and 40% are people of color.
Ann Caulkins, president of Novant Health Foundation and senior vice president of Novant Health, spoke with Blackmon recently about her lengthy career in healthcare, the challenges and opportunities of the new reality, and what she’s looking forward to for the remainder of 2020. Below are excerpts from their conversation.
Ann Caulkins: How long have you served in your current role? And how did the opportunity come about?
Tanya Blackmon: Five years ago, Carl [Armato, Novant Health CEO] told me he wanted me to take a system role and operationalize diversity and inclusion, one of our core values at Novant Health. I asked him why he wanted me to do this, and he said, “Because you understand the business and the people side of healthcare, and I believe that we need both to truly operationalize this in our organization.”
I asked him that question because, at first, I wasn’t sure I wanted the role. I thought people would assume I got the role because I am an African-American female. So I really wanted to know why Carl wanted me, and it was because of my knowledge of people from my background in social work and my knowledge of the business, from my MBA and from my time as president of two of our Novant Health hospitals, Novant Health Charlotte Orthopedic Hospital and Novant Health Huntersville Medical Center.
Caulkins: You know the business side. You know the people side. How do we bridge the gap between those two areas and change a culture?
Blackmon: That was something I thought about, too: What does this mean? I told Carl I was not going to be a figurehead in this position. If we’re going to do this, we’re going to go big and implement in a way that truly added value.
From the start, I knew this could not be about a program because you put a program up on the wall one day, and when times get tough or funding decreases, you can all too easily take it off the wall. It had to be part of a strategic culture-change strategy. I created a fishbone diagram and divided it into three phases: The first was learning and engaging to build knowledge. The second was developing to influence practices and policies that would help us get where we wanted to go. The third was embedding and leveraging to ensure diversity, inclusion and equity can be sustained over time.
After outlining the approach, I set off on the listening tour. I listened across this organization because, in this work, you have to give people a voice, as well as have alignment with the strategic goals and the mission, vision and values of the organization. We had to gain agreement and alignment on the definitions of diversity and inclusion. We have that alignment now, and it has enabled the changing of mindsets and behaviors.
Caulkins: Our culture has come a long way in a short period of time. Describe some of the things you’ve done over the past four years.
Blackmon: I believe that this work starts at the top of an organization. You have to have a CEO who is open and committed to embedding diversity and inclusion into the culture, but there’s still education that has to be done.
So we started with Carl. I told him I would love for him to take part in a program from an organization called White Men As Full Diversity Partners, which conducts labs and other education related to diversity and inclusion. At first, the name was a serious deterrent. But I kept asking. I went back to him several times and said, “Carl, you really have to do this to help the organization move the dial. I’m learning, and I need you to learn as well.” Finally, he said, “If you bring the consultant here, I’ll get 15 other white male leaders, and we’ll do it together.” And we did just that. He got our executive team and senior vice presidents to go through a three-day residential White Men’s Caucus to understand their role in this space and to discuss the impact of white male privilege and what that looks like. Carl has stated that he learned a lot about gender bias, racial and ethnic bias, unconscious biases and also white male privilege.
From there, I was able to expand the work of transforming the culture of the organization. As part of the educational process, you have to look within yourself to see how all your experiences and knowledge have shaped who you are today and how you see other people. It helps you to really open up and to listen and understand the perspectives of others and how their experiences may be different from yours.
In addition, we have engaged team members at all levels of authority in the organization in a multitude of educational activities to continue our journey and growth. We have Leadership Inclusion Summits, required diversity and inclusion workshops, community programs such as the Leadership Development Initiative (LDI), etc. We have hosted podcasts and web chats that are safe spaces for team members to have facilitated dialogue on topics related to diversity, equity and inclusion. In fact, we had one today where we talked about challenging topics, like systemic racism and the death of George Floyd and how that impacts our team members. We’ve even hosted a “blind spots” CEO Action for the organization so people could understand what their blind spots are. We also took the executive team on a bus tour of Charlotte, visiting areas where our most economically disadvantaged and at-risk community members live. There was no “aubergine” in those areas, and as a result of that tour, we have since opened physician clinics in those areas. Diversity, equity and inclusion are usually on the agenda for our Leader Retreats. In one retreat, we hosted the Pillsbury House Theatre group for a show titled Breaking Ice. This was a fun, customized, professional theater experience that helped our leaders better understand the world view of others and their own biases.
Caulkins: What does “remarkable” mean to you?
Blackmon: It’s patient-centered. So we listen to the voices of our patients. It’s affordable. So we take care of people who cannot afford to pay for their care. And it means you’re going to get the highest quality of care, no matter what. Health equity is about recognizing both the visible and less visible characteristics of diversity of people, understanding their unique needs and providing the best care for each of them.
Caulkins: Tell me about the people who have been impacted by the Hope for Remarkable Team Aubergine Fund. What has struck a chord with you to illustrate the importance of that fund?
Blackmon: I remember one story about a critical care nurse manager whose unit was converted to one conducting testing and treatment of COVID-19. At the same time, she is also the mother of a son who has special needs. She wanted to continue caring for patients and doing her job, but she also wanted to protect her son. Through the fund, we were able to pay for her to stay in a hotel while she served in the COVID unit. As a result, she was able to continue doing the work that she loves while keeping her family safe. That’s why this fund is so important.
The need is real, and we have front-line team members who are still in great need. Our communities, our businesses have not fully recovered from COVID-19, and the same is true for our team members who are at the bedside taking care of our friends and loved ones every single day.
Caulkins: On top of COVID-19, we are now facing another crisis related to social injustice. We’ve seen lots of organizations respond and take action. Tell us about Novant Health’s response.
Blackmon: It takes courage to take a stand as an organization. When Novant Health published our position on Black Lives Matter, that was courageous. We said we exist to save lives, all lives. We said we believe that Black lives matter. We said if society isn’t healthy, no one is healthy. And we said we have zero tolerance for racism, and I think it was very bold and very appropriate that we did that.
Caulkins: What do you feel we can look forward to in 2020?
Blackmon: As hard and sad as all this systemic racism is, it feels like there’s a movement to push us forward, to do more as people. My prayer and my hope is that this movement doesn’t stop. That’s something that keeps me up at night — that we’ll become complacent. People have said to me, “We’re good now. Can we stop?” And I say, “Stop what? When do people stop changing? When does the world stop?” At Novant Health, I know we’re not going to stop, no matter what.
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