First Person Conversation: How Community Health Network’s Marketing and HR Leaders Forge a Meaningful Relationship

“We check in with each other on topics as they arise rather than waiting for a recurring meeting.” That’s Michelle Mahaffey, Executive Vice President and Chief Human Resources Officer at Community Health Network, based in Indianapolis, Indiana. First Person Advisors had a recent opportunity to interview Michelle and Al Larsen, Community’s Vice President of Marketing and Communications, about their experiences at the intersection of marketing and human resources in a large and complex organization. Michelle and Al shared insights into their approach to people strategy and brand strategy and why the two are so interdependent. We discussed how they share information, how they stay connected and how the organization has navigated the COVID-19 global pandemic together.

What’s the benefit of having a well-connected Human Resources and Marketing team?

Al Larsen: The work of the human resources department threads through every fabric of the organization and affects every person working there. We’ve all heard the saying, “a rising tide lifts all boats,” meaning everyone benefits when things go well for or within the organization.

HR plays a huge role in determining whether the organizational tide rises — or falls, and marketing plays a huge role in either amplifying the rise or buffering the fall through its presentation of HR’s work and through its engagement with current and prospective employees.

Being well-connected and at the same table each day – not just in arbitrary moments – allows both functions to align strategies and share insights to stay on course together.

Michelle Mahaffey: The Marketing and Communications department, by its nature, is connected to everything happening in and around the organization. Community Health Network, in particular, does an outstanding job of keeping its employees and members of the surrounding communities informed about who we are, what we are up to, and how everyone can get involved. Therefore, it is always in HR’s best interest to invite Marketing and Communications to the HR table on a regular basis to be involved in setting strategy and planning execution. Not only does this alignment ensure that HR’s programs, actions and opportunities are clearly communicated, but it creates a true partnership whereby the two functions work together strategically and proactively.

How does an effective people strategy affect your brand?

AL: Any brand, including ours, thrives or flounders based on people – your own people and those you serve as patients or customers. An effective people strategy allows a brand to keep its best people, attract the best talent and ultimately create exceptional, distinguishable experiences for its patients or customers. People are the greatest resource of any brand and you can’t take risk wasting the power of those resources.

MM: I love it when companies announce publicly that their employees are their most valuable asset. In the healthcare industry, this could not be truer. Our employees embody our brand. Not only do they wear our logo on their badges, scrubs, t-shirts and masks, but they model our values in every interaction they have with patients as well as family and friends. An effective people strategy ensures that our employees know that they are our most important asset, and it supports the attraction, motivation and retention of the very best people who represent our brand everywhere they go.

What is the responsibility of the Human Resources team to Marketing?

MM: Human Resources must be proactive and consistent in engaging Marketing and Communications in all strategy and planning activities. HR must invite its Marketing and Communications partners “into the kitchen” to experience and contribute to the development of HR programs and initiatives. HR gets more visibility, therefore more utilization and benefit when employees are tuned in to our message.

What is the responsibility of the Marketing team to Human Resources?

AL: The marketing team must come through in a couple key areas. One, it needs to help HR communicate its efforts to the audience in ways that are simple to understand and address the consumer question of “what does this mean to me?” Marketing must also harvest insights from the consumer, internally or externally, and bring that intel back to HR in real time to help shape future HR strategies and actions.

How do you work together to ensure lines aren’t being blurred among your teams?

AL: In our case, and perhaps it’s a function of the maturity of our organization, we rarely encounter this issue. Our marketing team respects the space in which HR does its work and vice versa. For us, they are very different spaces, and we understand how to work well together. I believe it’s also very helpful that we have a marketing team member basically embedded within our HR team, so we never lose vision into the work they are doing, and they are never at a loss for support.

MM: Specific to Al and me, we check in with each other on topics as they arise rather than waiting for a recurring meeting. In addition, the HR leadership team includes members of Al’s staff in every bi-weekly team meeting, just to keep them in the loop on our work. By staying in contact and keeping each other apprised of initiatives, surprises and changes in opinion, HR and Marketing are able to synchronize and stay on the same page.

How do you work together to influence others in leadership as you seek to drive employee engagement?

AL: I think this goes back to creating and nurturing the people strategy through insights. What is the market telling us? What are our own people telling us? What does the data show? Employee engagement is the job of every single person in an organization. Leaders, yes, but not just leaders. Employees must play an active role in engagement, too. It’s a cycle of continuous feedback and continuous improvement.

I think having a great connection between Michelle and I sends a clear message to other leaders that achieving a high level of employee engagement is, indeed, a goal and a significant influencer of our organizational success.

MM: The relationship between Human Resources and Marketing is critical in influencing leadership in many regards, particularly when it comes to driving employee engagement. HR can’t exist in a silo – it’s people that drive our business, so I think leadership sees that relationship between HR and marketing as essential and one worthy of replicating in other areas. Where is communication more critical than in healthcare?

For a reader who’s leading one of these functions and has zero alliance to the other – what’s the first step?

AL: Recognize it and then start building the relationship. Speaking from the marketing side – if that is your perspective – know that you have value and support to offer to your HR partner. And, who is going to turn that down? No one. You can become very powerful by working together and harnessing that collective power can make a meaningful impact on your entire organization.

MM: Invite them in! We are all on the same team, and we are all marching in the same direction. We can only make each other better by keeping the doors open, sharing information and inviting opinions. I strongly recommend prioritizing relationship, building at the individual level as well as at the team level. Invite leaders from other functions to attend your department’s leadership team meetings on a regular basis . . . not because they are on the agenda as presenters, but so they can listen and learn about your team, your team’s thinking, your department’s strategies. And, make sure they know their voices are welcome and valued.

As part of one of the largest healthcare organizations in the state – how did your teams work together to care for each other, frontline workers and patients through the height of the COVID-19 global pandemic?

AL: We extend to each other, and to one and all, an extraordinary amount of grace, empathy, understanding and compassion. These are challenging professional times, but also difficult personal times for all of us. It’s amazing how human beings can bond around a common experience. We may be different in all kinds of ways, but COVID-19 has given us all something around which we can lock arms and become one.

MM: I joined Community Health Network in the midst of the pandemic, May of 2020, and was uncertain what I would find. I knew Community by its reputation for having a caring culture and for delivering exceptional care, but I was unsure what I would find as an employee, as the pandemic was challenging all organizations to their core.

Less than a week into my tenure, I was massively impressed by the compassion each employee had for every other employee and by the level of coordination that existed between and among every function within the network. It appeared to me as if Community Health Network had either been through this before or had practiced for it repeatedly. Cross-functional teams met regularly, sometimes more than once a day, to ensure everyone had the latest information. Seeing these true partnerships across functions not only reinforced my decision to join Community Health Network, but it made me even more excited to come to work each day.

Are you or someone you know working at the intersection of HR and Marketing? Let’s talk! Reach out to me or send me a note on LinkedIn.

Written by Amos Haffner, VP of Communications and Marketing. Feel free to drop him a note or reach out on LinkedIn.