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09/17/2018 Emily Moore, Glassdoor

How to Get Hired & Be Successful at MSK

In a competitive labor market, one of the biggest challenges that any company faces is recruiting talent to choose their organization over all others. But that’s one problem that Memorial Sloan Kettering is lucky enough not to face, admits their Senior Vice President and Chief Human Resources Officer Kerry Bessey. “People really want to work here… it’s a pretty easy sell,” she says, laughing. Perhaps it’s not much of a surprise. After all, when your long-term goal is to eliminate cancer, who wouldn’t be on board with that?

But the truth is, a clear and compelling mission is only half of the story of MSK’s success as an organization. The other half is about rallying the team around that mission, and then providing them with all of the tools they need to be successful — something that MSK’s CEO Dr. Craig Thompson has done well enough to earn a spot on Glassdoor’s Highest Rated CEOs list for 2017. And of course, he wouldn’t have been able to do it without an incredible HR leader right by his side.

MSK’s Kerry Bessey spoke with Glassdoor’s Emily Moore recently to discuss how she works with Thompson to make their organization a great place to work, how to hold difficult conversations, and how to ensure that your HR department receives the budget and resources necessary to do a great job — here are a few highlights from their conversation.

Glassdoor: It’s clear that your CEO understands the value of HR, but that’s not always the case. What would your advice be to the folks whose CEO isn’t quite so on board with HR and company culture?

Kerry Bessey: You’re right — Craig deeply cares, [so] it’s not an issue here… I think company culture translates to what makes people want to work some place. If your CEO doesn’t care about your culture it may be that “culture” hasn’t been framed around metrics, metrics such as turnover and engagement.

At the end of the day, the word culture gets batted around a lot. I prefer to think about the elements that make employees want to work someplace and stay some place. Engaging leadership in that discussion is a lot easier than talking about something that sounds amorphous.

Glassdoor: How have you worked with the department heads in your organization to really ensure that Memorial Sloan Kettering is a great place to work?

Kerry Bessey: I think we’re very fortunate and stand somewhat apart from many organizations because people believe so deeply in our mission. When you have that kind of common foundation, people work for more than money. I think they find that they like working with people who share that sense of mission with them. It’s in our DNA and makes employees value being here and makes them want to stay. Having said that, there are, of course, in any organization leaders who either aren’t focused on the employee experience or don’t know how to work with their employees. We focus on giving them both information and tools. Additionally, we try to tie everything that we do to both the mission and our strategy, and how it will support the institution and the work we are trying to do.

Glassdoor: I’m guessing this probably isn’t much of an issue at Memorial Sloan Kettering with how focused the CEO is on the people, but sometimes executives are apprehensive about getting feedback because they’re afraid it might be negative. What you would say to a business leader in that situation?

Kerry Bessey: I think people are going to give you feedback one way or the other, through a variety of mechanisms, whether it’s absenteeism, leaving, or worse than that —resigning on the job and not being engaged. Employees are constantly giving you feedback. If you pay attention to it, you can learn something and do something about it while they’re still here and still engaged. It’s worthwhile to get even bad feedback or negative reviews, if it helps you understand what your employees are feeling and what they’re saying to other people about your company.

Glassdoor: Going off of that question, there are going to be times when you have to have difficult conversations as HR and as leadership. How have you worked with Craig to hold those difficult but necessary conversations with your workforce?

Kerry Bessey: The good news for us is we haven’t had to have too many difficult conversations with our workforce. However, when we have, we err on the side of transparency and give as much information as we can, because people, if they don’t have information, will imagine something or make something up to fill in the gaps, which can be far more negative than the actual facts. Even if you have a negative message, the fact that you are being straightforward and transparent with your employees will be respected.

Glassdoor: How have you worked with your CEO to secure additional budget and resources for the HR department?

Kerry Bessey: It’s all about making a business case and using metrics in whatever business you’re in. I’ve been in tech, and I’ve been in publishing, and I’ve been in healthcare — the fact is that all businesses run on metrics associated with people and the acquisition and use of people in the organization. I think it’s about understanding what metrics really resonate with your leadership team, what metrics drive the business, and understanding how the delivery of quality hires and retention of really good people matters.

Glassdoor: Speaking of the awesome people that you guys have, how do you work to bring them in?

Kerry Bessey: Our secret weapon is our own people who refer people to us constantly. We also incent employees to refer people for hard to hire jobs, and of course we do all the things that every other sophisticated business does. But people really want to work here… it’s a pretty easy sell. I have an easy job. I’m sorry. [Laughs]

Glassdoor: Of course, it’s not just about bringing employees in the door — you also want to keep them engaged and make sure they stick around for the long haul. What do you do to retain those great employees?

Kerry Bessey: There is a very special kind of camaraderie and culture here. One of the things that we do to make sure that that doesn’t change is we listen to employees. We focus on the data we get from employees, both about patient care and about the workplace. And whether it’s informal in terms of focus groups or skip-levels or more formalized through surveys, we really pay attention to the feedback that we get and I think that makes a big difference.

We listen to what is working for them and what isn’t working for them. We try and get some concrete wins on the things that aren’t working for people. We do that on an ongoing basis.

Glassdoor: Beyond the great mission, what do you think it is about Memorial Sloan Kettering that makes it such a unique and special place to work on a day-to-day basis?

Kerry Bessey: It’s an intangible. It’s hard to describe, but people are so focused… we have the advantage of [having] a long-term strategic goal of curing cancer. That is a pretty lofty goal, but we also have the day-to-day opportunity to see patients and families in our environment, and I think everyone is focused on making sure that they are getting the best care and the best support that they can…. unlike the strategic mission of curing cancer, patient care is more tangible and immediate, taking place every day. That combination of an important long-term goal and the short-term reality of caring for patients and their welfare really unites people.

Glassdoor: I imagine it does! When you were originally interested in this role and applying for this position, what was it that convinced you that you had to be a part of this?

Kerry Bessey: I was meeting the people [on] the leadership team. I met a lot of them, including members of the board. I asked them as many questions as they asked me, and one thing that really impressed me was the shared vision they had about where they were going, how they wanted to get there, and what was important. When you are able to see that a leadership team has that much unity of vision, that was very compelling for me.

Glassdoor: This is a bit of a lofty question, but I always like to see where the answer leads: What does leadership mean to you?

Kerry Bessey: Actually, I think it’s pretty simple. I think leadership is the ability to inspire and enable the people that are working in the organization to come together to realize the organization’s mission. It really is creating an environment and support for people doing their best work.

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