How this HR exec built the function from the ground up

Michelle McGovern

Michelle McGovern

Director of human resources and operations

American College of Surgeons


Key HR Challenges: Building an HR function from the ground up for the organization, which had little in the way of HR when McGovern arrived. Lacking succession planning, staff training, applicant tracking, guidelines for recruiting and interviewing or even a basic HR infrastructure, ACS was seriously in need of a complete HR transformation.

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Key HR Accomplishments: Transitioning a 100% paper-based system to a comprehensive integrated platform. Ninety-five percent of HR is now online, including payroll and time keeping, benefits, applicant tracking, new hire enrollment, onboarding, open enrollment, performance reviews and compensation management.


Michelle McGovern, director of human resources and operations at the American College of Surgeons in Chicago, relishes her role as a strategic partner and key member of the leadership team. Partnership lies at the heart of everything she does and has been an integral component of HR’s numerous accomplishments under her leadership.

When McGovern assumed her current position in July 2012, the HR function at ACS was purely transactional. Comprised of one administrative assistant and two temps, the HR team was primarily tasked with handling paperwork and benefits but did little to develop human capital. Over the past eight years, McGovern has transformed the function into a technology-driven strategic partner, hired a seven-person team and spearheaded an array of innovative programs for the organization’s 450 employees.

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“They were looking for someone to come in and roll up their sleeves and not only deliver what they needed in terms of recruiting and training and implementing a time-keeping system, but also to have the vision and experience to be able to see where we could go,” says McGovern. “It was really an opportunity to start at the ground up and help them understand what strategic HR could be and all the other avenues we bring to the organization that they’d never experienced.”

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Immediately upon her arrival, McGovern went on a “listening campaign,” meeting with each division leader and their staff to find out “what was missing.” The answer was basically everything. McGovern got right to work, cherry-picking her team of “rock stars,” creating interview processes and swim lanes, change management and internal processes, and compiling a 20-page interview guide featuring behavioral-based questions. She discovered the organization’s chosen time-keeping vendor wasn’t ready to launch its product, so McGovern partnered with accounting to initiate a “much larger RFP” for full HRIS providers. That resulted in the selection of a comprehensive integrated platform that includes payroll and timekeeping and supports greater manager and staff access. In addition, HR integrated applicant tracking, automated the organization’s new hire enrollment, created onboarding tools and took benefits, open enrollment, performance reviews and compensation management completely online.

Improving Performance

Working with the performance improvement division, McGovern built a continuing education program structured around five pillars:

  • ULearn: All-staff training, including subjects such as emotional intelligence
  • ULive: Health and wellness training, including ergonomics, CPR, stop-the-bleed, financial wellness and retirement preparedness
  • UConnect: Monthly training for managers and supervisors on coaching, performance management, review writing and other relevant topics
  • UImprove: Change management courses, including how to use change management tools and how to map workflow
  • ULead: Strategic content delivered to the organization’s top 35 leaders, taught by GE, the University of Chicago-Loyola and other external experts.

Three years ago, McGovern developed Power of 8, a women’s coaching program, to provide a forum for personal growth and increase networking within the organization. Over the course of eight months, she hosts a monthly lunch with the group and makes herself available for one-on-one coaching in between. So far, three cohorts have completed the program, which Executive Director David Hoyt credits for boosting retention among female employees. Only one participant has left ACS and that was due to relocation, rather than job dissatisfaction. The rest of the women have stayed connected, with some continuing to meet regularly. Many have expanded responsibilities or been promoted.

A year into her tenure at ACS, McGovern saw her own responsibilities expand when leadership set out to evaluate whether the organization needed a chief operating officer. Rather than creating a COO position, the decision was made to split the duties between McGovern and the organization’s Chief Financial Officer Gay Vincent.

Uncharted Waters

With the arrival of COVID-19, McGovern was tasked with quickly shifting a workforce that rarely worked from home to nearly 100% remote work. She developed guidelines for working from home and partnered with IT to ensure employees had the necessary technology and network support. She created a daily email–The Staff Update–held virtual all-staff meetings, created Thankful Thursdays highlighting staff members and compiled a video of employees’ children to celebrate their graduations in a nontraditional way.

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Related: Insights from a CHRO

With recruiting on hold, McGovern directed her two recruiters to serve as “outreach advocates,” touching base with every staff member across the organization to check if they needed anything. Six months later, with no end to COVID in sight, McGovern is working hard to maintain HR’s level of enthusiasm and energy. Regardless of how long the pandemic lasts or what challenges arise in its aftermath, Hoyt is confident ACS has the right person in the CHRO spot to handle whatever comes next.

“Michelle represents the epitome of the human resources professional,” says Hoyt. “She is a role model, a builder, a strategic thinker, and she uses the opportunity and advantage of human capital development to meet the priorities and goals of the organization.”

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Julie Cook Ramirez
Julie Cook Ramirez is a Rockford, Ill.-based journalist and copywriter covering all aspects of human resources. She can be reached at [email protected].