Insights from a CHRO: NCHS’s Peter Adebi

When Peter Adebi joined the HR team at Nemours Children’s Health System as an HR business partner in 2002, the organization had 3,000 employees. It operated one hospital and 30 clinics and specialty locations, seeing about 200,000 unique patient visitors a year and making around $500 million annually.

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Today, the organization couldn’t look more different: It has an employee base of 8,330, two full-service children’s hospitals and more than 90 locations. It treats more than 1.5 million unique patients a year and has a revenue of more than $2 billion annually. Since Adebi started, the trust of Alfred I. duPont, which created the health system, has donated more than $2 billion to support patients who can’t afford care.

The HR team has grown right along with Nemours–jumping from a staff of 30 when Adebi was hired to now more than 75, with Adebi at the helm as CHRO since last summer. In 2012, the Rosen Group awarded the Nemours Team the HR Department of the Year award for its work supporting the growth and evolution of the organization as a strategic business partner. Recently, Nemours won two awards from Chief Learning Officer’s LearningElite for its talent-development work. Adebi himself was honored with the Ed Ball Award from the health system for his leadership in cultivating culture change within his first year of joining the organization.

Throughout the nearly two decades since, Adebi says, he has strived to help associates–what Nemours calls its employees–“maximize their potential,” which has included extensive work around talent development and engagement. The payoff has been visible recently, as employees have demonstrated significant resilience and investment in the organization’s success through the many disruptions caused by the pandemic; for instance, in less than two weeks, employees were able to set up a 100-bed overflow hospital at one of its facilities at the request of the state of Delaware.

HRE recently spoke by video with Adebi about his career journey, contributions to Nemours and lessons already learned through the current crisis that will help inform ongoing HR strategy at the health system.

HRE: How has the current pandemic impacted you both professionally and personally?

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Adebi: Professionally, this is the longest I’ve ever had to work from home. One of the implications of that is that it’s difficult to put an end to your workday, especially in the current environment. I serve on two incident command teams; one of them meets every day and the second group meets twice a week. Because we run a hospital, because we have first responders, it is incumbent on us to make sure those individuals have the support they need and that we’re keeping an eye on what’s going on in our enterprise, almost 24/7. It’s been extremely time-consuming for us.

On a personal note, I actually see a silver lining in the fact that I’m spending more time with my family and my kids. I have a son in college, a senior in high school and a daughter in middle school, all at home, and my wife’s at home. We get to have dinner together and spend more time together, which is a wonderful thing. The opportunity to regroup and reconnect with my kids like we did when they were little is a huge plus.

HRE: What kinds of priority shifts have the HR team at Nemours seen since the pandemic started?

Adebi: The impact on the HR team has been quite significant. We’ve had to modify a lot of our policies and practices to accommodate our new reality. We have many associates working remotely–at least three times the number who were working remotely pre-COVID-19. That meant we’ve had to grant access to individuals who otherwise wouldn’t have access and relax a lot of rules in terms of how we manage performance and track time to accommodate those changes. We’ve also had to modify a lot of policies around associate screening and return-to-work rules.

One of the most significant changes was to our pay policies. We, as an organization, decided we’re going to pay all of our full-time and part-time associates through this crisis. We didn’t put an end date to that, primarily because we don’t want associates going elsewhere to look for a job during this period because we believe we’re going to need them. The crisis is temporary; we’re going to ramp up and will need those individuals when we do. We have about 900 people directly impacted because of stay-at-home orders who are not able to come into the office to work. We set up a redeployment center to redeploy them to other roles where they could support the organization; where we couldn’t accommodate that, we redeployed them to outside partners to help with whatever they needed in their response to the COVID outbreak. As you can imagine, we had to create new codes and modify our policies to ensure we’re paying all of our associates as we should, given the changes we made to our pay policy. It’s meant our team has had to work a little bit differently and spend more time to accommodate those modifications.

HRE: How did you first discover your passion for HR?

Adebi: I was actually a political science major. I always enjoyed working with leaders. Growing up, I had a Bible school right behind my house where pastors and ministers trained. As a kid, I watched as these leaders grew and developed and evolved into very powerful ministers. That was something that stayed with me as I went through college and desired the opportunity to work with people, to support their growth, to support their development and to help them evolve as leaders.

There are parts of HR–talent development, organizational development–that really focus on maximizing the potential that individuals bring to the table. I had the opportunity early in my career to do some of that work. I also took advantage of every chance I got to attend trainings, seminars and conferences to help me develop my capabilities. In 1997, I went to grad school for my master’s degree in HR and that also really helped with my foundation in HR. And the rest, as they say, is history.

HRE: What are one or two of the biggest changes the HR industry as a whole has undergone since you started in the field?

Adebi: The biggest impact is our presence in executive rooms and the impact of HR on the strategy of organizations. It’s very, very clear to me that there are many organizations that would not be as successful as they are today without the input, support, guidance and direction of HR executives. In my own organization, HR is an equal partner to any other executive in the organization. I have the opportunity to influence our strategic direction, to participate in and lead some of that strategic work and to really function at a very high level within the organization. As I look around the country, HR has grown tremendously in terms of having the influence that we should be having, which is to help guide how we are investing in our workforce, how we are maximizing that investment and taking care of people to make sure they continuously give their best. It was not always like that. HR did not always have that voice. HR did not always have that seat at the table. I believe very strongly in many industries we do today.

HRE: How different is the Nemours HR function than when you joined in 2002?

Adebi: When we started, we had a very small HR department, and it was at a time when we were looked at as Personnel or Administration. There’s a big difference between that and how HR functions today in the new HR model, sometimes called the HR business partner model. Back then, HR was much more reactive. When things happened, people came to us to help resolve problems and we responded. It was more of a firefighting approach–all about writing rules and policies. Today, HR is much more proactive, and we’re involved in strategy. We’re seen as a partner and are all about empowering associates. We focus on helping associates maximize their potential.

HRE: What kind of lessons did you take away from leading the change-management efforts associated with the Continuous Improvement Journey?

Adebi: About 10 years ago, Nemours made a very deliberate decision to incorporate the lean methodology into how we work. The emphasis was on process improvement. If you think about Toyota and their lean methodology, that was an example of what we did. It was hugely significant and impacted every facet of our organization. At the time we started, it was very clear we weren’t exactly paying enough attention to the impact on our people; we were improving processes, eliminating waste and all that was going well but, in the process, our people felt like they were being bruised and not being heard or consulted. They felt like we changed some of the work we had been doing, in some instances for decades, without understanding the rationale for why we did the work that way. They felt disrespected and it was starting to create a problem.

Thankfully, it hadn’t permeated every part of the organization so we had the opportunity to be proactive. We helped our associates to understand the rationale for the changes we were making. We included them in the decisions for how to make things better. Even to the frontlines of the organization, we set up meetings with stakeholders and gave associates the opportunity to be involved in conversations about what was going to change. There was a feeling that they actually owned or were starting to own the work itself, and that brought relief to them. That helped them to feel like we were acknowledging what they brought to the table. We celebrated what folks had done in the past but, in the same process, tried to figure out ways of doing things better, of operating more efficiently and improving quality. With all of those different tweaks, we were able to move forward to a better place and with much less pain.

HRE: What has the current pandemic taught you that you plan to bring forward into the HR strategy in the future?

Adebi: One of them is flexibility. Before COVID-19, we had a small number of employees–about 600-700–who worked remotely. Right now, we have about 3,000 employees working remotely. We surveyed our managers about our telecommuters, and 90% said that work was going well. I think that is going to change, quite significantly, the landscape of how we work going forward. I don’t know that we’re going to have all 3,000 people working remotely when this is done, but I think we will have more than double the number we had before. It’s a satisfier for people. It’s a win/win to not be stuck in traffic, to not have to get dressed up, to have flexibility about how you manage your day. It’s, in so many ways, empowering. You have control over your day, setting your schedule and, for a lot of people, that energizes them and they want that challenge. I think that’s something we’re going to pull forward and continue to do more than in the past.

Another thing that was an eye-opener is the powerful way in which our frontline and middle manager leaders stepped up, took the reins and ran with the guidelines and direction we gave them. A whole lot of things had to happen very quickly: The state of Delaware asked us to set up within our facilities an adult overflow hospital because the state was anticipating the adult systems being full at some point. So they asked us to stand up a 100-bed hospital, and that was built in 10 days! Our associates rallied and got everything ready–the beds, the equipment, the electrical supplies. I’ve been at Nemours over 18 years now, and I’ve not seen anything like that before. It was powerful. And it was our frontline leaders and middle managers who got it done. That’s a huge eye-opener. They have a lot more ingenuity than we give them credit for. We’re going to entrust a lot more to them.

HRE: You saw a number of promotions in the last few years; what were some of the challenges in those transitions?

Adebi: I enjoy learning–I read a lot, I watch people, I attend conferences, I have a lot of certifications–but the reality is that every time I have moved to a higher level or different position, there is a whole lot to learn. I seek out mentors within and outside of my organization. I look for educational opportunities to develop myself. I pursue those quite aggressively but it’s not easy to do. But if you have the aspiration, you have to be willing to do what it takes to perform at the highest level when you’re given the opportunity.

It’s really about building relationships. One of the things I have learned in all the roles I have held is that, as a leader, you really cannot do it all by yourself. You have to work through people. One of the things I do quite well is establish relationships across levels. Levels don’t matter to me. It’s important for individuals to be able to communicate freely with you, where there are no barriers and they can trust you and you can be vulnerable. Sometimes, associates look at me like, “Wow, I can’t believe you shared a failure with me,” and yes, I’m human. Doing things that allow me to connect with people has been a factor in my development.

If I were advising someone right now in terms of their growth and development as a leader, I would put relationship-building right up there with technical skills; you have to have them, but you also need to know how to relate to people. You have to treat everyone with respect, prioritize their needs and be mindful of the impact you have on people.

HRE: How do you unwind outside of work?

Adebi: I enjoy walking. Normally, what I do to unwind is traveling. One of the aspects of traveling I really like is that I can still do my walking, but it’s not painful because it’s all new scenery, new places I don’t know. I literally could get lost and walk tens of miles and not realize it. I enjoy photography and cooking, a lot of which I’m doing right now–though it might not be the best for my health, but this is temporary. Faith is also important to me. I grew up that way, and it helps me stay grounded and deal with challenges. We all have to take care of ourselves spiritually, physically, mentally and emotionally.

HRE: What advice would you have for someone just entering HR today?

Adebi: Take advantage of the many resources that are available to develop yourself. I would cite the Society for Human Resource Management. They have many offerings and certification programs. Go get certified and expose yourself to the various facets of HR; then, you can choose if you want to focus on one area versus another or be a generalist. There are many conferences and development opportunities in the HR space. Take advantage of them. The more you do those things that help to develop your skills, the better positioned you are to take advantage of opportunities that emerge. Put your head in the game and do everything you can to put yourself in the best position to excel.

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Jen Colletta
Jen Colletta is managing editor at HRE. She earned bachelor's and master's degrees in writing from La Salle University in Philadelphia and spent 10 years as a newspaper reporter and editor before joining HRE. She can be reached at [email protected].