What this healthcare org CHRO learned as a new hire during COVID

VillageMD's Traci Dunn shares insights from her first month on the job and a career of DEI-focused work.
By: | April 14, 2021 • 6 min read

Traci Dunn has had the opportunity to work across a number of industries: from her time as an HR manager at Four Seasons Hotel more than 25 years ago to her work at manufacturing organization The Timken Co. to her most recent position leading diversity, equity, inclusion and culture efforts at McKesson, the nation’s largest distributor of wholesale medical supplies and equipment. Throughout her career, Dunn says, she’s learned that she is motivated by mission-oriented work—and that’s precisely what drew her to VillageMD.

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The organization, founded in 2013, provides primary healthcare at clinics, Walgreens sites and through at-home and virtual visits.

“I was truly excited about the whole value-based care model and our focus to drive better health outcomes for our patients,” says Dunn, who took on the dual role of CHRO and head of DEI last month. The marriage of those two positions is a natural one for Dunn, who has also held DEI-focused roles at Accenture, Compass Group and Huntingdon National Bank.

Dunn recently spoke with HRE about DEI goals and parenting through the pandemic.

HRE: How has the remote onboarding experience been?

Traci Dunn

Dunn: I’m definitely drinking from the fire hose, that’s for sure. I have really been impressed with our talent acquisition team and how they’ve taken steps to truly personalize the experience: from a gift box I received at home before I started that had branded items and some cool Village swag to a DoorDash credit for my first day to order lunch during the Zoom orientation. That those things were personalized really made me feel connected.

HRE: Your title also includes head of DEI. What’s your first priority in that area?

Dunn: At this stage in our journey at VillageMD, it’s truly important to me to fully integrate diversity, equity and inclusion into all of our talent processes. The mistake I see a lot of companies make is operating this work as a silo, a separate initiative. To make it truly systemic, it has to be integrated. This way, we can stimulate and address opportunities to recruit, develop, retain and advance talent across all dimensions of diversity. I want to focus on breaking down any silos and ensuring an inclusion lens as we work to build out talent philosophy and strategy.

HRE: Your focus has been in the DEI space for most of your career. With that as context, are you optimistic about the heightened corporate focus on the issue in the last year?

Dunn: I truly can’t stay away from DEI work. Even though I’ve led multiple aspects of HR throughout my career, I will always be a DEI practitioner at heart. The pandemic, the uprising against racial injustice, all of those things have combined to truly create an urgency for corporate leaders to look at and focus on DEI. In a lot of cases, they’ve recalibrated their focus on this work. Companies have begun to recognize that inequities are embedded deep in the systems in society and it’s demanding a sustained response. I feel like our society is at a point now where we’re demanding that consistent and sustained response [from employers].

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The other thing I’m really excited about is seeing the role of the chief diversity officer being more of a strategic business leader. We’ve seen the role move from being buried away as part of HR to being part of the C-level, reporting to the CEO. DEI leaders shouldn’t just be invited to the conversation when there’s an issue but rather should be part of all leadership and business discussions to bring that lens into the company’s decision-making. We also need to ensure more diversity on boards. Through my experience, I’ve seen that that ensures the [DEI] work remains a board issue and not just a management issue.

HRE: What role does VillageMD’s talent strategy play when it comes to overall business objectives?

Dunn: One of my biggest priorities has been getting really crisp on our talent philosophy and how we manage talent to achieve our business strategy. We have a unique model of care at VillageMD and that can only be realized through people creating experiences for patients day-to-day. We can’t achieve that success without organizational capabilities. So, a big part of my discovery phase I’m in right now is getting out into the market. I want to experience firsthand what is required to run the business and that can truly enable me to connect that talent strategy to those business objectives.

Learn more at “How Benefits Can Address Racial Inequity,” a panel discussion taking place during the free, virtual Health & Benefits Conference, May 11-13. Register here.

HRE: Looking back on your HR career, how do you think the role of the HR leader itself has evolved during your time in the field?

Dunn: I’ve been in HR my entire career and I can remember when the Personnel Office was deep in the basement of the building and really just focused on conducting transactions. We’ve gone from being order-takers to strategic decision-makers. We’re much more influential, embracing data to drive decisions, able to lead decisions around talent and total rewards—truly being a business partner. The other thing I’ve observed as a driver of this evolution of the HR leader is the fact that people don’t stay at their companies their entire careers anymore. There’s a greater demand to get the best out of people during the time you have them. It’s a different mindset for HR professionals, and we have to focus more on shortening time to productivity and enabling people to be successful and add value during their time with us.

HRE: What are one or two lessons you wish you had known about finding success in HR when you started out?

Dunn: The first thing is realizing that the career ladder isn’t the only option; career lattices can truly prepare you for success. Being more focused on the skills I needed to develop versus progressive titles on a business card was a key learning. Another is to remember not to lose sight of those who lift you up on your climb. I’ve personally experienced significant losses throughout my career and my biggest regret was not being intentional about my focus on what I like to call “the big rocks.” Imagine you have a glass vase in front of you with a bunch of big rocks and they symbolize the people and things that mean most in your life. The pebbles and the sludge of work will always be there in every role, but if you focus on putting the pebbles and the sludge in your vase first, the big rocks won’t fit. So, you have to commit to putting the big rocks in first—your family, your self-care, mental health, friends, passions. You’ll be amazed that the pebbles will always find their way around the big rocks. I learned that the hard way but when you can truly figure out how to integrate work and life early on, that can make all the difference.

HRE: If you hadn’t entered HR, where do you think your career would have taken you?

Dunn: I was an Army brat and after my dad retired, he became a middle school science teacher. I have such fond memories of helping him set up his classroom every fall and helping grade papers and making lessons. I think I would have been in some type of professor role that would enable me to help young people reach their greatest potential.

HRE: Outside of work, what are you passionate about?

Dunn: Well, I am the single mom of a 5-year-old little boy, so outside of work my time is spent mostly creating experiences for him. One of the positives of the pandemic and homeschooling, if I can even say that, was the opportunity to witness my son’s intellectual curiosity firsthand. We became very passionate about exploring and learning from nature; I now have an all-access pass to all the state parks in Texas. We took an RV out last summer and explored as many state parks as possible. He’s also one of those kids who loves PBS’ Wild Kratts, so we’re always on some type of “creature adventure,” as he calls them.

Read more Insights from a CHRO.

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 hreletters@lrp.com.