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John Petrov - CHRO at CHI Saint Joseph

John Petrov joins the podcast to share his perspective as an expert health system CHRO. John has an incredibly diverse background as well as a nuanced perspective on supporting his employees. I hope you enjoy this episode!

Brennie: Awesome. Well, John, thank you for joining. The CHRO of St. Joseph Health Group. I'd love to learn more about how you arrived there. We were talking a little bit and you probably have the most interesting background of anyone who I've talked with. So, how did you arrive in this current role?

John: Thank you. Well, I started my career as a headhunter in New York City; went into corporate HR with Verizon Wireless for a couple of years. I'm originally from New York but relocated from the Northeast. Eventually, ended up in Houston, Texas. And I was with Verizon there, starting the new business group called Wireless Data Tech Support.

While I loved HR and was passionate about the work that I did, I wanted to work and be connected to an organization with greater purpose. And I don't know how familiar, Brennie, you are with Houston, but Houston has, within a couple of mile radius, several of the largest medical centers and hospitals in the country. It's actually called the medical center. 

So my office was adjacent to the medical center and I got an itch to go into healthcare. I applied for a couple of opportunities and all of them rejected me, this going back a decade or so ago. That was because I didn't have healthcare experience. Being that I started my career as a recruiter, I picked up the phone, I called a number of the CHROs, Methodist Hospital Health System, MD Anderson, Memorial Hermann, and introduced myself and tried to make myself a known commodity in the market that I was interested in going into healthcare.

They all said the same thing, “You need to get experience first.” One day I got a phone call from a headhunter out of Chicago for a job as the town acquisition leader for the Jackson health system at Jackson Memorial Hospital out of Miami, Florida. I interviewed, got the job, and lo and behold, that was my entry into healthcare. Fast forward a couple of years, I worked for a couple of different health systems. I actually got re-recruited back to Houston.

It was ironic, but several of the people that had rejected me a couple of years beforehand were now calling me saying, “Hey, John, we've got an HR director job, will you come interview with us?” And I went, I interviewed, and I ended up taking a position with HCA, which is Hospital Corporation of America, over two hospitals on the Northeast and Southeast side of Houston. And that was my ticket to continue my career progression. 

I wound up going to West Virginia shortly after that to be a CHRO for a community-based hospital called Fairmont Regional Medical Center. And then I actually went into higher Ed for about six years and went to the University System of Maryland and their global campus out of Maryland, and got to travel around the world. I started as the number two person there, an associate VP of HR over com benefits, HR systems, started a new HR service center, and also had responsibility for town acquisition.

Within a year, my boss parted ways and I was promoted to be the CHRO. I did that for the remaining five years. Fast forward to today, my boss ended up retiring toward the end of my career with the University of Maryland and I wanted to go back into healthcare actually. I had that itch again. Similar to healthcare being very purposeful work; higher Ed is very similar. You're making a difference in people's lives. In fact, I teach on the side. I'm an adjunct professor for HR management courses.

Nevertheless, I had served six years at the university, wanted to get back into healthcare, and the opportunity presented itself here in Kentucky with CHI St. Joseph Health. I interviewed, got the job, and three years later, here I am talking with you.

Brennie: I didn't realize that you had been a CHRO so many times before. Right now, you're an incredible young CHRO, but you had already had that role multiple times before. What is the difference now at St. Joseph versus where you were in the past?

John: Well, the university was very similar in size and scale and complexity because we had 7,000 employees across the world. The University System of Maryland global campus is actually the preferred partner to the US department of defense and they have micro-site campuses at all the military installations throughout Europe, Middle East, and Asia. So, there was a lot of complexity with that role.

Coming back to healthcare and being with CHI St. Joseph Health, there's that complexity as well. We have eight hospitals across the Commonwealth. We serve, primarily, a rural population; we’re a rural health care system. And one of the biggest challenges within rural health care is access to care. And Kentucky, from a health perspective, unfortunately, we have a patient demographic and population that is amongst the unhealthiest, generally speaking, in the nation when you think about heart disease, cancer, diabetes, things of that nature.

So, the work that I do, this job, and the team that I work with, we do incredible work each and every day to improve the health status and lives of the communities that we serve. In addition, I have to work and do the same for our employees. We do a lot of things around employee health and wellness because our employees could lead or live better and healthier lives as well.

Our people are from Kentucky. They live here, they work here, and sometimes some of the social detriments to health that are experienced within our communities at large can spill over to our employees as well. So, just being part of this amazing, we call it a ministry, just to let you know, Brennie, and that's because of our faith-based affiliation with the Catholic Church. So our health system, our health ministry really works hard to make a positive difference in the lives of others. And earlier we spoke, that really aligns with my personal mission and vision and values.

Brennie: It seems that it's this multi-layered mission as well, where you support the people who are giving the medical treatment to the people who need it most. But then you talked about promoting wellness to those employees. What are some of the ways that you think about physical wellness, but also just wholesome wellness as well for employees? How do you help them with that? 

John: Well, some things from a physical perspective, I would venture to say an emphasis on preventive maintenance of the employee. Making sure that on an ongoing regular basis or annual basis, our employees are getting appropriate screenings — that we're checking their blood sugar levels or they are. I don't go and check it, but they work with their medical provider.

We want to ensure that the health plan is set up in a way that really accommodates and facilitates a relatively easy process to ensure that the employees and their families have access to high-quality care. And making sure that they're well aware of some of the health disparities and challenges that we face in our society and they're taking care of themselves.

The other thing that we have to put in perspective, and I'm going to talk about COVID-19 and the pandemic has been burning. Over the past several months, we have all been working extremely hard. A lot of us, especially the frontline caregivers, our nurses, our respiratory therapists, the folks that support them, our environmental service workers, also known as housekeepers are putting in long hours to take care of our patients, to take care of our employees.

We have implemented some training to help them — that's with our national learning and organizational development team — to help them work through some of those complexities and to have emotional awareness, to learn how to navigate with agility and appropriate coping skills for all the stressors that are coming at us from different directions. Another one would be childcare, for example. 

At the beginning or onset of the pandemic, we worked with a number of community-based organizations, in Lexington for example, the YMCA, to make sure that we had afforded our employees access to childcare, which we highly subsidized. We picked up the lion's share of the costs. We also had a partner with our state government because, initially, our governor shut down all of their child care facilities across the state.

Well, that created a negative impact on the frontline caregivers and any type of first responders. So people who work with EMS, the ambulances, people who work within the community to keep us all safe. There was a domino effect. So we stepped up and stepped in to say, “Hey, let's partner with our competition.” We have a Baptist health system here across the state. The University of Kentucky has a hospital in Lexington.

So I reached out and partnered with the CHROs over our two competitors and partnering with YMCA in the rural setting, some of the other childcare providers, and the state to get an exemption to allow them to operate so our people could come to work. We didn't want to have them where they couldn't come to work because they didn't have affordable or accessible childcare. 

Some other things: we utilized an online tool called Virgin Pulse. I don't know if you've heard of it, but it's a wellness tool or wellness app that we subscribe to as a company, that helps employees regulate, manage their water intake, the number of steps they take, their diet, eating habits. And if they take preventative screenings, they will get additional dollars contributed to their healthcare spending account or their flexible spending account. An example of a preventive screening could be a colonoscopy or skincare exam. So those are a couple of different examples of things that we're doing to help promote wellness amongst our employee population. 

Brennie: It sounds like you guys have been super creative and scrappy. Like you're saying, teaming up with the CHROs of your competitors, that's like a very on-the-fly decision, I'm sure. Are there any other new initiatives that have popped up as a result of the COVID world?

John: That one was very creative. And I would say I don't want to give myself all the credit because I may have opened the door to that dialogue, but they equally entertained it and we formed a partnership. Our system could have gone at it alone, but I think there is power in numbers and that helped us from a state perspective.

We have a difficult time recruiting nurses in Kentucky is another initiative. So we just partnered, and this goes beyond just us, Baptist, and UK, but LifePoint Hospitals have a number of hospitals throughout Kentucky, and there's a number of small rural hospitals that are independent. And we've all recently come together in partnership with the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce to join-venture a process program called Talent Pipeline Management. We're going to work together as a collective group to identify and hopefully bring in nurses from outside the state. 

Kentucky is a compact state from a licensure perspective. I don't know if you're familiar with that, but a number of states across the country have a reciprocity agreement where if you're a licensed nurse in Kentucky, you could go practice in their states without having to fill out a new application or get that state's specific license. So we've got that reciprocity agreement.

So we only have a certain number of nurses that are graduating within our state. We know what the numbers look like. We can do the trend analysis. We've got so many experienced nurses within our state. And Kentucky, given the health disparities of the populations and communities we serve, we need more nurses as an example. So we've come together, we’ve thought outside the box, and we're going to work on attracting nurses from other States. 

Brennie: Well, you certainly have the most nuanced perspective of anyone who I've talked to in the healthcare space of sourcing talent, all these things that we need. It'd be good to hear; what are the perks and benefits that employees get even the ones that you were offering before COVID? 

John: I think we paid, relatively speaking, competitively. From a benefits perspective, we have a lot to offer; everything that you could think of from a Fortune 100 or a Fortune 500 company. We may be a not-for-profit, but we compete with for-profit entities and public entities. So we must be competitive in our ability to attract and retain talent.

So our time-off benefits are very lucrative. We work very hard to ensure that we offer our staff the convenience of flexible scheduling and flexible options. They could work what we call per diem, which is occasionally, maybe one or two days a week. We have part-time options, full-time options, days, afternoons, overnight.

Making sure that we have a diverse slate of opportunities for our candidates is very important for us to attract the right talent. Some of the wellness options; we have an employee assistance program. We have adoption assistance. We just nationally implemented an incentive to aid with childcare and dependent care. We're leveraging — they’re a national organization that provides just-in-time assistance with backup daycare, childcare, adult care if you have a grandparent or a parent that you're taking care of that's elderly and they're not in a situation where they can be alone at home.

We're thinking outside the box to make sure that we're covering as many different scenarios for our employees to give them peace of mind. Again, we need people here. Our community needs people at the hospital, at the bedside. So we want to help eliminate those roadblocks and barriers that they may experience in their personal life.

And I want to be frank with you, up until the pandemic, I didn't think or do much, if anything, about childcare for my employees. Now it's like the top of mind. It's a focal point and it's a priority for us. And that's just an example of how my role and that of my peers across the country changes and evolves even in the spur of the moment.

Brennie:  It sounds like you guys have adopted very quickly. I'm curious to learn: has there been any increase in interest amongst employees for more financial wellness perks? Has that been a result of COVID for you guys? 

John: I’m starting to hear some conversations around that. We offer, I believe, generous retirement benefits. We’ve got a competitive match for our 401(k) For some of our highly compensated employees, we offer a 457(b) option for retirement. We do promote savings and things of that nature.

We're just now working with one of our vendors to provide information sessions around financial stewardship and wellness for our employees. So I would say, Brennie, that's something that is just now, for us, we're starting to hear about it more and we're starting to create a response to those questions and needs from our employees.

Brennie: Got it. It'd be good to learn more about you personally. You have this wildly vast background. You've worked in many different States — IT, recruiting, healthcare, higher education. What are some of your favorite career highlights? 

John: One of the best was when I was at Bayshore in East Houston Regional Medical Center out of Houston. We were a turnaround situation back in the day. The two hospitals merged and created a one-hospital-two-campus model. And we went through a major restructuring.

Houston was like the bread and butter. Everybody looked to the medical center, Memorial Hermann, and MD Anderson as the best in class places for care. And even my CEO, initially, was a naysayer to this, but within my second year there, we were recognized as the best place to work in Houston. And you're talking about an environment that had gone through a significant change in the 15 months leading up to that award. I thought that that was incredible. 

Another highlight would be my time at Fairmont Regional Medical Center. When I arrived, we had about seven days' cash on hand. The hospital was at a pivotal point in its juncture where it was about to claim bankruptcy. And I had to serve as the chief negotiator with Service Employees International Union; one of the largest and strongest national unions for nurses.

In fact, Fairmont was one of the first hospitals where they organized nurses some 40 years ago. And I had to come in and negotiate significant savings for the hospital or concessions for the union and for the employee. That's not a very popular thing to do being a new CHRO at the hospital, nevertheless, we came together. We were very collaborative and creative and we generated $2.5 million in savings through contract negotiations.

And with the union really, instead of having management-labor relations adversarial relationship, we really became partners. We were working toward a common goal and a common purpose, which was to keep the hospital in business, up and running to serve the community.

At that time, it would have been a 40-minute drive, God forbid if somebody in Fairmont had a heart attack. If Fairmont Regional Medical Center didn't exist, it would be about an hour for them to go to another hospital while having a heart attack, you don't have 40 minutes. Mind you, you don't have 20 minutes to get the care that you need. So those were two very positive, impactful moments in my career.

Brennie: Amazing. This is so interesting. Thank you for sharing. I'm curious to know, what's something that you're really looking forward to in the next year? Are there any initiatives that you have going on at St. Joseph or anything that you're just excited about that's going on? 

John: Well, we've got a lot of stuff that we're doing. We recently had a very successful campaign, albeit during COVID. Actually, we ended it at the middle point when the COVID pandemic surfaced, which was the "100 Nurses in 100 Days" hiring campaign. And we used the mantra “Called to Serve.” We believe that we are called to serve in our ministry, and we had great success. By the 86th day, we had 100 nurses hired. We're getting ready to launch "100 nurses in 100 days 2.0" in January. I'm very excited to see what that has to offer.

The other thing that I'm excited about is under CommonSpirit Health, which is our parent entity; there is a huge national investment underway for employee and leadership development. And I'm going to emphasize leadership development for a moment because that's something that has historically been lacking on the Catholic health initiative side of our former parent entity. And it's refreshing to know that the new health system, our parent entity is really committed and focused on developing our people and especially our leaders. 

I believe, and my success throughout my career has never been single-handed. It's not just attributed to John; it has been the collective efforts of the teams with which I have had the honor and privilege to serve as their leader. Make no mistake, I may be the boss per se, but I also take a different perspective.

I believe in servant leadership and inspirational leadership to the extent that I may be the leader of the group, but they're my customer, is also my approach. And that’s been the approach with my team and the employees, and the leaders that we support and serve. They are our customers. It's like HR is the internal customer service department. And when you have that perspective and natural approach to doing work, then you can feel good about the work that you do, and more often than not, you'll produce positive outcomes.

Brennie: That framework is really unique. Has that just been something that you've developed through your experience or is it something that you've learned from a mentor? How did you formulate that framework? 

John: The customer service thing, I think that's from my humble beginnings. I worked as a teenager in the grocery store business, bagging groceries, and I became a cashier. And then in the first part of my career, I was a headhunter. I was a recruiter and recruitment sometimes can be a thankless professional business because you can be seen as only as good as your last hire. So you have to constantly stay ahead of the pack.

There's a lot of competition. There’s a lot of work. You have to roll up your sleeves. And I think that I've had humble beginnings. Now, throughout my career, I have been blessed to have many coaches and mentors that have helped to form and cultivate and guide me in the work that I do and the skills and experiences that I bring to the table.

I believe in being passionate and being bold. I've definitely challenged the status quo. I think that's very important, especially when you think about diversity, inclusion, equity, and access today. Diversity and inclusion have been historically symbolic things, but now we're focusing more so on equity and access, which I think takes D&I to a whole new level.

I think organically and naturally, I've always done that. I can speak to multiple individuals who have worked with me and for me that today are chief people or chief HR officers that are women, women of color, just different backgrounds and perspectives that, by being a good leader and giving them access and opportunity, that has helped them to rise on the corporate ladder well and to grow in their career as well.

Brennie: This is something that we're thinking about as well. We're putting 1% of our equity, time, and product all towards that focus on the D&I plan. We're very excited about that. And also with our product serving people with lower incomes, typically, also hoping to add value there.

John: That's important because the world that we live in is not getting any cheaper. It's getting more expensive. A prime example is with the unfortunate events and the fires that are taking place on the West Coast, the price of lumber is skyrocketing.

I’m a board member for the Kentucky Habitat for Humanity. I've worked with habitat throughout my career and over a good number of years. And one of our main objectives is to build affordable housing for those within our community that would not otherwise have access to or afford it.

And the cost of lumber, which is the main ingredient, if you will, to building a house it's skyrocketing right now. So that's one of the anomalies. The work that you and your organization are doing to help people understand the importance of saving and especially to have it for a rainy day or to have it to one day buy a home of their own is so important. And that also helps to form opportunity and to improve our society at large. And I'll give you one example. 

So a young lady, I had recruited her; she went to school with me. I was temporarily with Verizon in Tennessee Nashville for a period of time earlier on in my career with them. And I was going to school. I didn't get my bachelor's till later in life and the same thing with my master's degree. So I was taking some classes there and I met a young African-American female; a single mom, two girls.

She was working part-time, making $10 an hour for another company. But she had just a fantastic attitude, a hunger, a desire to learn. She was going to school to get her bachelor's degree in HR AND organizational development. I had an opportunity come available for an HR coordinator. First level, frontline HR job, but it was full time, paid $15 an hour, and had great benefits, 401(k), all that fun stuff. So I hired her.

Well, she landed up doing well as I anticipated. I go in and developed, coached, and mentored her. She got promoted to be a recruiter. Later on, she got promoted to be a business partner. I eventually went to Texas. I went to Texas with Verizon, and then I wound up getting recruited into healthcare. And I went to Jackson Health System in Miami. But then I got recruited back to Houston.

When I got recruited back to Houston, I ended up hiring her to be my employee relations manager. And here it is a single woman with two children, she moves from Nashville to Texas. To make a long story short, just last year, she sent me a text message and I could see a partial hand, presumably her hand, with a set of keys. And to be honest with you, it didn't resonate with me. I didn't know what she was doing.

Her name is Latasha. I'm like, “Latasha, what's up with this?” And she said, "John, these are the keys to our new house.” This is the first time anyone in her family has owned their own. And by the way, I supported her and encouraged her to pursue advanced study. She got her bachelor's, she got her master's. First in her family to get a bachelor's. First in her family to get a master's degree. First in her family to own a home. Think about the impact that has on the two beautiful daughters, which by the way, are both enrolled in college. So that is something that makes what I do so worthwhile.

Brennie: The mission runs so deep. It's not just where you work and the industry that you choose to work in, but also with other people that you come into contact with it seems.

John: That's right. Everybody we touch, we have to make a positive difference. Be kind, be generous, listen, and just help give people opportunities. 

Brennie: Amen. John, I appreciate you. Thank you so much for coming on and sharing all of your insight. It was fascinating. 

John: You're welcome. And I wish you and your organization much success. 

Brennie: Thank you.

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