Sheila O’Brien
"We have to reimagine the engagement with employees, with physicians, with everybody," says Sheila O'Brien, UHN's new Executive Vice President of People, Culture and Community." (Photo: Courtesy Sheila O'​Brien)

Sheila O'Brien has more than 30 years experience as a corporate director and business consultant specializing in workforce and leadership capacity. Her career, spent largely in the oil and gas, pipeline and petrochemical sectors in Canada and internationally, has held executive positions in the areas of human resources, investor relations, public affairs and government relations. Much of her volunteer service has been in the areas of women's issues, human rights, education and health and welfare, and in 1999 she was invested as a Member of the Order of Canada, the country's highest civilian honour, and in 2012 she was awarded The Diamond Jubilee Medal for significant contributions to Canada.

As UHN's new Executive Vice President of People, Culture and Community, Sheila recently sat down with UHN News to discuss her role and priorities. What follows is an edited version of the virtual conversation.

Q: Why UHN and why now?

A: "I'm delighted and very surprised to be here. I began in November, at Kevin's request, a study on the capacity and efficacy of Human Resources (HR) at UHN. It was wonderful. I did over 70 interviews across the organization, the majority of them in HR, and, in the course of those conversations, I fell in love with the place. I came to understand what an extraordinary place it is and what extraordinary and terrific people there are. The alignment between the values that I saw people exhibiting when we had our conversations and my values was 100 per cent, and you don't find that very often. The intent was to do the study, write a position profile for the new leader and help Kevin in the recruiting process. I finished the work, looked at the strengths and weaknesses and the opportunities and saw this is a wonderful opportunity to make a major impact in an important institution. Kevin and I started talking about whether there was a possibility that I could do it. You could have knocked me over with a feather at the first thought of this. But, the more I thought about it, the more I saw it was an opportunity I couldn't look away from. I want to work in healthcare now. I can't give people vaccines and I can't do groundbreaking research, but if there's a small way I can help UHN do the really important work it's doing, I want to do that."

Q: Aside from being in healthcare, what else excites you about the role?

A: "There's an opportunity to create something really special and meaningful at UHN. The truth is, while it's a healthcare institution, all of the leverage, all of the opportunity, is predicated on the quality and the experience of the people. And, right at this moment, we don't have systems and processes universally that allow people to do their very best work. Our HR resources, policies and systems for the most part have not kept up with the evolution of the organization. We have a leading edge institution, with leading edge medical, research and education practices, and lagging HR practices and systems. All of the systems fit together – recruitment, training, workforce planning, quality of work-life balance – all of that is of a piece, so you can't disaggregate them. We can change all that, so that's the appeal."

Q: Where do you start?

A: "It's really about creating the framework. So, what does it mean to be a leader at UHN? What does it mean to work here? Once we determine what that is, then what are the tools we need to create? Ultimately, we want to elevate all of our people practices so that they match the quality of the clinical, research and education work we do at UHN."

Q: What's the biggest challenge?

A: "The system we have now was designed quite a long time ago, for the world at that time. That world has changed – 44 per cent of our employees are millennials; a large portion of our employees were born after 1965. Having done this study, I've figured out what the problem areas appear to be. We're not going to focus on what the problems are but the opportunities to reimagine people services at UHN. We have to reimagine the engagement with employees, with physicians, with everybody. What does that look like? The really nice thing about doing this kind of work is that people are so enthusiastic about it and want to have the tools and the processes. We had a Town Hall recently and already I have four interesting suggestions. When you just ask the question, it's pretty inspiring what you get back."

Q: How do you get beyond the built-in cynicism at a large organization such as UHN?

A: "It's a research organization, so inquiry is part of the DNA of UHN. Sometimes, inquiry is a little bit cynical. We have to focus on the upside of inquiry. There's always cynicism and I don't think people fear change, they fear loss. We have to create change in such a way that people don't have a sense of loss but rather a sense of possibility and the future being bigger than the past we know."

Q: You once won an international award for designing an HR program "based on the dignity of the employee." How do you define employee dignity?

A: "We come to work, no matter who we are, and we invest eight, or nine or 10 of our precious hours every day in our employer and in doing the work. We should have every expectation that we would be honoured for the work we do and have the tools to do our job. And, if something isn't going as well as it should be going, then we are owed the opportunity to understand that and get better. That has always been at the core of my philosophy around the engagement between an employer and an employee.

Every second week we re-up. I come to work for two weeks and I get a cheque, everybody does. That's just basic base business. That's not enough. Employees want to come to work and they want to do good work and they want to feel good about it and be recognized for it. So, I love the fact that at UHN we focus on respect and civility and dignity. We should also be thinking about kindness. Those are the ways we should think about engagement but we should think about excellence, too. We have rock stars in this organization in the medical and research and education areas, and we should all aspire to be at the absolute top of our game, and have the tools to do that.

The other thing we need to recognize is that every employee has a life cycle. There are moments in your life where work is not the primary thing, something else is. We have to have a system that's elastic enough to recognize the life cycles of people's careers. That's so important. If you engage with everybody with the notion that I see you for who you are, then we can design the tools that recognize how people want to engage with us."

Q: What do you see as the core strength of UHN?

A: "There's no question in my mind that the strength is the people and performance and values of UHN. It's the brand. It's what people associate with UHN. It's the tremendous pride people here have for the work and how they do it. And, it's based on the quality of work, the integrity that underpins it, the standards that we apply to the things we do. It's really wonderful to have the opportunity to come to an organization of this calibre and be able to contemplate this kind of work."

Q: What does success look like a year or two from now?

A: "I said to Kevin the other day that I might be the only person at UHN who isn't exhausted. Everybody has been on pandemic duty and doing their day jobs for 11 months. I haven't. I have to be mindful of the fact that the organization is tired. We're in a marathon and we don't know what mile we're at. So, pacing of this work is going to be important.

However, I think that it will be an organization enabler and an energizer. Our employee engagement score is in the high 50s. It should be a number that at least starts with eight. We're not going to get there in one go but it will be our employees feeling like their engagement with us is really strong, they're getting what they need, and their careers are respected even moreso than they are now. We have to be careful we don't overpromise or overwhelm because we're doing this in the middle of a pandemic. My hope is we can provide everybody with a North Star to point to where we can get together.

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