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Values in Action: How the culture platform is the “secret sauce” for patients and teams


Over the next several months, regular articles will explain how the culture platform shows up in daily life at Cook Children’s Health Care System. The articles will highlight our values: kindness, collaboration, imagination, generosity, respect, and safety, demonstrating that all are alive and well, thanks to staff members putting them to work in ways that make Cook Children’s a better place to work and heal.

By Malinda Mason Miller

About four years ago, Kathy McLean, Vice President of Brand and Team Experience, felt something was a little out of alignment at Cook Children’s. Kathy and her team realized that the way the Marketing team showed Cook Children’s didn’t entirely reflect the experience patients, families, health plan members, and employees have here. They wanted to let the “secret sauce” of Cook Children’s shine through.

“Looking back, I believe there was a disconnect,” Kathy said. “The experience felt by hospitalized children, their parents, and even the staff serving them was different from the picture we were painting in the community about what it’s like to come to Cook Children’s.

“On one hand, the message and tone were professional and very corporate. But working with patients, the feeling is much more like a family than an all-business-all-the-time corporation. You see a real bond between our families and the people who provide care for them. In fact, it felt like, not only were we not capturing the magic – how special the care is here, but we also didn’t know how to begin to talk about it.”

The ‘secret sauce’ needed to be codified, written down, and expressed. That way, incredible employees who were caring for patients and their families day in and day out, not to mention caring for fellow employees, had a defined sense of the values they embody.

The task of putting the culture on paper was daunting. It would take people at all levels to define what they do intentionally each day in their work caring for kids.

“What better way to honor patients,” said Wini King, Senior Vice President, Chief of Communications, Inclusion, Diversity, and Equity. “All employees – from behind the scenes to those on the front line – put our culture font and center for the kids.”

The challenge would be figuring out a way to talk about something as nuanced and intangible as magic.

Leadership makes magic happen with support.

Rick Merrill, President and Chief Executive Officer, and Keith Holtz, Chief Administrative Officer, quickly came on board with the work and led the way as executive champions. Along with Kathy and her team, they took the idea of building a culture platform to leadership. The leadership team created a culture council to guide the work and they agreed that, although it would take time and energy from all levels of staff, it was an initiative worth pursuing.

The heavy lifting and deep thinking about why Cook Children’s is so different – identifying the secret sauce – would take years and major critical thinking across the board to get right. If it took magic to accomplish it, the culture council would see it through. And so would all walks of staff at Cook Children’s.

There would be challenges along the way.

The most obvious difficulty in the process of creating a culture platform is that it must not come from a top-down approach, or it may never be fully embraced. It’s critical that those building the platform not only buy into it, but feel it in their hearts.

Questions would come up that would require answers:

  • How does a team define what caring deeply about patients looks like on paper?
  • How does a platform, once defined, get trained and processed, so that it sticks?
  • How does a culture make a business stronger and more competitive, more effective?
  • How does the internal team live out the pinky promise, “everything for the child,” and still support the staff’s well-being and protect against burnout?

One thing was certain: the final product would be based on input from the many layers of people inspiring the culture, from the bottom up.

All of these questions and many more came up during the process, and to some leadership team members like Megan Chavez, Vice President of the Cook Children’s Experience, the answers are as important as the questions.

“You cannot pour from an empty cup,” Megan said, referring to the latter question. “To be present for our families, our teams must be healthy. Everything for the child starts with our own well-being. It starts with us.”

The culture platform is the same: it is the employees and the way they care for and nurture patients. It’s simple; the culture is the employees, and the special way they care for people including each other.

What isn’t simple is training new employees on a culture that was defined prior to when an employee may have joined Cook Children’s. We'll discuss this challenge in Part 2 of this Values in Action series.