This time for Fond of Work, we interviewed Darleen Souza, Vice President & CHRO at Albany Medical Center. Albany Medical Center is northeastern New York’s only academic health sciences center and is one of the largest private employers in the Capital Region.

Darleen is a strategic human resource professional with strong operational and business skills. As a member of a healthcare senior leadership team, she maximizes impact of human capital within a patient-centered environment.

How did you first get into the HR space?

I tripped into it. I received a graduate degree in Clinical and Industrial Psychology. At first, I thought I wanted to work for the FBI and I had a chance to profile serial killers. I realized it was not for me. My husband had a customer that worked in healthcare and told me about an opportunity within the healthcare system she was employed. She assisted me in landing the position through coaching me through the process. I will always be grateful for that. I then worked my way up from generalist to CHRO. I have worked in five healthcare systems over three states.

How did you end up at your current position with Albany Medical Center?

The job I had before was a stepping stone. I knew I wouldn’t be there long. I always wanted to work in a Level 1 trauma center with a solid mission and children’s hospital. Albany Medical Center and the community exceeded my expectations on my first visit. It just a good fit for me.

Why do you think HR is an important department for every business to have?

The unfortunate part of it all is that this question still needs to be asked and answered. HR resources needed are scrutinized and in a constant state of evaluation. However, statistically, what CEOs are most concerned about is recruiting and retaining talent to bring companies to the next level to execute on strategy, even with the rise of AI. 

People with solid systems and leadership is where the magic happens. People + systems + leadership = magic. I don’t recall the question being asked about the importance of finance in an organization. It is understood. People are our biggest asset or biggest liability. The equation is complex, but the reality is: people can make or break you. Regardless, it is a capital investment. Organizations need solid human capital to thrive.

What’s your management philosophy?

I believe in servant leadership — removing barriers, providing tools and resources, training and educating, having clear expectations and deliverables, creating a safe environment for people to take risks, and allowing people the opportunity to spread their wings and soar.

How do you apply it at your company?

We are in a process of transformation and formal leadership development. The leadership team asks, “What can I do for you?” However, I demonstrate it by listening, providing the team the tools and resources needed to do our jobs, taking risks in support of the greater good, and having employees’ backs. I pay it forward whenever I can. Most importantly, I admit when I’m wrong and ask for help when I need it. It is important to be authentic, honest, and deliberate. Integrity is where I root.

How do you reward and recognize employees at Albany Medical Center?

We reward employees in any way possible, but we can all get better at it. We sometimes let formality get in the way of simple appreciation. We overcomplicate it. A long-term goal is to create a system-wide incentive program that everyone benefits from — regardless of positions — based on purpose and cascading goals. In tandem with this concept is a personalized development plan.

In the meantime, we provide bonuses when we can, acknowledge efforts, listen to feedback, fix what needs to be fixed, and stop doing what doesn’t add value.

People don’t want to be recognized with a sundae party when their office printer is down. Invest in making your employees’ day-to-day lives easier through addressing environmental issues, providing work from home opportunities, and cutting down on meetings. It is recognizing that there are obstacles to remove both personally and professionally in our lives. A bonus and a cake only happen once a year. Even though an employee’s anniversary is important to acknowledge, there are 364 more days in the year. Offer robust EAP programs and be flexible about when you can to allow people to care for themselves and their families. Clear head, full heart, can’t lose. We all win.

Why do you think employee recognition matters?

Belonging and mattering is a human need. Knowing we make a difference is critical to our development and our success. No one wants to part of a losing team, and employees don’t like feeling like they are contributing to the loss. Reinforcement is critical to our general well-being, whether it’s intrinsic or extrinsic. We have been praised and recognized since infancy. It’s inherent. The need to know you are valued heightens at work. Age doesn’t matter, but understanding your role, fairness, and accolades does. The more personal your recognition, the better.

I often ask leaders and teams these questions: Are you as reliable and committed to your relationships professionally as you are personally? If the answer is yes, great. 

For those that answer no, I ask a second question: Would you still have these personal relationships if you treated them like you treat your work relationships? 

If that answer is no, there is some serious reflection that needs to happen. The front-line manager is critical to this. The front-line manager/direct report relationship is the most valuable relationship when it comes to recognition and feeling valued. Managers are people too!

What’s the best advice you’ve received in your career?

Information without data is just another opinion.

What are some of the most pressing issues HR leaders face today?

Getting it right. It is a competitive market. What sets organizations apart is hiring the right people, in the right role, using the right systems, at the right price, on the right team and managing the intricacies of it all. 

Repeatable processes in day-to-day interactions through technology and standard operating procedures are a critical foundation. They allow the focus to be on the real work: developing and retaining talented professionals who are not afraid to take risks and speak openly. You need to get the simple things right. People won’t trust you to build the strategy with them if you don’t get the basics right.

Finding and investing in the right people for the organizational team and demonstrating their ROI through robust multi-year business plans is time-consuming but necessary. HR needs to get better at telling the story with data in a way that organizations can value and interpret. It is critical for the work that needs to be done, especially as a non-revenue generating department.

What’s one thing you’ve had to learn the hard way in your career?

How much a boss can impact you personally and professionally.

Any advice for future HR leaders?

Be the best at recruiting and retaining talent and create an HR division from an end-user perspective. If your service is not working for your organization, start over. A square peg in a round hole doesn’t fit. Always complete a comprehensive assessment before you accept and after you start a new job. Share the comprehensive assessment and get buy-in on the plan.

Thanks so much to Darleen for speaking with us! Stay tuned for the next interview in the Fond of Work series, coming soon! By the way, Albany Medical Center is hiring, so check out their website to view their open positions.

Fond is a global SaaS platform that seamlessly consolidates employee rewards and recognition processes into one easy-to-use solution. For more information on how Fond can help you, request a demo today!