Transforming UVM Health Network's IT department: Why CIO Dr. Adam Buckley values attitude, even without experience

Adam Buckley, MD, became the CIO of Burlington-based University of Vermont Health Network in 2015, and since then has overhauled the department's approach to identifying, hiring and retaining talent.

Instead of focusing on technical proficiency, Dr. Buckley and his team look for candidates that have an aptitude for customer service and align with the health system's mission, and then train them in technical skills needed to get the job done. In collaboration with local colleges and universities, he has established a pipeline of new talent and continues to build a positive culture for the IT team.

Here, Dr. Buckley explains his strategy and how he is transforming the UVM Health IT team.

Question: What has been your No. 1 priority in building a strong IT team?

Dr. Adam Buckley: The No. 1 priority for me that I have brought to our recruiting process is a focus on service aptitude. I became really interested in that during some of the business classes I was taking to figure out how to change the customer relationship related to service. I was struck by the case study of a bank that stopped hiring for the resume and technical skills and started focusing on recruiting people who had innate service aptitude and a positive, can-do attitude. These were individuals who enjoyed being around people and took an overtly friendly approach.

Now our hiring process has less of an emphasis on meeting certain technical criteria. You need that for some roles on the infrastructure side, but for the customer jobs, service support and applications side, we put an emphasis on hiring people that think about the customer relationships differently than I have seen in traditional IT teams.

Q: What is your hiring strategy?

AB: We are a rural health system in a small state, so we put an emphasis on hiring college kids who had a service aptitude and were smart. Then we could train them in the technical knowledge they would need for their roles. That was the first and most consistent change I made. We also hired several team members from the vendor space, and they are used to thinking of the customer and building relationships in all their interactions. This has helped change the organization and meets the needs of our patients.

Q: What qualities do you look for when hiring new team members? What is the ideal candidate's background?

AB: When I was first hired, a lot of the job descriptions required seven to eight years of experience, and the only people with that much experience were people who already worked for us. We really pivoted to hiring right out of college and we are fortunate that there are a few really good colleges here that have great programs in security, forensics and computer technology. We are able to hire people right out of college and for the technical jobs we have internships that help us develop pipelines for students at those colleges and universities. That has served us well, but my approach is very market driven.

You also have to be clear about the role, responsibilities and vision of the organization, and if that resonates and the candidate is excited about it, then that's more important than checking the boxes in experience. What I'm most proud of is taking that expansive view of not having preconceived notions of where talent will come from. Take a wide-open view of who is appropriate for your team and you'll add extraordinary talent and perspectives.

Q: What approach do you take for training after you've hired the right person who may not have the most technical experience?

AB: I'm a big believer in training, due to my experience on the provider side. We've invested heavily in Epic certifications and other training. We don't put a limit on the training budget as long as people are working on certifications in the field. The career development arc here is different than in other places. When I first took on this role, we were restructuring the team and realized that someone early in their career who is an exceptional person may be better than someone with 10 years of experience who is just on the team to fill a seat.

Training has also been a core component of the support we give team members as they transition into the leadership space. We provide mentoring and coaching to help them think differently about how they do their job. As soon as we see the talent, we want to develop them internally. That has helped us keep the team energized.

Q: How do you keep your best team members engaged?

AB: When I came here, I realized that health IT was really uncoupled from the clinical side of healthcare. I think that was an unfortunate consequence of its outgrowth from the billing and scheduling side instead of healthcare delivery. I focus on leading with a very clear vision, organizational strategy and mission. We never want to lose sight of our mission: research, education, patient care and engaging the community.

We started a shadowing program to help keep the IT team members engaged. The goal is for all health IT professionals to spend four hours in the clinical space. We realized that having the people at the help desk understand what the clinical setting is like can really make a difference. I know how easy it is to get deep into the technical side and feel far away from the clinical enterprise. When you don't see what is happening clinically, you don't understand how your decisions resonate and might make assumptions that aren't true. The shadowing program gives our team the opportunity to see what the clinical care looks like and how the IT side touches each part of it.

We can see how IT needs to work with patient care in order for us to develop a better patient experience. We formalized the program last year and it's been a big success. It's also good for our staff and patients to see the level of engagement on the IT side so they don't think the team is just looking at the data.

Q: What are you doing to compete with other healthcare organizations and IT companies to attract and retain the top talent?

AB: We are a geographic monopoly, so there isn't immediate competition in our region. But our biggest challenge is on the security side. There isn't enough talent nationally in healthcare information security. We are really focused on finding local feeder programs, specifically with the local colleges where some of our employees are faculty members, to make sure students with interest in security have internships and job opportunities with us.

We know there is a perpetual dance of supply versus demand. That is the biggest area where we have experienced loss, and it's hard to find good people in the security space.

You have to learn your job market and understand what the levers are for retaining and keeping that talent, and flex to what the market is. I could take this approach and move it somewhere else and it could fail unless the market is like ours. There is competition in healthcare and I think the important thing is to learn your job market and tailor your approach to build the best team possible.

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