Corner Office: Debra Canales, Providence St. Joseph's chief administrative officer, on the rejuvenating powers of laser tag

Debra Canales spent over a decade establishing a successful career with some of the nation's most high-profile corporations, but felt a yearning to incorporate the compassionate principles of her personal life into her work.

The opportunity to intertwine her personal priorities and professional aims came when Ms. Canales joined Centennial, Colo.-based Centura Health as a senior vice president. She went on to hold a number of leadership positions at Livonia, Mich.-based CHE Trinity Health, including chief culture/talent effectiveness officer, before joining Renton, Wash.-based Providence St. Joseph, quickly rising to become their executive vice president and chief administrative officer.

Ms. Canales, who earned a bachelor's degree from the University of Texas at Austin, recently spoke with Becker's and answered our seven "Corner Office" questions.

Editor's note: Responses have been edited lightly for length and style

Question: What's one thing that really piqued your interest in healthcare?

Debra Canales: Half of my career was in for-profit, Fortune 500 companies, from retail with Macy's to tech with Compaq HP and food service with PepsiCo. There was just something missing in my quest and my calling. And so when the opportunity came to explore faith-based healthcare it just really called to me. I was encouraged by a new set of mentors, including some very religious sisters, with some in my own family. My Aunt Trinity was a provincial for sisters in Uvalde, Texas. That spirit and how they dedicated their lives to serving others, especially the poor and the vulnerable, has really drawn me to healthcare. These wise women inspired me to pay it forward by helping others grow professionally. I really consider it my calling and privilege to help people reach their full potential in what they do.

Q: What do you enjoy most about Seattle?

DC: Seattle is just a vibrant and energetic city. It has a very dynamic spirit that really celebrates inclusivity. I immerse myself in the city and live in a condo downtown facing Pike's Place Market and the Puget Sound. I also serve on the boards of the Seattle Repertory Theatre and the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce. To be a part of this city that values diversity, people, sports and arts is very special, and oh my god the culinary experience! The city's government really values diversity and pays attention to the city's infrastructure and the challenges and cares about doing what's right. Also, if you're not happy with the weather just wait a few hours and you'll get something else.

Q: If you could eliminate one of the healthcare industry's problems overnight, which would it be?

DC: A lot of people talk about access and quality of healthcare, and one of the things that's emerging is the shift from the triple aim that used to be about cost, quality and population health to now calling it engagement, access and value. If we think about patients as consumers, the one thing I would change is how we empower our patients with data so they can make better decisions about their own health. They can make choices about where to go as they see value and access, and they can engage more in managing their well-being to make better decisions proactively.  

Q: What do you consider your greatest talent or skill outside of the C-suite?

DC: I am a fierce laser tag player, I love the action and the strategy. It's all about finding time to play and enjoy life and bring others along. One compliment I always get is that I am a connector, and I enjoy being able to have such a broad network of diverse people. I share time with them but also connect them to others. I look at how they can leverage these connections and create different communities and cultivate a unity based on those connections.

Q: How do you revitalize yourself?

DC: I really spend a lot of time investing in my own self care. I think it's really important in a role of this magnitude. But also because I am the leader for human resources, in addition to being the chief administrative officer for over 10,000 caregivers, it's important to understand the importance in everyone's life of taking the time to care. I do ongoing spiritual practice that includes multiple residential retreats, taking time to go to these venues and reflect on what's meaningful to me. I just returned from a weekend taking a deep dive into the understanding of my own self, in terms of the complexity and challenges we face here as an executive team. I also make time to be in nature and to be with my animals. My dogs make me divinely human and they give me unconditional love, connection, levity and they don't talk back [laughs]. I'm grateful I work at an organization that allows our caregivers to really reawaken their values in the workplace because that wasn't always safe in my corporate experience.

Q: What's one piece of advice you remember most clearly?

DC: I had a mentor who was a division president when I was a senior manager at PepsiCo who saw things in me that were unique and valuable. They encouraged me to volunteer and take risks and gave that gave me confidence. It's almost like seeing what's around the corner, anticipating challenges and opportunities, and seizing them. It's important to be a vacuum filler, someone who looks for what is missing in a given situation. You have to really seize the moment when you see an opportunity and lean into it.

Q: What do you consider your greatest achievement at Providence St. Joseph so far?

DC: A longitudinal measure I've really focused on since I got here and have been building over time is transforming our caregiver experience. In the last year we've had remarkable scores related to engagement, and our participation rates are some of the highest compared to industry standards. When I arrived, there was a six year decline in engagement, and I'm very proud of being able to turn that into top quartile results.

The other thing that goes hand in hand with engagement is the diversity of women and minorities. Over 50 percent of our executive team is women, and we really focus on the development of talent. The depth of talent in our organization is deeply rooted, and I'm proud of transforming the role of HR leaders to be business partners instead of just personnel tacticians.

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