5 minutes with...Michael Wukitsch, executive vice president of human resources, Cadence Health

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With more than 20 years of HR experience behind him, Michael Wukitsch has just taken the lead of HR operations for Cadence Health's 7,400 employees in Illinois. He has a few things to say on inspiration, learning the hard way, and good beer.

Did you think you would end up in this sort of a position when you started?

My goal had always been to be the head of HR for a Fortune 500 company, but found that I loved healthcare more. I redefined what I thought my goals were because I think we can do things in healthcare that are amazing, and HR has come into its own in healthcare.

What drew you to the health industry?
At the foundation it’s human beings caring for other human beings; that is human resources. The HR component is typically 50% of healthcare: where else can you have impact in a business that serves other people? I think that’s a unique opportunity. Clearly we have a role to play as business partners and I get that, but there’s also a human element to business because ultimately it’s about serving people, and in the case of healthcare, serving people at their most vulnerable. The idea that we could help those staff that help coordinate care, the fact that we can do things to enable that is pretty unbelievable.

What’s the legacy that you want to leave at Cadence?
I would like to lead an HR function that helps build and sustain capabilities that provide the best clinical care to our patients and the best patient experience. When we serve, we also serve as a role model to others that service is noble, that supporting the work of others is noble. I would love to leave that spirit within HR. That to me is part of what HR is all about.

What’s your secret ingredient for your HR practice?
To me it’s probably a few things: it’s really understanding that your client comes first. HR is about enabling your client to be their best, so it’s listening and being client-centered. Then to support that, it’s the techniques that I use: humility and humor. You have to make people comfortable to share and to talk with you, because a lot of helping people be their best is managing their fear and managing their concern, and the only way you can get that out of people is creating an environment of safety, and you have to demonstrate that to people.

Who inspires you professionally?
I don’t mean this insincerely: our medical staff. When you’re around really good people, you don’t want to let them down. There are people throughout my career that I think about every day that have helped me. Vonda Mills, a consultant in Denver, and Mara Swan at Manpower, (they) were catalysts to my development. A VP of HR at Rockwell Automation that I work with because he brings his A-game every day. He’s fully engaged all the time in business issues and he inspires me still. Dennis Puffer, a client at Coors Brewing: he really engaged people and believed in teamwork and empowering people at the lowest levels to solve problems.

Looking back, what would you do differently?
The one experience that I have not had is a global assignment. I wish I would have had a global assignment in another country, because I think that broadens your worldview and perspective, and it humbles you and helps you see the world more holistically.

What's the hardest lesson you’ve learnt?
For me it has been letting go of perfectionism. I’ve learnt to be emergent and to be okay with that, to recognize that human resources has a sloppy element to it. It’s not a perfect science, and you have to be comfortable with letting go of control and learning to live in emergent reality. I’ve learnt to trust others and really engage and trust your clients. You don’t have to be the expert, but you do need to learn to facilitate the solution in co-creation with your client. It’s not about you being the best violinist; you’re a conductor. You need to understand the music, but not every instrument. It’s learning to live in a continuous improvement mentality. You’re continuously striving to improve yourself, your value, your leadership. Feedback and continuous improvement need to be a part of how you think and live.

Pet peeve?
A big one is lack of transparency, people that aren’t forthright. The other one is speakers that don’t speak loudly but say 'I don’t need a microphone!'

You previously served as HR Director for Coors. What’s your favourite kind of beer?
I like a good wheat beer, a hefeweizen, because it reminds me of summer.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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