Health-care industry executive named 2012 HR Strategist of the Year

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“I had always dreamed of becoming a nurse” says Freda Cavallaro, vice president HR operations and compensation at Bon Secours Health System, “that is until I spent six years in the Army and quickly realized that I couldn’t stand the sight of blood.” 

Cavallaro grew up in a small community in upstate New York before she left her family to enlist.  With only 30 students in her graduating class, she had bigger ambitions than most and knew she wanted to do something where she could serve people and be a resource for others. 

Once she left the military, a close friend approached her and suggested she work at a hospital in human resources, a position that would build upon her natural traits as a caring, compassionate, servant leader.  Cavallaro began as a temp in the benefits department and fell in love with the human relations side of the hospital.  More importantly, she realized that the values of Bon Secours aligned greatly with her own. 

Her career zoomed. She took over compensation, then human resources information systems and eventually added the Hampton Roads market to her responsibilities.  Twenty-one years later, she serves as one of the top HR executives in a widespread health care system that employs over 22,000 people in seven hospitals.  She is fiercely loyal to Bon Secours and says the terrific people she works with keep her there.

Cavallaro recently was named the 2012 HR Strategist of the Year, an award sponsored by Titan Group LLC and the Greater Richmond SHRM (Society for Human Resource Management).  Criteria for award focus on human resources practitioners who have led and implemented strategic initiatives that have achieved positive results. 

Two years ago, Cavallaro volunteered to lead an initiative at Bon Secours called the Stewardship Program, a widespread fixed cost reduction program, and be part of a cost intelligence executive team.  The program included 17 different areas. Her goal for HR was to improve operations, structure and processes to save just over $10 million. 

Through year two, HR has realized a savings of almost $6 million.  Certainly there were many challenges along the way, the biggest one Cavallaro explains, “was trying to get people to make timely decisions.” 

By designing a governance structure that required making decisions at lowest level possible, the program was able to move more quickly.  Just addressing the human relations piece was a tough challenge that tested Cavallaro’s ability to manage relationships and help people manage through changes.
Cavallaro believes the impact on Bon Secours has been really valuable, particularly as people begin to see some “systemness,” a term she defines as people working together collaboratively across all nine markets. 

Cavallaro also was instrumental in launching two Centers of Excellence in HR in Talent Acquisition and Compensation. By changing and streamlining Bon Secours’ recruitment process, the health system has able to reduce nurse turnover and provide patients with better care.  The biggest change in that process was creating a talent coordinator who tests for culture fit early in the process before the hiring manager sees the candidate. 

For this upcoming year, Cavallaro will continue to focus on the initiative and aim to get the HR service center operational by end of 2013.  Since HR leads the way in the overall Stewardship program, other functions heads have been turning to her for advice.  She is only happy to help others. 

When Cavallaro is not at work, she loves spending time with her 17-year-old son and two dogs.  She feels that being a mother has been her most rewarding job. Her son’s picture is on her PC screensaver.  No matter how stressful her job gets, the photo reminds her of what is most important in life.  Her son’s reaction to her award was to ask, “What’s that?”  Then he took her out to dinner to celebrate. 

Her advice to other professionals is to always look for ways to “pay it forward”, don’t be afraid to volunteer to lead major projects, and be a change agent for your organization because you never know what you will learn.  She laughs and adds “Oh, and make sure you keep plenty of chocolate on hand.”

Genevieve Roberts runs the Titan Group, a consulting firm that partners with leaders who want to create great places to work, headquartered in Richmond.

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