July 21, 2011

VUMC Reporter profile: Balance of skills comes in handy for HR’s Nordberg

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Traci Nordberg, associate vice chancellor for Human Resources and chief Human Resources Officer, helps see to the needs of Vanderbilt’s 24,000 employees. (photo by John Russell)

VUMC Reporter profile: Balance of skills comes in handy for HR’s Nordberg

Traci Nordberg has two full-time jobs – by day she’s Vanderbilt’s associate vice chancellor for Human Resources and chief Human Resource Officer, taking care of the HR needs of 24,000 employees; by night, a devoted parent, with her husband, Peter, to three young daughters.

Meeting the human resources needs of a large employer like Vanderbilt is a lot like raising three daughters – different areas have different personalities, different needs and different problems. And to be successful in both, you need to be a good problem solver and a skilled decision maker – things those close to Nordberg say she does very well.

“Traci really cares about employees,” said Deb Grant, executive director of Human Resources at Vanderbilt. “She’s optimistic and creative, and has an amazing balance of skills. She’s a people person, but also savvy using data and technology in data analysis. Having both, she bridges the HR spectrum in a way a lot of HR leaders don’t.”

Traci Nordberg, right, shares a laugh with Human Resources colleagues Jane Bruce, foreground, and Pam Brown during a recent staff meeting. (photo by John Russell)

Traci Nordberg, right, shares a laugh with Human Resources colleagues Jane Bruce, foreground, and Pam Brown during a recent staff meeting. (photo by John Russell)

Grant, who worked with Nordberg for almost five years at Dartmouth, said she jumped at the opportunity to continue working with her at Vanderbilt.

“Leaving New England was a huge decision, and I wouldn’t have done it for anyone but Traci. She really empowers leaders who work for her and pulls together a team that complements each other. I’ve never felt like I work for Traci, but I work with her. I think most people feel that way.”

Nordberg, who led HR at Dartmouth College for five years, came to Vanderbilt in October 2010. Her job, she says, is to support Vanderbilt’s greatest asset – its employees.

“I was really intrigued by the idea of bringing the HR function to new levels,” Nordberg said. “The ‘One Vanderbilt’ concept is really exciting to me. I think we can do great work, providing service that meets the needs of all of our areas – areas that are unique and many with their own cultures.”


The road to Vanderbilt

Nordberg, who holds degrees in communications from Ball State University in Muncie, Ind., and law from Suffolk University School of Law in Boston, “fell into” HR, she says. In college, she had an internship with an HR department at an insurance company focusing on video training films for employees. “I had no idea what HR even was,” she said.

After the internship, she was hired by Methodist Hospital in Indianapolis to recruit physicians into the hospital’s primary care practice, then held jobs in Indiana and Boston, focusing on recruiting speech, physical and occupational therapists into rural areas and long-term care facilities.

Then in 1996 she landed at Massachusetts General Hospital overseeing HR functions as part of Partners Health Care System, Inc.

“They had many hospitals coming together and needed to have better coordination and to redesign their HR model. It felt really natural to me. At a young age, I was given a lot of responsibility and learned a lot from these jobs.”

After Mass General and 12 years in Boston came Dartmouth, where she was hired as vice president and chief human resources officer for 5,000 employees in September 2005. At the private Ivy League institution she focused on attracting, retaining, managing and developing employees.

“For me it was the logical next step, having responsibility for the full human resource function on my own,” Nordberg said.

“There were interesting parallels in Dartmouth and Mass General. Problem solving and decision making were a little different, but they were both academic environments. That attracts me. I like being a part of an academic mission.”

Vanderbilt, “a big complex place that has change all the time and lots of layers,” is a good match for her, Nordberg says. “The organization is very supportive and I don’t find obstacles to making progress. I’m completely in my comfort zone.”


Breaking down the silos

One of the first tasks on Nordberg’s “to do” list was to begin breaking down the silos in HR, moving away from multiple places for employees and their managers to call for information or to solve problems, she said.

In this employee-friendly model that Nordberg was also part of implementing at Mass General and Dartmouth, an HR staff member is a point of contact for a particular area. “This person can facilitate whatever the employee needs inside HR, and can get answers and provide support for a group of people,” Nordberg said.

Nordberg spoke at the March Leadership Assembly with Jeff Balser, M.D., Ph.D., center, and C. Wright Pinson, MBA, M.D. (photo by Anne Rayner)

Nordberg spoke at the March Leadership Assembly with Jeff Balser, M.D., Ph.D., center, and C. Wright Pinson, MBA, M.D. (photo by Anne Rayner)

Nordberg uses the primary care physician model as an example. “You go to your primary care physician for anything, top to bottom. If you need a specialist, they can tap into that and get advice or refer you to a specialist,” she said.

The School of Medicine is one of the first areas that is up and running using this new HR model. Moving employees from different parts of HR into a team of three consultants and three recruiters, they form a Service Delivery Team supporting the School of Medicine, interacting with leaders and employees.

“They can help with anything from reorganization to job description design to recruitment to a work group that needs some extra support, or a new manager coming in — everything under the sun,” she said.

HR centers support each team. “They are the deep experts in a certain topic area, such as compensation or employee relations,” she said. “Our goal is to lift the administrative burden off the people who are here to focus on our mission. They ought to be focused on patients or research or students, not dealing with unnecessary steps or paperwork.

“I’ve worked with this model for many years. I’ve seen it work. That doesn’t mean it’s cookie cutter. You still have to adjust, but the general idea of it is already working here.”

Senior consultants have recently been hired for the Monroe Carell Jr. Children's Hospital at Vanderbilt, Vanderbilt University Hospital, the Vanderbilt Medical Group and University Central.

An employee service center is also being formed to take “tier one”questions – about paychecks, benefits or jobs.


Blending new people, ideas

The HR team has some new faces, but many veterans remain. One of those, Jane Bruce, says that Nordberg has gracefully handled blending new faces into an existing staff.

“Leading a group in new directions and through hefty change means managing expectations and communicating the course,” said Bruce, director of Vanderbilt HR Benefits Administration. “Traci has been insightful in her approach to keeping everyone informed and focused, reassuring those for whom change is frightening and encouraging those who are used to the ‘old way’ to think about the opportunities of new venues.”

Pam Brown, another HR veteran and director of HR’s Organizational Effectiveness Team, said Nordberg brings a set of fresh eyes to the HR team and is able to ask why something is done without being judgmental.

“She respects the good work that is being done and also recognizes where improvements are needed.”

Nordberg says that HR is working at being employee-friendly.

“We’re putting ourselves in the employees’ shoes and when we’re responding to their concerns, we’re trying to understand what they’re going through, provide options, and even if they don’t agree with the resolution, they should feel they were heard and treated fairly.”


Juggling work and home

Nordberg grew up near Fort Wayne, Ind., and comes from a long line of “helping professionals.” Her mother was an elementary school teacher; father, a financial adviser; stepmother, a nurse; and grandfathers in plumbing and carpentry.

Spending quality time with her daughters is critical to Vanderbilt HR chief Traci Nordberg.

Spending quality time with her daughters is critical to Vanderbilt HR chief Traci Nordberg.

“I think that helps me relate to all types of people in different roles,” she said.

An independent child, Nordberg was full of ideas, with many interests. She spent a lot of time reading, performing in musicals and plays, tinkered early on in computer programming, but also enjoyed time on the water at lakes in Indiana.

Her daughters, Ella, 9, Kate, 7, and Louisa, 2, also very independent, are self-sufficient “go-getter” little girls who love art, music and sports.

Nordberg is very family-focused, committed to spending the time between work and bedtime with her daughters, then picking up her iPhone or the laptop after they’ve gone to bed to answer e-mails if needed.

“I do work at home. I’m not the best example of balance, but I make it work,” she said. “I try to use the pockets of time that I have wisely. My time in the morning and right after work is when I’m most focused on my family. I really commit to that. That’s the time I have. For me, it’s a really great fit – I have a job that’s challenging and satisfying, and a really great family.”

Nordberg empathizes with working mothers.

“I have counseled women who are afraid to say they have commitments with their children or their families. The truth is, women take on a major role in the family.

“I may have a very demanding job, but I’m still the mom who makes the lunches and arranges the doctors’ appointments. Personally, I want to do those things. I want to stay involved even if it’s more than I can manage.”

Nordberg has been married to Peter, a native of Sweden and an administrative officer with Vanderbilt’s international programs, for 10 years.

“Chaos” is how Nordberg laughingly describes their home life. “We try as hard as we can to have routines that help us take care of the details – one daughter needs this kind of shoes today; this kind of snack; this paperwork; and we have spread sheets of things and calendars and make good use of networks of other parents.”

But sometimes not everything gets done. “You can’t do it all, so you have to let some things go,” she says with a smile.

When asked what one word she would use to describe herself, Nordberg thinks for a few seconds, and then says “positive.”

The word couldn’t have been a better choice, her colleague Grant says.

“HR professionals can get jaded,” she said, “but not Traci. She brings such good intentions to what she does. She always says, when dealing with an employee issue, ‘assume positive intent.’ And she does. She gives people the benefit of the doubt.”