January 27, 2006

VUMC Reporter Profile: Myatt steers by moral compass

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Kevin Myatt, Vanderbilt’s director of Human Resources.
Photo by Neil Brake

VUMC Reporter Profile: Myatt steers by moral compass

Kevin Myatt, associate vice chancellor and chief Human Resource officer for Vanderbilt University.
Photo by Neil Brake

Kevin Myatt, associate vice chancellor and chief Human Resource officer for Vanderbilt University.
Photo by Neil Brake

Myatt, here leading a meeting, learned early in life the value of teamwork and shared goals.
Photo by Neil Brake

Myatt, here leading a meeting, learned early in life the value of teamwork and shared goals.
Photo by Neil Brake

From left, Gail, Brooke, Kevin and Brittany Myatt.

From left, Gail, Brooke, Kevin and Brittany Myatt.

Sports taught Myatt, who played defensive back at Virginia State University, the importance of thinking quickly.

Sports taught Myatt, who played defensive back at Virginia State University, the importance of thinking quickly.

A woman named Rose stepped in to break up a confrontation that could have squashed the career ambitions of a young Kevin Myatt in 1978.

Myatt, who at the time was supervisor of labor relations for Allied Chemical, laughed out loud when a Teamsters representative mistakenly pointed to his head and said he'd had it “up to his ass,” referring to the negotiating process in its 11th hour.

“They were preparing for a strike, times were very tense. And this is back in the days of smoke-filled rooms, each side separated by tables and speaking through microphones, union on one side and 'the suits' on the other,” he said.

“Multiple terms were floating around red circling, rocking chair money, grandfathering and I was trying to make sense of this language. When he said that I didn't even have to think about it, I knew what that meant.”

The union representative saw Kevin laughing and started to come across the table. Kevin stood bracing for conflict and it was then that Rose pushed the angry man against the wall and back into his chair.

At the end of the day, Kevin's instinctive laugh and reaction made him an insider with Allied executives.

“It was a defining moment because it gave me access to that circle, that management team, in a way that allowed me to make the transition from being a young, runny nose kid fresh out of college to a budding pro,” he said.

The “budding pro” has since become Vanderbilt's associate vice Chancellor and Chief Human Resource Officer, a position the university discussed with him for over a year before he came to Nashville in 2003.

“It gave me the courage to take calculated risks and understand that you have to be responsible for what it is that you do,” he said of that confrontation 28 years ago. “You have to make the decision, then make the decision right.”

Instant feedback

You can't know Kevin Myatt without knowing that physical fitness is a very important part of his life.

He goes jogging with his Australian shepherd, Drew, most weekday mornings at 4:30 a.m. and swims at the downtown YMCA.

“It is where I am able to do a lot of thinking and role playing,” he said.

“Swimming allows me the time and space to engage in discussions/arguments that prepare me if and when they arise.”

The positions that Myatt played in team sports — center field, wide receiver and defensive back are reserved for players with good first instincts and a lot of speed.

If your instincts are right, you are the hero. If they are wrong, you get burned.

“There's something special about center field. You actually get to see where the ball is making contact with the bat, and, at that point, the decision that you make impacts the rest of that play,” he said.

As a defensive back for the University of Toledo, and later Virginia State University, Myatt found that thousands of fans were ready to provide him with instant feedback, both good and bad, regarding his decisions on any given play.

“You become accustomed to instant feedback and you are accustomed to making sure that you perform well or else you are not going to be there and someone else will be performing in your spot,” he said.

When Myatt left the sports arena and entered the business world he took his decision-making skills with him.


Another thing Kevin took with him from Virginia State University was Gail, a Smithville, Va., woman he met as a sophomore and now refers to as “the rock in my life.”

They have been married 27 years and have two daughters, Brooke, 24, and Brittany, 21.

“What I remember is that when I first saw him, actually, it was the way he walked that attracted me. He had a little 'pep' to his walk, and that was the thing that I was like, 'Wow', what is that?' ” Gail said.

“I actually arranged for us to meet through a mutual friend and then from meeting him, he was just a very interesting and exciting person. He liked fun things.”

One of Gail's best memories with Kevin came when they took a walk to the front campus before they started dating.

“It was fall so the leaves were on the hill and we went over there and ended up rolling down the hill in the leaves and just acting like little children,” she said.

“It is truly one of my best memories. When I say exciting and fun, it was really that kind of thing and I really hadn't met anybody like that before.”

Kevin, the middle child in a family of three boys growing up in Silver Springs, Md., was the son expected to follow in his father's footsteps.

His father, an administrative law judge for the U.S. National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), taught him to be a "man of steel,” while his mother taught him the value of velvet. Kevin was headed to The University of California's Hastings College of Law, but a job offer changed his mind before he made the trip to San Francisco.

“For his 21st birthday his mother and father gave him this really, really nice briefcase. And I remember his mom said, 'this will get you through your first few court cases,'” Gail said.

“So that's where he was going, but then he got this incredible offer and it seemed right for what he wanted to do.”

That offer came from Allied Chemical in Hopewell, Va., (now Honeywell) on the day before Kevin was leaving his fiancee in Washington, D.C., to drive to California for law school.

“That's when I made what my mother would call the 'dreaded call home,' which I call the 'liberating call' because I didn't really want to be an attorney. I just didn't have the intestinal fortitude to tell my parents I didn't want to be an attorney,” he said.

“The job with Allied was the perfect compromise. My father was in labor law so we could still sit at the dining room table and talk about labor issues.”

From Allied he went to Miller Brewing in Eden, N.C., and later to the Pepsi Cola Corp. in Milwaukee and New York, where he was still dealing with the beverage industry and still negotiating with the labor unions.

Letters to an unborn child

Myatt's early jobs required him to travel frequently to various cities, so time on the plane became a way of life.

He enjoys reading both legal and religious mysteries, as well as getting some work done, but another habit he developed was writing letters to his daughters.

Although no one has ever read the complete collection of letters, Myatt has promised to present them in book form when the girls are married, beginning with the first letter titled 'To My Dear Unborn Child,' written when Gail was pregnant with Brooke.

The family has moved eight times in 27 years, from Virginia, to North Carolina, to Milwaukee, to New York, to Arizona, to Nebraska, back to North Carolina, and then to Nashville.

There would have been another move, but Brooke, at age 13, nixed an offer her father had to lead the corporate human resource team for Catholic Healthcare West, which would have required a move from Scottsdale, Ariz., to San Francisco.

“She came in and got between me and the Washington Redskins playing the Dallas Cowboys,” said Myatt, a die-hard Redskins fan.

“She grabbed my face and said, 'Daddy, why did you go to grad school?' I said 'I went to grad school, honey, so that I could become a vice president, you know that.'

“And she said, 'Daddy, what is your title now?'

“I said, 'Baby you know that I'm a vice president' … and I'm trying to look around her at the game.

“And she says, 'What is the job that they are offering you in San Francisco?'

“I said 'vice president' and my daughter says, 'Daddy, how many vice presidents do you need to be?'”

He turned the job down.

Defining moments

The contract negotiations in 1978 actually rank third on the list of defining moments in Kevin Myatt's life:

“The day I accepted Christ, the day that my girls were born and I handed both of my daughters to my wife (she had a C-section both times), and the third, from a work perspective, was during that contract negotiation in 1978,” he said, reciting the list.

Kevin made the conscious decision to accept Christ in 1980, when he was 24 years old, and still hasn't looked back at age 50.

“Right about the time we were preparing for childbirth it became evident to me what I needed to do to maintain my moral compass,” he said. “That was my calling, and I have never looked back.”

Gail acknowledges that faith has played a big role by giving the family a focal point with God in the center, especially through all of the moves. Oldest daughter Brooke, for example, moved away from her friends during both her freshman and senior years of high school.

“There are a lot of things that went on in those 27 years, but actually the moving has bonded us as a family,” Gail said.

“We decided early on that we were going to put God right in the center and everything else would rotate from Him as the point. And I will definitely say, point blank, that He is why we are who we are and where we are today.”

From a business perspective, Kevin decided as a child how he wanted to live his life when he saw Gregory Peck in “The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit.”

“From that point I knew my life was going to involve corporate America,” he said. “And, as a black American male in the early 1960s, to say that I was going to be in a corporate environment was a pretty interesting concept.

“No one in my family or circle of influence ever had concerns with my aspirations. The motto was to always strive for whatever it is you want to do.”

Kevin's heroes, beginning with his father, are mainly family members. His great grandfather, an entrepreneur, was the first black man to own a home in upper Montclair, N.J., in the 1920s, and his uncle introduced him to the concept of a college scholarship at age 6.

Coming to Vanderbilt

Before coming to Vanderbilt, Myatt was vice president for human resources at The North Carolina Baptist Hospitals Inc., a multi-hospital academic health system affiliated with Wake Forest University.

Previously he had served as senior vice president for human resources at First Data Corp. and as vice president for human resources at Mercy Healthcare in Phoenix.

Myatt initially had no interest in leaving NCBH. The search firm responsible for filling the Vanderbilt job made several contacts, all to no avail.

It was not until Kevin received a call from Vice Chancellor for Administration and Chief Financial Officer Lauren Brisky that his interest was stimulated. Lauren's excitement and energy about Vanderbilt was both exciting and contagious.

A change of heart

Myatt came to Nashville and met with Brisky, Vice Chancellor for Health Affairs Harry Jacobson, M.D., and Chancellor Gordon Gee.

“Somewhere in the midst of these conversations my heart changed,” he said. “Specifically it happened when I was sitting in Gordon Gee's office talking with him about the one university concept. Harry Jacobson was equally compelling in his description of the future of Vanderbilt.”

When he called home from Nashville, Gail knew from his voice that change was once again on the horizon for the Myatt family.

“There is something a wife can hear in your voice if she knows you are excited about something, and so I heard that in him, even though he was trying to low-key it because he knew that I liked life as it was right then,” Gail said.

“When I came on a subsequent visit it became clear that this was the right decision because I came looking for everything in the world to be wrong, yet found nothing wrong.”

The Big Picture

Last year Vanderbilt's total payroll for the University and the Medical Center combined salaries, hourly wages, incentives, special checks and overtime eclipsed the $1 billion mark.

"We were looking for the best HR executive in the country, and we found him in Kevin Myatt,” Gee said.

“This is a dynamic, complex and complicated institution. Kevin understands the value, and the power, of human capital better than anyone I have ever worked with. He is a wise counselor, a diplomat and a leader — not only to me, but to our vice chancellors, deans, faculty and staff.”

Myatt sees the human resources function as the glue that serves the organization in the deployment of human assets consistent with the organizational goals.

Brisky, who persuaded Myatt to give consideration to the Vanderbilt position, said the University and Medical Center are fortunate to have him as chief human resource officer.

“He is an extraordinary professional who is thoughtfully and enthusiastically guiding us to become the employer of choice in Nashville and beyond,” she said.

“Kevin's values, intelligence and caring about our faculty and staff are demonstrated in the strategies and programs he and his team develop for Vanderbilt.”

Myatt's department is responsible for identification and recruitment of talent, the development and retention of existing talent, assisting employees through times of transition and the multiple backroom operations that make all the above happen.

“My job, quite often, is to identify human capital solutions to business problems,” Myatt said. “I have a higher probability of success as I increase my knowledge of business concerns.”

His ability to understand the organizational needs, in particular, has won him favor with both Jacobson and Executive Vice President for Clinical Affairs Norman Urmy.

“I can't tell you how many times I have relied on Kevin's knowledge and experience to help me think through an issue,” Jacobson said. “He is my colleague and friend and Vanderbilt is a much better place for his presence.”

“Coming from another health care organization, Kevin well understands the issues facing the Medical Center,” Urmy said. “He has given us good advice and good support as we meet the human resource needs in the clinical enterprise.”

If there is one thing Myatt has learned through all of his life's experiences, it is that business is about understanding people and what drives them.

“If you understand people, you understand their motivations and interest. You understand what their needs are and have a reasonable opportunity to resolve their challenges,” he said.

“And if you understand how to identify the organizational needs and the individual's needs and try best to marry those, it is generally going to produce a positive result.”