Healthy leadership: Trillium motivates from the ground up

In what sounds like the corporate equivalent of making lemonade out of lemons, Trillium Health Centre 10 years ago turned the difficult circumstances of a forced merger (Mississauga Hospital and Queensway General) into an opportunity to create a new distributed leadership environment.

Caroline Brereton, VP of people support (she is also a registered nurse with an MBA), credits Trillium's visionary CEO Ken White with realizing that overcoming the animosity between the two hospitals would only happen by abandoning the hierarchical model usually found in healthcare organizations in favour of distributed leadership. “[Our] principles are based on the belief that people don't just come for their day jobs, they come with leadership skills from other work they do outside the organization and a passion to make a difference.”

With 4,200 employees,1,500 volunteers, and a $350 million operating budget to serve over a million people across Ontario's Mississauga/Etobicoke region, simply keeping track of so many workers, let alone empowering each to become leaders, is a challenge. To support individual leaders, Trillium came up with its “1001 Leaders” concept, which encourages everyone to seize leadership opportunities no matter what their position. Through a comprehensive planning process, Trillium identifies organizational and patient-centred projects in which to invest, and then offers formal secondments to put those projects into action.

For instance, Brereton describes a project in which the hospital was trying to figure out how to ease the workload on its nurses. A nurse and a porter were seconded to work on solving the problem. They were supported with project management training and the hiring of a coach to facilitate the process. Not only did the project lead to major improvements on the workload issue, but the nurse and porter also grew their professional skills; the nurse now coordinates a second patient-centred care project, and the porter has moved into a formal management leadership role.

Besides seconding individuals into leadership positions, Trillium engages employees on a collective level with its decentralized organizational structure. Each of the 10 or so divisions within the organization is responsible for setting its own vision, goals and objectives. Each is led by a worker drawn from the clinical and management levels and represents up to 600 staff members. Partnership councils, led and chaired by a staff member and supported by their manager, advise on work/life issues. Brereton points out that this structure makes it easy to ask people within a division how they would like HR issues addressed, rather than making false presumptions.

In addition to regularly surveying employees and acting on their suggestions with initiatives like benefit plans and flexible work arrangements, Brereton says Trillium — winner of a “Canada Top 100 Employer Award” from Maclean's magazine for four consecutive years — is constantly scanning the environment for new ideas to bring into the organization. Brereton is now working on a program to benchmark and improve on work/life balance issues. “Organizations have to be explicit about the value of their people,” she says. “It can't be words on a wall — they have to make it real.”