Kathy O’Driscroll, Chief Human Resources Officer at PATH, shares how understanding motivations leads to alignment.
Engaging people in dialog about what they do. It’s one of the most important skills Kathy O’Driscoll has learned in her human resources leadership journey. “It helps me understand what motivates people,” says O’Driscoll, Chief Human Resources Officer at PATH, an international nonprofit that saves lives and improves health, especially among women and children.
With funding partners such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the U.S. Agency for International Development, PATH reaches millions of people around the world with innovations such as a vaccine vial monitor that alerts health workers when a vaccine has been damaged by heat to ground-braking new vaccines for Meningitis and Malaria to effective, low-cost diagnostics that detect river blindness.
Change in action
“My job is figuring out how to motivate people, and how to understand their behavior as managers and employees and candidates,” said O’Driscoll, who honed those skills during her 20-year career at Microsoft. One way she engages with employees is by tapping into what they’re excited about. That comes in very handy when it’s time to discuss structural obstacles to getting things done.
From day one at PATH, one of her priorities has been to help create alignment across its 22 programs. In a practical sense, program leaders consider themselves accountable to the grant-funding organizations that support their work – not just PATH.
“In the corporate world, if you want to point programs in the same direction, you can do a reorganization. You can’t always do that in this sector,” she says. “These leaders have different funders, and those funders have their own views about how the programs should be structured.”
Having built relationships with program leaders and by really listening to them, O’Driscoll recognized a need to secure funding for them to convene and align their goals. One area where alignment is essential is establishing PATH’s Malaria Center of Excellence to help drive collaboration across PATH’s four Malaria programs which range from vaccine development to a partnership with the government of Zambia all focused on realizing PATH’s goal of eradicating malaria. For this work to be successful, these teams and the people within them need to come together and see the big picture.
“I loved working with our teams in India,” said O’Driscoll, of her experience at Microsoft. It gave her a “deep immersion” course in the importance of understanding different work styles and motivations.
“When I first started working with teams in India, I did not initially recognize the importance of traveling to meet with people face to face. It wasn’t until my second assignment leading a team in India that I made the trip. Not traveling to India early on was a mistake, something she sees clearly now. “Meeting people in their own environment, where they work, is always a great learning experience,” she said. For example, the human resources team in India could spend hours talking to an employee about benefits, whereas a U.S.-based employee would probably look up the benefits package online. Not spending time in India also meant she didn’t have a real sense of the impact of the social stratification rooted in the caste system; while discrimination based on social status is no longer legal in India, people are aware of each other’s status and it can have an impact on how things operate. “Diversity and Inclusion are essential for innovation”, O’Driscoll says, “and how you support those values and practices look different depending on local culture and values”.
This experience serves her well in her role at PATH, which has offices in 41 cities around the world. Case in point: If there’s a death in an employee’s family here in the United States, their colleagues will probably express condolences and may attend the funeral. In Kenya, a human resources business partner will typically attend the funeral and employees typically expect their employers to contribute funds to pay for the funeral. “If you just talk about bereavement leave, you’re not getting it at all. You’re talking about a time and attendance policy. You’re missing the importance of human relationships and the nuance,” she said.
One of her successes at PATH involves determining the organization’s future leadership competencies. To achieve success, she worked with her Training Director, Amanda Zehnder, to secure funding for a pretty ambitious project that involved reviewing the research of the renowned Cleveland Clinic on “doctors as leaders” and convening some of the brightest minds from the Peace Corps, other NGOs and the U.S. State Department in a conversation about the future of leadership in global development.
The direct result of that work is the development of a key set of leadership competencies, which have since been integrated into senior-level job descriptions and the job interview process.
“That work sets the tone for the future,” says O’Driscoll. “It all comes down to providing the right opportunities for my human resources team, while partnering with the leadership team. I’m helping both teams embrace change.” ♦
Her motivation: Making a difference
After she left Microsoft, O’Driscoll took a week-long organizational development course. It was packed full of consultants. “I learned pretty quickly that I’m a manager. I love that role. I love matching people’s capabilities with problems that need to be solved, and helping them grow through that process,” she said.
And as soon as she walked in the door at PATH, she knew that it was the right place for her. “PATH’s mission is so clear, and I love working with employees and aligning our people strategies and practices with the organization’s auspicious goal of saving lives. It is inspiring to work with people who have dedicated their lives to health equity around the world.
It wasn’t easy when she arrived. Her team had been without a leader for six months. “They needed someone to come in and be that leader and grow them into a team,” said O’Driscoll.
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