Leadership Lens: Children’s Wisconsin CEO Peggy Troy on ‘returning to curious’ and prioritization

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As chief executive officer of Children’s Wisconsin, Peggy Troy leads an organization with a mission to make Wisconsin’s kids the healthiest in the country. Accomplishing that mission, however, requires thinking about a child’s health in more ways than just regular check-ups or visits to urgent care or the emergency room. The mission extends to using play to deliver care in better ways, to engaging in violence prevention efforts, to working to address mental health issues and much more.

“I never hear an idea about something we can do for kids that I don’t love, so one of my harder decisions is prioritization,” Troy said on the latest episode of Leadership Lens on the BizTimes MKE Podcast.

“That prioritization has to entail decisions around doing things that will have the biggest impact on the resources that we have available to us,” she said. “Again, being a person that loves to do everything, holistically, wrap ourselves around kids, that is very hard.”

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Troy joined Marquette University president Michael Lovell and BizTimes Media managing editor Arthur Thomas to discuss what it has been like leading a health care organization over the past few years, the current workforce challenges in health care and the importance of having a dedicated children’s hospital in the region.

She also addressed her approach to leadership and how she goes about shaping culture in a large organization. Here are a few highlights from the conversation:

On being a servant leader:

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Troy focuses her efforts on being a servant leader to the organization, something that she said was in part shaped by her undergraduate experience at Marquette and also helped her navigate through the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“As a servant leader, I think the big thing for me is humility,” Troy said. “No one knows everything, we all make mistakes and it’s important to be humble, to be a good listener, and to be very self-aware, that helps build and empower people that are around you, because I think when people enter into a leadership role they think they have to know it all and they think they have to be kind of tough, I think that to be able to be humble and to value your team around you and really care deeply about what you do every single day, that’s what empowers us to be all that we can be for the kids in Wisconsin.”

Shaping the culture of a large organization

With dozens of offices, facilities and individual units and departments, shaping the culture of a large organization like Children’s is no easy task. Troy said the starting point should be that culture has to be led by the CEO.

“You can’t delegate that to human resources or to your organizational development team, you have to be out in front of this thing,” she said.

For Troy, working on the culture that employees experience is directly connected to the mission of the organization.

“My basic philosophy is that the child and family experience can’t exceed the employee experience and that’s borne out many times in my career,” she said.

Developing the organization’s culture starts from understanding its purpose. In the case of Children’s that means doing what’s best for kids. From there, Troy said it’s about articulating values, things like purpose, collaboration, integrity, health and innovation.

“When you’ve got values that undergird the reason for being, people start to sign up for that and start to believe in it because you live out your values,” Troy said, noting she regularly asks employees which value they connect with.

While defining what the culture is is important, Troy said how the culture comes to life is just as important. She said Children’s worked with business management consultant Senn Delaney earlier in her tenure and has come to develop tools, techniques and common language that helps work through challenging issues.

One of those concepts is a mood elevator that runs from depression and anger at the low end to appreciation at the top. In the middle is curious.

“Curious is a great word because when tensions are high or you’re having disagreements … you can say, ‘Are we at curious?’ And that stops everybody and really gets them to reground,” Troy said.

She’s used it in both the professional and personal world, highlighting how it helped her daughter and son-in-law on their house hunting effort.

“As we went through that three-day journey, any time tensions were getting a little high or they were becoming frustrated or discouraged, I’d say, ‘Let’s get back to curious. Let’s talk about where we’re at in space and time and how we want to think about this thing. What are the good things? What are the things that are struggles and creating great difficulty and let’s see how we can move on.’ It just took the air out of the room,” Troy recalled.

In a more serious situation, the tool helped Troy navigate issues with a new electronic record system Children’s implemented. Only a few days after going live with the new system, teams discovered early in the morning it was starting to crash. With 60 children on the list for surgery that day, the issue had the potential to cause plenty of stress and difficulty.

Troy recalled how she used the mood elevator in a conversation with the hospital’s chief anesthesiologist.

“You didn’t want this to happen, I didn’t want this to happen, so let’ be curious about what we’re going to do about the next four or five hours until we get this situation resolved,” she said. “It immediately got you to a neutral platform and you could start to talk about how you would plan going forward as opposed to ‘I can’t believe this happened, why is this happening, to all those negative things that can happen.’”

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