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Nicole Hedrick, CHRO of the Duke Clinical Research Institute, is injecting new talent into the world’s largest academic research organization.
Nicole Hedrick knows firsthand how clinical research can change someone’s life.
Six months after she got married and became a stepmom to two children, in addition to parenting her own three, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. One day, she had found a small tumor under her armpit during a routine self-exam. She was 42.
“I had a biopsy on a Friday and got the diagnosis on a Monday,” she recalls. “I put my fierce pants on and told my children I would beat it.”
Both Hedrick’s mother and aunt died of breast cancer—a painful fact she is mindful of every day.
“I have no doubt that my survival is a direct result of all the people who have brought research, intervention and science to the forefront,” she says.
She went through a year of treatment, including surgery and chemotherapy. She lost all her hair. “I chose not to wear wigs,” she says. “I wore scarves and elaborate head wear and put a smile on my face.”
Hometown: Jeffersonville, Vt. (population 500).
Passionate pursuits: Continual personal and professional development. “My hope is to be a better me, leave the world a better place and help others see the value of doing the same in their own lives.” Also, traveling, family weekends, gardening, cooking, boating and kayaking.
Greatest influence: Her parents and grandparents, “who lived daily by their values and led the way through perseverance, determination and an unwavering work ethic.”
Rock star moment: Accompanying her sister, Jacqueline, to a White House Christmas staff party and meeting former President George W. Bush and first lady Laura Bush. “I did what one typically does when meeting new people,” Hedrick says, “and struck up a conversation about something familiar and, in this case, something we had in common: our daughters named Jenna. It was a very awesome moment!”
The experience only magnified her naturally positive outlook. “I have an appreciation for life and all things good in it,” she says.
It also affected the way Hedrick has moved forward in her professional life in the seven years since her diagnosis.
When she learned in 2014 that the Duke Clinical Research Institute (DCRI) in Durham, N.C., was seeking a CHRO, “it was almost too good to be true,” she says. Aware of Duke’s reputation as a pioneer in scientific research, she applied for the position. At the time, she was the executive director of global mobility immigration at IBM, where she was responsible for the company’s immigration strategy, policies, programs and operational execution.
She later learned that the DCRI search was initially focused on HR candidates with academic experience. But eventually, the hiring team shifted its efforts to find someone with a background in industry. Hedrick, meanwhile, was ready to move into a role in which she would be responsible for shaping an organization’s overall HR strategy.
“Now I work at a place where the entire mission is improving the lives of patients around the world,” she says. “If I can help make someone’s life better and pull people together to do that, I’m grateful.”
Although the DCRI is a nonprofit, the organization demands the level of HR support, infrastructure, strategy and vision that a for-profit entity would require, Hedrick says.
She and her 21-person HR team are responsible for serving the program and staffing needs of DCRI’s 1,300-person workforce, including more than 200 faculty members, across a range of HR functions, such as learning and organizational development, organizational resilience, and business continuity. Hedrick is a member of the DCRI’s executive leadership team.
Most of the institute’s employees are doctors and nurses, Ph.D.s and scientists with advanced degrees who conduct medical research, clinical trials and training that covers an array of therapeutic areas. Part of the
Duke University School of Medicine, the DCRI does work that spans multiple disciplines, from pediatrics to geriatrics and from primary care to subspecialty medicine.
One of the first tasks Hedrick tackled when she arrived at the institute was re-energizing its talent acquisition efforts. She wanted to shift HR’s focus from merely reacting to fill vacant positions to continually fostering relationships with potential candidates.
She started by revamping and rebranding the organization’s moribund employee referral program.
“Referrals were few and far between,” she says. “It was a missed opportunity because, in many ways, the people we were looking for were a lot like the people we had already hired.” The results of the revitalized program have been positive, with employee referrals doubling since the beginning of 2015.
About a year ago, she also brought on staff to concentrate on building the DCRI’s talent network, especially targeting positions the organization is constantly hiring for, such as project managers, clinical researchers and data analysts.
“We created a company LinkedIn profile, got on Glassdoor and built a social media brand presence,” Hedrick says. “Through technology and organized events, we’ve pushed ourselves out into the marketplace.”
A DCRI networking event held in February at a boutique hotel in downtown Durham, for example, drew more than 100 local professionals.
Hedrick says the gatherings are intended to tap into the wellspring of highly skilled talent that resides in the Research Triangle area and to showcase the DCRI’s brand.
“The world has become so technology-driven, it’s a way to personalize interaction,” she explains. “Everyone wants to feel important, unique and special.”
Engagement was another area where Hedrick saw room for improvement. A workplace survey she conducted within her first 90 days revealed that many employees wanted to feel more connected—to each other and the company. So Hedrick created a team called the Engage Brigade and hired a new director of engagement to develop programs and activities that would bring people together, both inside and outside work hours. Events have included outings to Durham Bulls baseball games, ice cream socials, monthly massages and yoga classes.
She also extended onboarding to span a new hire’s entire first year, emphasizing the organization’s mission and culture.
The oldest of three children born to German immigrants, Hedrick grew up in a small town in northern Vermont, where her parents owned and operated a hotel and restaurant. She and her siblings wore traditional Bavarian dresses called dirndls and entertained guests by singing German folk songs. She was involved in every aspect of running the business. At 7, she was checking in customers. Subsequent jobs included managing the greenhouse and working as a housekeeper, dishwasher and cook.
“We all had a role to play,” she says. “You had to be ready to do whatever was needed.”
Hedrick became the first person in her family to attend college, and her parents had high expectations for what she could accomplish. Taking a course in criminal justice got her thinking about a career as a lawyer, but an internship in her senior year changed her mind.
“I respected the process of the law, but I quickly knew it wasn’t what I wanted to do,” she says.
She was introduced to HR when she took a job as an IT recruiter serving clients in the tech and pharmaceutical industries. “At the time, the Research Triangle area was growing like gangbusters,” she says. “It exposed me to the breadth of how companies worked and how different their cultures are.”
She liked the fast pace of the recruiting scene and enjoyed meeting people and learning about their strengths and abilities.
“We didn’t have computers and electronic databases,” she recalls. “I had my own system, which consisted of manila folders that contained an individual’s resume and my own notes about their skills. That’s how I learned to build my pipelines.”
Hedrick says she was lucky to learn some important business lessons early in her career. One of her mentors was a manager who taught her to study a problem from every angle—and to examine the consequences of every proposed solution.
“She was very hardworking, very demanding, and I quickly learned that she had this uncanny ability to sniff out holes in your logic,” Hedrick says. “I’ve spent the remainder of my career taking the same approach: ‘What have I not thought of? What have I missed?’ ”
For Hedrick, helping lead an institution that combines the pursuits of problem-solving and knowledge-sharing feels like the best of all her worlds.
Desda Moss is managing editor of HR Magazine.
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