Eric Severson, Chief People Officer at DaVita Kidney Care on The Benifit

arte Nathan

Eric severson Eric Severson has been called the “zen master of flow.” He’s a master at helping people find meaning in their work and has done revolutionary things in the human resources space. Eric believes a workplace should give people skills that transcend work and help them become better people. He was appointed to the U.S. Department of Commerce’s national advisory council on innovation and entrepreneurship. He also implemented a results only work environment during his time as co-CHRO and Senior Vice President of Human Resources at Gap, Inc.

In this episode of The Benifit, Eric chats with’s own Kate King about how DaVita has created a workplace environment of well being, how mass customization of benefits packages helps employers and how he tries to live according to law of attraction when it comes to choosing what to think about. After listening to this conversation with Eric, you’ll be inspired and eager to figure out how you can incorporate some of his insights into your own people strategy. Listen below.

Show Highlights:

[01:15] “I’m incredibly committed to operationalizing a commitment to making work a source of rejuvenation, and wellbeing, and purpose, and growth in people’s lives.”

[04:53] Eric describes his role at DaVita

[06:32] Eric talks about what DaVita does to promote employee wellness

[11:00] Eric describes the intention behind the results only work environment he implemented at Gap

[19:45] Eric shares what he believes a good people strategy looks like

[25:28] Eric shares why personalization can be a differentiator for employers

[29:48] Eric details his morning routine (Hint: it includes mediation!)

[34:40] Eric spills the three rules he lives by

The Benifit with Eric Serverson, Chief People Officer at DaVita Kidney Care

[00:00:00] [music]

[00:00:04] Kate King: Hi this is Kate King, host of The Benefit where every episode we dive in and explore companies in how they enable employees to thrive. I am joined today by Eric Severson. He’s a Chief People Officer at DaVita Kidney Care and former co-CHRO and SVP of Human Resources for GAP. We talk about benefit initiatives and their meritable impact to the bottom line. How you can use his philosophies to create this in your company and three inspiring ways he lives by.

Okay, Eric, thank you and welcome to The Benefit podcast today.

[00:00:43] Eric Severson: Thank you for having me, Kate. It’s an honor to be here.

[00:00:45] Kate: Wonderful, so Eric first I was really excited about the opportunity to interview you. Not only because of your success in people strategies but your philosophy of helping people thrive. It is said you are the Zen master of flow with a mission of helping people find joy and meaning in their work. Can you share with us your philosophy of people leadership and creating that driving work environment?

[00:01:15] Eric: Yes, sure. I think Zen master might be a slight exaggeration but I am definitely committed. I consider my calling in life to be to help individuals reach their full potential through their work. I think through much of the 20th century a model of work developed whereby people increasingly have viewed work as a source of diminishment in their life. Something that they try to make up for in their private life. In the 21st century, I think there’s been a re-examination of the purpose of work in individuals lives. I’m incredibly committed to operationalizing a commitment to making work a source of rejuvenation, and wellbeing, and purpose, and growth in people’s lives.

I try to do that as an operating leader within a business by finding ways that through work, individuals can learn habits of being, that allow them to thrive in all aspects of their life while at the same time driving better business outcomes. To me, it’s about being able to teach people through their work life skills that make them better at their jobs but also better at the rest of their lives. Like better parents, better spouses or partners, better community members, better volunteers etcetera.

[00:02:53] Kate: I love it, thank you. It’s interesting just listening to that. I’m thinking of the functional medicine doctor, right? When they come in and look at you holistically and really understand all elements of you both physically, mentally, lifestyle, everything everybody surrounding you. It seems to me that you may be the Zen master of flow but also the functional doctor of the future of work, it sounds like.

[00:03:20] Eric: Interesting connection, I guess you make it because I’m a passionate, adherent to integrated medicine practices. It’s one of the things attracted me to DaVita and have been a patient of an integrated medicine practice for about 10 years. I’m fascinated with the idea of the whole person and how in the modern industrial age, part of what happened with life is compartmentalizing it, taking life and work apart. Really, the whole idea of the assembly line is about taking the work process apart, assigning people little parts of it. I think medicine evolved the same way in the 20th century into specialization and taking things apart.

Now there’s an effort in the 21st century to put it back together and understand how whole systems work in a person and how the mind and body and spirit interacts to create health or unhealth and that kind of stuff. I think the work environment is just the next frontier of that exploration, of reintegrating the human experience whether it’s the teammate or customer or employee experience or the customer or patient experience.

[00:04:33] Kate: Fantastic. You mentioned DaVita. I know you just joined there five months ago. Why don’t we go into that? Tell us a little bit more about what you are responsible for and what your mandate is going to be there, what your passion purpose other than the holistic side of things that will be at DaVita.

[00:04:53] Eric: Sure. Well I joined DaVita six months ago as the Chief People Officer and my role at DaVita is to lead the part of the village as we call it. We refer to DaVita as a village. A longtime principal of the village is that it’s a community first and a company second. Part of my role in the community is to lead our whole team in finding better ways to attract, develop, engage and lead teams of people within our village to high performance to developing and delivering better and better care for patients. We each have a different role in the village in doing that.

Part of mine is leading the operations to find better practices, better programs, better policies, better approaches, for managing people in a way that gets the most out of them. Whether it’s how do we hire people to get the best fit with each role. Or whether it is how once you’ve hired someone, how you develop that individual to get the most out of her. Or how you coach and direct people through various career paths. That’s essentially what my job is all about. It definitely speaks to that this higher purpose of creating an environment where the people can live up to their full potential.

[00:06:26] Kate: Great and what have you been doing so far? What are some early wins have been for you?

[00:06:32] Eric: For sure this is an environment designed from my own thriving I would say. Because it’s a community there’s a long history of being focused on delivering the best of patients by bringing out the best aid teammates. We refer to all of our employees as teammates to really emphasize the relationship between each individual as a part of a team in delivering wellbeing to patients. The mayor of our village who is our CEO, Kent Thiry, has long said to teammates, to patients, to customers, is that in being a community first in a company second, we’re going to focus on teammate wellbeing first and foremost.

Because in order to care for a patient with the fullness of oneself, each teammate needs to be well and it needs to be taken care of. We have a whole long history of programmatic offerings around wellbeing. Just to give you a couple of examples. One of those is called village vitality and it’s a whole portfolio of health and wellbeing programs designed to help teach life skills and wellbeing to teammates. It’s everything from a points based system where teammates can earn points by engaging in healthy behaviors like biometric screenings and health checks etcetera. In order to literally get the cost of their benefits reduced.

It’s incentivizing people to adopt healthy habits to a program we have called Omada for individuals with prediabetes and high blood sugar. It’s a coaching based model. It’s metrics driven, that guides them to healthy eating and exercise habits in order to improve their lives. And ultimately their life, to a program called We Are Well which is helping teammates achieve their own individual health goals through coaching and team based contests etcetera. To mindfulness programs. I think something that’s deep in the culture of the village of DaVita is providing many offerings that help teammates find their own way to wellbeing.

It even includes things like the designs of our buildings. Things like the presence of Zen or contemplation rooms on each floor of our headquarters building. Designing our building so 98% of the teammates have a direct line of sight to daylight from wherever they’re sitting. Gyms and bike storage, on site public transportation access. These are all things that have been very carefully thought about within the village to try to design an environment of wellbeing. Where teammates can thrive and learn behaviors of thriving that they can take with them back home. It’s certainly a village that puts a lot of emphasis on the whole family.

There are many of our programs that spouses and other family members are encouraged to participate in with teammates. Because we recognize that when our teammates supported by loved ones in their health and wellbeing objectives, they are much more likely to statistically to achieve their goals and have positive outcomes.

[00:10:11] Kate: Great. Thank you for those examples. Perhaps you can link some of those examples to what you did when you were the co-chief HR and SVP at GAP. You had implemented a results only work environment. I’m interested in what is it. Because results only suggests that all these great things that you’re doing at DaVita as well as what you did at GAP really have a bottom line impact in terms of results. Maybe you can share some of that strategy with us or what tactics you did with the results only and how you defined success and measured it.

[00:10:54] Eric: Sure. I’d be happy to Kate, sorry. I’ll just say up front that in my view and my experience, in order to be successful in a for profit business environment with implementing habits and practices of wellbeing, it’s incredibly important to create a virtuous cycle. In other words, in order to have sustainable practices of wellbeing, one needs to create an ecosystem that’s economically viable. In other words, you need to be able to demonstrate that any investment that you’re making in teammate health and wellbeing and thriving is also helping the whole operation. In our case at DaVita, the whole village.

In other companies, the whole company to thrive and all the stakeholders to benefit which it could include shareholders in the case of public corporations. Because those shareholders are investing their hard earned money in your operations. I think that’s the first premise. At GAP, with the results only work environment, we were attempted to do something that is also important to us at DaVita, which is to differentiate ourselves as an employer of choice. So that we can attract and retain the very best talent. Part of doing that in any well run business is figuring out what you can do differently and better than other employers that doesn’t just involve paying more money because that’s something that’s easy to replicate.

In both cases, we’re saying, “What else do people crave in their lives that we think we are positioned to offer”? In the case of GAP, we knew that in our industry which was apparel retailing, that one of the biggest challenges facing our employees was the ability to balance work and life. Had to do with the nature of the business as well as the unique demographics of the business which has happened to be about 3/4 female. All of our research was showing that although this issue matter to all employees, women in our workforce were disproportionately affected by work/life imbalance. Because women continue to statistically carry a higher proportion of elder care, child care, home care responsibilities.

In a nutshell, what we did is adopted results only work environment methodology. Which is an evidence based protocol that’s been studied by the National Institutes of Health at University of Minnesota and proven to result in higher productivity and better health outcomes. Such as how an averaged employee is getting almost an hour more of sleep a night than averaged employees and to workout more often, to go to the doctor more often. The essential premise is that you retrain your workforce on a set of values that focus on getting results rather than on putting in time. We adopted this approach in 2009 and measured it rigorously through pre and post testing and piloting.

The results we achieved were pretty astounding that we would cut our employee turnover typically by 50% and we would increase our engagement by up to 10 or more percentage points. Over the course of six or seven years, I think we calculated that our very conservatively calculated our return on investment just based on reduced turnover cost of employees was north of $50 million. I think ultimately what that demonstrated is that when employers adopt solutions to employee wellbeing that speak to real pain points in those employees lives and when they measure rigorously they impact those changes, you can show real positive results that makes the program sustainable over time.

I think in DaVita, we similarly have focused on how we can make our teammates lives more sustainable. We’re in the middle of piloting, for example for our clinic based teammates, a schedule swapping application on their mobile devices. That allows them to be able to trade shifts when they need to, if they have a sick child or some other care need at home. We tested something similar at GAP before I left as well. These are the examples of ways that go way beyond biometric measurement and physical health outcomes. That employers can undertake to make a significant material impact on the lives of their teammates. That extends well beyond the workplace into the community at large.

[00:16:21] Kate: It was a great example, Eric, I appreciate that. Because it’s very tough I think– Most people want to do the right thing for their organization and for their people. But I think it does come down a lot the times to what ultimately is this going to cost me? It’s been very tough I think to be able to put a specific hard number on our ROI with regards to say a wellbeing program. When you see the massive amounts of research coming out now and science based research on the need for people to sleep. The need for people to have that support structure for better decisioning, for turning up every day. I think taking those elements and using the meta cues around employee turnover is a great way to for people start looking at, this really is a smart thing to the business. This really is a smart thing for the bottom line.

[00:17:26] Eric: Yes. I would agree. I feel fortunate to be alive at this point in the 21st century. In the advent of advanced [unintelligible 00:17:40] analytics and digital technology. I think when I began my career in human resources over 20 years ago, we didn’t have the capability to be able to measure the human impact of many of our innovations. Today of course we do. That so inspiring of course because it enables employers of pretty much any size, just with at least readily available software and with the right people, to be able to put in place pilot practices. To test and measure them. Determine real quantifiable outcomes with a financial impact which is important.

Whether or not you’re in a for profit or nonprofit business. I’ve also been involved for many years in nonprofit operations. Nonprofits have the same concern with being able to invest wisely in the right interventions to impact clients and community members. To be able to spend every dollar wisely. Including the dollars they spend on their teammates. I think I’m super inspired by the fact that there is so much research. Showing that making the right investments in team made wellness and not just in wellbeing, not just in the physical realm but emotionally, mentally, spiritually, has a significant impact on the bottom line when done correctly.

[00:19:09] Kate: Yes, absolutely. For some of our listeners who are maybe a small or medium business size– With GAP that was over 140,000 people in a $16 billion business. For people who are just starting out or have a small company or medium company, can you outline the different attributes of what good people strategy could look like for them? The kind of benefits packages that they would offer in that environment.

[00:19:45] Eric: Sure. Regardless of size, I think that in today’s world one of the primary ways to get the most out of a people’s strategy and out of a benefits package is through mass customization. By that I mean, for a same flat investment level, to be able to offer as much choice as possible to your teammates in how they want to invest the spend. For example, if you have $5000 to spend on teammate benefits overall, it’s about finding a means of offering that to them.

It gives them the most choice based on their stage of life, perhaps their generation, the composition of their family, their needs, and desires, to get the most out of that spend. Because a 55 year old employee whose children are grown and is possibly contemplating retirement in the near future is going to have very different needs from a 20 something employee who perhaps is about to have young children and may be buying their first home, and thinking about saving a lot for retirement, an aggressive investment strategy, etcetera. I think the strategy will differ for different sized employers.

For small employers, for example, there are a lot of really great opportunities today with businesses of various sizes for a fully integrated HR systems and strategy solution. Providers that provide end to end service, access to benefits, access to HR information systems, and data analysis, access to composition planning systems, etcetera, which are a great options actually for small to medium size employers. Whereas large employers will usually their own build in house team. Regardless, I encourage employers of all sizes in their current environment to take advantage of the abundance of readily available information externally about what employees today value most from their employer.

Then being able to get on board with a benefits and HR service provider that offers the maximum amount of choice rather than one size fits all. What I find increasingly that works here at DaVita is how we can, over time, offer more choice to individual teammates in how they want to spend their available benefits and employee value proposition dollars. One way we’re doing it out of this big employer is we’re just in the middle of this week actually of conducting a total rewards optimization assessment. Where our teammates are actually taking a conjoint survey in which they’re forced to choose between various options.

Would you rather have a 3% pay increase, or would you rather have an additional child care benefit? The data is going to tell us at a very granular level of the universe of possible things that we could offer to our teammates, which ones did they value most right now in their life.

[00:23:42] Kate: First of all, thank you. I think that number one, that mass customization, which is just really make it easy in that instance. It really gets down to actually one to one personalization of that mass customized platform. Because I think what you’re saying here is what you mentioned, if I’m in my 40s I’m doing X, somebody in their 60s is doing Y. We have such a diverse, right now, of I would say five generations in the workforce. If you include the cyborgs and the machine learning in which to really pull all that data from and really see. To your point, with the technology out there and what is actually being offered and people getting on, or waking up to–

It is about full integration of somebody in the workplace, not a separate view of, I have work and I have a home life. It’s how are you supporting both of those. Which you could argue for the employer, is a good strategy to take on board if they want the best productivity from the employee. It’s not something that should be, “Oh, that’s not our responsibility.” It really looks to support the whole thing. Summarize that very small to medium size business who’s looking at this first and foremost, the choice is certainly out there. I think working with partners who really understand that wellbeing and growth of an employee is as important as the skills in which you are purchasing, so to speak, is definitely a top priority for the people management and people leadership.

[00:25:28] Eric: Yes, I couldn’t agree more. I was just reading an article this week, arguing that it’s time for both employers and marketers to focus less on generations, millennials, gen c, gen y, baby boomers and focus more on what this writer calling gen c, the generation of consumerism. The idea that all generations are really looking for personalization and the ability to mass customize almost any experience to their own unique needs and increasingly people are finding that in the world at large and they’re expecting that now from their employers.

I think a way employers can be increasingly competitive in a very competitive talent marketplace is to invest in increasing the level of personalization of what they offer. To move as much as they can away from one size fits all and as much as possible to a personalized employee experience. One also where they’re able to use their scope and size and skill as an employer to offer meaningful improvement in people’s lives in general. Because my experience, one of the great things millennials have brought to us is a reintegration of life. I think they grew up as generation with lifelong access to the internet and one of the things that internet is a great integrator of different parts of one’s life.

Many millennials who work for us have, say Facebook pages for instance or Instagram accounts that integrate all parts of their life. They don’t see work as separate from home or separate from school. It’s all integrated, so I think smart employers think about the world in that way and how can I bring an integrated experience to my own employees.

[00:27:43] Kate: Absolutely I love that. I think as you start looking at individuals, as you start looking at everything to your point of what marketers are throwing at us every day in terms of really understanding and knowing us, so with the algorithm I should probably know us way better than some of our even closest relationships right out there. That focus now but it’s no longer an option for an employer to say, “Come in and be this grade of your job, doing this function, having this benefits as the package and oh, I’m going to have you be the same as everybody else in that function” is no longer an option for people.

It really is to get the best talent and keep the best talent is, I’m bringing you in as an individual in terms of your expertise and your innovation and your thought leadership around how could we do this versus come into the cock and wheels base and recreate what we’re already doing today. I think we’re probably a little bit further off. Some of the bigger companies have been able to really turn the boat around quickly on that but something that is absolutely imperative to a company to be successful and sustain successes we move forward.

[00:28:56] Eric: I think that’s exactly right.

[00:28:58] Kate: Eric, we’re just going to spend a few more minutes if that’s okay with you. I know we’re close to time, just talk a little about Eric. There’s two questions that I’ve been asking some of my participants really for our listeners but also my interest. One of them is morning routine and the morning routine I think is we’re starting to see so much research talking this space. This really is starting to go to what we were talking about before, it’s an individual practice that actually enables you to get the best at what you personally are trying to achieve. Do you have a morning routine and are you comfortable sharing that morning routine with us?

[00:29:48] Eric: Sure, I do and it’s an outgrowth of a visit I made about 10 years ago to a whole health practice. It was evaluating my overall wellbeing and out of that grew a prioritization system that I use to this day around wellbeing. It’s based on the premise that as a very busy business person who frequently finds himself with insufficient time to accomplish everything that needs to be accomplished on a given day, I need to have a system to prioritize what comes first, what comes second, what comes third. Not having such a system is actually a source of great stress for me.

It probably is for lots of people where you’re constantly debating, “I can’t get it all done. What has to fall by the wayside?”. My system is very simple. I’m a daily meditator and I try to workout every day. Try to eat well every day and try to sleep minimally seven hours a night based on the research of Dr. James Maas from the Cornell Sleep Center, that seven is the magic number. My prioritization is as follows. Number one, sleep seven hours. Number two, eat minimally three meals a day. Number three, work out every day. Number four, meditate every day for 15 minutes. The way my system works if I have insufficient time to do all four of those things the first one to go is number four, I don’t meditate that day. If I still don’t have enough time then I don’t work out, then the eating, then the sleeping in that order. I never have to stop and debate what’s going to fall from the plate I always know.

I’m happy and at peace with that system. There are days where I don’t do all four of those things but I’m okay with it because I know that the next day I will. I think that having a system like that can work for a lot of people and it definitely has worked for me. I would add one more additional item and it’s not part of necessarily my morning ritual but my evening. It has been for about 10 years and that’s an appreciation ritual that I typically conduct when I’m driving home if I’m driving home from work or if not when I walk the dog at night. That is to recite with my husband, my three things from the day that I appreciate.

This is about creating a habit of appreciation in my life where I set a pattern going in my mind to look for what’s right instead of what’s wrong. It’s also a way for the two of us to connect. Thirdly, it’s a way, when I get home from work, to be in a state of appreciation instead of a state of complaint. It’s really changed my life the way that meditation has changed my life in the morning. I think those are good examples of daily habits and rituals that have not been difficult to implement and had a transformational impact on my happiness and I think my overall performance in my job.

[00:33:06] Kate: Fantastic, very inspiring. I do like that evening ritual. I think that has so many places you can use it for not just at home with your close partner, with your kids but actually and also without sounding too over the top in the workplace, you could probably– If leaders said more often what they appreciate about a team about somebody’s contribution then that again is another strategy around better productivity and better retention.

[00:33:41] Eric: Yes, I would agree and I would say that one of the keys is I would call it nonincrementalism. It is if you want to have it to stick find something you’re already doing and substitute the habit for a part of that process. In my case, the evening ritual I didn’t add it timewise on top of everything else I had to do. I took something I was already doing, driving home, and I had to do anyways and worked it into that process so that it’s something it’s easy for me to replicate because I do it every day without any time. Same thing with meditating, if I can’t take separate time to meditate, I’ll do walking meditations. I have to walk somewhere anyways I can just meditate while I’m walking.

[00:34:24] Kate: Fantastic. Eric, thank you. Last question for you. If you could condense it down to three, what would be the three rules you live by?

[00:34:40] Eric: I think the first one is well known as Law of Attraction. I’m going to adhere it to that philosophy which is the idea that that is likened to itself is drawn that you get what you think about. I am disciplined, my first rule is would be disciplined about what I choose to think about and focus a lot more of my time thinking about what I want and what I don’t want. I found that when I can practice that consistently, my state of mental peace and wellbeing is substantially more robust. I would say too, “Don’t sweat the small stuff.”

This is about me being disciplined in my focus and the things that matter and that I can affect, and letting go of the rest. Probably third, it’s a quote by [unintelligible 00:35:43] “Speak with your life, not just your words.” It’s an expression of the fact that I’m a very action oriented person, and I believe in showing and doing above speaking, and experimenting and trying things out. Those are three that I use to guide my life.

[00:36:12] Kate: Thank you very much. Eric, thank you so much for the session today. I really appreciate your time. I know our listeners will really appreciate, not only strategies in which they can effectively implement quickly but also the thought leadership that goes into that, of really taking that function, that whole integrated holistic approach, to this view that is bringing humans back into the workplace. That we are humans first and foremost, and having that need to have a whole life, and work be part of it. I really appreciate your thoughts. I love the strategies you are putting into the DaVita Village is fantastic.

The fact that you could come up so eloquently with three rules to live by so quickly, I’m very inspired and impressed. So, thank you very much.

[00:37:04] Eric: Thank you so much for the opportunity to share, Kate, it was really a pleasure.


[00:37:16] Kate: Thanks for listening and spending time with us. I hope you enjoyed the interview with Eric. For a transcribed version of this show, head over to, B-E-N-I.F-I-T, forward slash, Podcast. This is the start of conversations that begin to identify the best practices of when humans thrive companies prosper. If you would like to recommend anyone for the show, please email me at [email protected], I-N-F-O @ B-E-N-I.F-I-T. Thank you.

[00:37:59] [END OF AUDIO]

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