Applying Health Ecosystem Leadership to Systemic Inequity in Healthcare: A Q&A with Sysco’s CHRO Ron Philips

Contributors: Tracy Duberman and Ron Philips
To learn more about Tracy and Ron, click here.



We have arrived at a pivotal moment in time, one we hope will inspire America to engage in a conversation around how we as individuals, organizations, and as a nation can and must do better. This past year highlighted the centuries of inequality and racism that culminated into acutely and ongoing horrific consequences for Black Americans.

In the healthcare industry, continued perpetuation of systemic inequality is at odds with our shared mission of healing the communities we serve. When it comes to systemic change, the fact is no one of us can do it alone. For systemic change to occur, diverse stakeholders must join together, speak out, and collaborate. United around our common purpose, healthcare industry leaders must harness our collective power and influence to champion changes that will benefit the health of our nation. And, we must do it together. We invite you to consider the following model for change.

Envision a New Future

Leaders have the platform and influence to ignite dialogue that leads to meaningful change.  We need to take the time to listen, discover, organize, and absorb from others to create a shared understanding of what a racially just and equitable future can look like. Only from here – with a shared vision – can we align efforts and outcomes.

Align Diverse Stakeholders

To advocate for change, we need to orchestrate a coherent system of actions taken simultaneously by actively seeking connections, taking concrete steps to enable trust, and demonstrating respect for diverse experience and perspectives.   For too long, we have focused on perspectives in silos – perspectives from the Black community or from the white community but not together. 

Manage Boundaries and Obstacles

Support constructive conflict by keeping an open mind, disagreeing respectfully, and tirelessly seeking common ground. This requires us to be vulnerable and empathetic, to push through the discomfort, and begin engaging in difficult conversations. This is where the change begins: With each of us sharing, listening, and becoming comfortable with uncomfortable discourse.

Act and Learn

Define change plans, and take reasonable steps despite uncertainty, identify what is working and what is not, to adapt plans and advance a shared vision for a more just society. In the world of leadership, this starts with recognition of how current organizational practices may contribute to systemic racism and a commitment to make meaningful and impactful shifts.

In this Q&A with Ron Phillips, CHRO, Sysco and former Senior Vice President of Human Resources - Retail & Enterprise Modernization for CVS Health, we explore systemic inequity within the current U.S. healthcare system and apply the competencies of health ecosystem leadership to open a dialogue toward meaningful solutions to our nation’s most pressing problems. 

Envision the Future. From the perspective of envisioning a new, more positive and equitable future, what might a racially equitable and just future for healthcare look like?

To me, it means bringing to bear all the assets that companies within the health ecosystem can to break down barriers to access, barriers to affordability, barriers to quality healthcare. Companies need to figure out all the pieces that impact affordable access to healthcare. For example, CVS invests in affordable housing because zip code has as much of an impact on your health as genetic code. 

Align Stakeholders. How does one go about getting the right people to the table to make systemic change in healthcare?

Start within your own networks, with your friends, your family. Regardless of your specific role in your organization, we all contribute to the organization's ability to serve those who need us. If you belong to professional organizations, ask the question of what they can do to address inequality and injustice. Be the one to ask questions, to force dialogue, instead of just moving the agenda. We are connected through social channels now more than ever before. And so, how hard would it be to convene a group on LinkedIn to have a cross company or even multi-industry discussion about inequity? The question the civil rights movement of the 60s asked over and over again was, "If not you, then who? If not now, then when?" I would say now is the time to be engaging folks, to bring them to the table. You don't have to necessarily have the formal title or formal authority to begin to move the needle. We lead within our families, with our kids, our colleagues. We lead in our community. There are so many different opportunities.

Managing Obstacles and Boundaries. Why haven't we made more progress in addressing inequities in our healthcare system? Is it because of boundaries and obstacles? Are they insurmountable or are they issues we can overcome?

I think about the effect of interpersonal, institutional, and systemic biases and policy, practices, structural inequities, and the sorting of people. We sort people into resource-rich or resource-poor neighborhoods largely based on race and socioeconomic status. I was watching something the other day that said we are even more segregated today than prior to Brown vs. the Board of Education in 1954! That is shocking to me, but it says something about the structural nature of racism. Structural inequities create large and preventable differences in health metrics such as life expectancy. I think about the consequences of national healthcare policy. You see that in the politics today - for example in rejection of policies to protect people with pre-existing conditions. Around 27% of non-elderly adults have pre-existing conditions. Racial and ethnic minorities are disproportionately represented in that group. And we are seeing, especially over the last few years, the weakening of protections for these patients. But I do feel a sense of hope and optimism. Now is the time to demand change.

Act and Learn. During COVID, large organizations were able to turn on a dime and get things done. How can we maintain the speed at which we can get things done?

"Comfort is the enemy of change."  I think about the number of head of HR calls I've been on over the past year with every kind of group you could imagine and the learnings and the sharing of information. And I think your question is the right one: How do you maintain the forward movement? Holding debriefs, doing a comparative analysis around what the world was like pre-COVID, understanding how decisions get made, what the barriers were to getting decisions implemented, etc. I think it is about focus.

Key Take-Aways. For healthcare leaders looking to make an impact during this time, what immediate action steps do you recommend they take?

Collaboration. The public health and the medical communities need to join with other sectors. I think they need to form policy advocacy coalitions around factors that promote social mobility, basic environmental protections, transit, healthcare, education. All those things will lower the overall levels of socioeconomic inequality.

Contact Tracy at: [email protected]
Contact Ron at: [email protected]