5 Keys for Talent Retention in Integrated Health

A Conversation with John Howlett

I had the opportunity to interview John Howlett, and he shared how he leads a recruitment team to retain top talent for a major health system in Illinois. Reading his advice will help your retention rate.

Chad Harrington
9 February 2016

With 35,000 associates among 250 healthcare sites, John Howlett’s got his recruiting hands full as Manager of Talent Acquisition for Advocate Health Care, Illinois’s largest integrated health system.

Advocate employees | Image credit: Advocate Health

Advocate employees | Image credit: Advocate Health


During our interview, what stood out to me most is his value for every position, not just the “important ones.” That’s a vital characteristic for a talent acquisition professional for such a large operation.

Howlett’s main goal is to fill positions with great talent. Part of filling positions, is keeping them filled, so during our interview, I pressed into that to find out exactly how his team retains top talent. His answers will either reinforce your retention rate or will help increase it.

Going into his sixth year with Advocate, Howlett leads the sourcing arm of recruiters who identify top talent for all of our clinical and non-clinical non-management positions, the last major bullet point directly below:

An Overview of Advocate’s Recruitment Function

  • Physician Recruitment: 6 Physician Recruiters
  • Management Selection: 4 Talent Management Consultants
  • Non-Management Recruitment: 37
    • 15 Talent Acquisition Specialists
    • 22 Staffing Consultants

He told us that “every position is important because each role furthers our goal of creating the best patient experience possible.”

That’s what you’d expect to hear from an organization that has five hospitals among the 2015 Truven Health Analytics list of 100 Top Hospitals. The Advocate hospital system can’t be anything less in the recruitment department to make it on that national list.

Relode: How do you retain top talent across an entire health system?

John Howlett: “First off, throughout Advocate Health Care we have employees that are not only top professionals in their field, but are also wonderful people. This fosters an environment where positive working relationships drive tremendous business and health outcomes, thus strengthening each individual’s sense of purpose and value within the system.  

“Advocate also allows for job transfer after six months of employment and is a big proponent of moving high performers vertically within the organization.  Furthermore, given our dedication to evolution and adaptation within an ever-changing health care provider landscape, Advocate is always creating new job opportunities for our employees to utilize their skills and experience in new capacities.


"This commitment to professional and personal development creates a strong bond between employer and employee and is evident during annual service award ceremonies at our sites that celebrate work anniversaries ranging from 5 years to 40+ years of service.

“Additionally, when one thinks about retaining top talent, great benefits certainly come into play.  Our Benefits department does a fantastic job of delivering a plethora of competitive benefits options for our employees (pension, identity theft protection, mobile phone plan discounts, etc.).”

“In summary, Advocate Health Care offers options to our employees that enriches them personally and professionally and allows them to continue to grow within the organization.”

In summary, Advocate retains top talent through

  1. On-boarding strong professionals and good people
  2. Transferring jobs after six months of employment
  3. Promoting high performers
  4. Creating new job opportunities
  5. Offering competitive benefits

Top advice from Advocate’s recruitment leader, Howlett

“The top three things I would say for a recruitment leader in a health system is:

  1. Communicate with leaders and be forward-thinking
  2. Constantly re-engage your recruitment staff
  3. Understand your business and your metrics.

1. Communicate with leaders and be forward-thinking.

"The most important thing for a recruiter to do is listen. You need to understand the pain points of your leaders, and not just those that have a position open. A good healthcare recruiter rounds on all their leaders to understand how team morale is, what the skills makeup of the staff is, and where the leader sees his or her department in the next quarter, 6 months, year, etcetera.

"By doing that, you can be progressive and proactive with your talent identification efforts in order to deliver in a timely manner when called to action.”

2. Constantly re-engage your recruitment staff.  

"It is imperative that you consistently re-engage your recruitment staff to ensure that you are putting them into the best position to be successful and that they feel valued. You have to maximize their skills sets and align their strengths with the appropriate service lines, as well as provide them with the best resources to find the right talent for their assigned openings.  

“Furthermore, your staff needs to know you value their production and the intangibles that they bring to the team dynamic. Especially in health care, job requisition workloads can spike to extremely high levels at a moment's notice and the pressure can be become unimaginable.

"Therefore, you have to keep a pulse, round on them regularly, and let them know how important they are to your organization."

3. Understand your business and your metrics.

"Regarding recruitment needs and talent supply, the health care provider space is always fluctuating, so it is necessary to understand the direction your business and industry is heading. In order to be effective, a recruitment leader also has to have a grasp on various metrics (time-to-fill, time-to-start, job requisitions over 60 days, etcetera) and identify any obstacles to not only finding the talent but to moving the interview process along efficiently.”

What they haven't solved yet

JH: “We can never have enough great talent in our candidate pipelines, so we can never stop telling our story in order to make the connection with the marketplace. There is so much more to a healthcare provider system than just doctors and nurses. Patients and their families want to walk into a clean and safe site of care, so we need the best people in our facilities and maintenance departments.

“Patients want access to their medical records electronically and so it is important that we employ strong IT professionals that can make this happen. Advocate needs to navigate through complex reimbursement platforms in order to stay financially sound, as utilize new medical technology in order to produce the best health outcomes for our patients.  

“Therefore, we are always looking for top-tier finance and accounting professionals.  We are always striving to show how someone’s talents can make a difference in our organization.”

My reflections on retention

What was surprising for me to hear from Howlett was how important every position is to their recruitment function. He said, "Every role is vital to our organization."

He meant that every position is important in health care, even if it’s not a clinical position. That’s what seems to make Advocate great, where people can say, “it’s the entire Advocate experience.”



Chad Harrington is the Content Director at Relode, the human-powered job posting. He writes on all things hiring. Contact him through email. Follow Relode on Twitter.