Be Here, Be You, Belong

University of Kansas Health System’s Julie Celano on making every voice heard

Julie Celano first entered the healthcare sphere working in physiology, then in HR roles in the for-profit sector until tragedy struck. “I had a defining moment where a number of people close to me died of cancer and heart disease, and it made me realize I was a mission-driven person who needed to be part of a mission-driven organization.” Celano wanted to work in a field where she knew her daily efforts would impact lives for the better and not simply for the end of the business quarter. The now senior vice president and chief human resources officer at the University of Kansas Health System says she’s found a home and is spearheading initiatives to make all those at UKHS feel seen and heard. She feels very fortunate to build on what she says is a wonderful culture with remarkable leadership.

Julie Celano of UKHS
Julie Celano, University of Kansas Health System Photo by Mark McDonald

Keeping it Simple

 Celano says that regardless of the task, the manner in which she pursues it is largely the same. “What’s most important to me is distilling a lot of complexity into simplicity,” Celano says. “Thinking simply is not the opposite of complexity, it’s creating processes that are more consumer-minded.”

The SVP says she is always intent on creating processes that replicate what a consumer would experience. In her prior role, Celano rolled out a new employee orientation app that allowed new hires to complete a process on their phone instead of having to come into the office. “We’re now used to Uber and going to our phones for just about anything, but healthcare in the administration role has remained largely stagnant,” Celano says. The ultimate goal is to work to clear some of the red tape and hierarchical confusion that are often hallmarks of healthcare both in the administrative sphere and beyond.

Embracing Difference

Celano isn’t afraid of the word “disrupter” when it comes to her own work. In fact, she embraces this word to enforce that people should be valued for the differences they bring to a role, not their capacity to fit in.

“I’m trying to disrupt the idea of what we think of when we use the word ‘difference,’” Celano says. “People tell you to treat everyone the same and I think that is completely misguided. We have to treat everyone differently and respond to their uniqueness.”

In her various roles, Celano seeks to create what she calls “gracious space” for her team. “I care deeply about everyone that I come in contact with, that they’re allowed to speak their truth and be themselves, not just fit in,” Celano says. “I let my team really wrestle with issues so we can come together and provide the best ultimate outcome for all involved.” Creating that space isn’t easy and it certainly isn’t for everyone, but the SVP says it’s the first step toward accounting for real and lasting diversity and inclusion changes.

As part of an upcoming diversity and inclusion push, the HR team has created a slogan for UKHS to rally around: Be Here, Be You, Belong. “Any time you join a group, I worry about groupthink,” Celano says. “That can involve losing the best part of yourself just to fit in, and we cannot afford to do that if we want the best.”

Thomas P. Flannery, a close colleague of Celano’s at Korn Ferry, has witnessed her people-centric strategy firsthand. “Julie brings talents that are essential for success in an institution as complex and growing as UKHS,” he says. “She has demonstrated an ability to deal with tough issues and does it in a manner that, when underpinned with a positive set of values, is collaborative and enhances the mission. There is no question that she puts people first—all members of the UKHS community, be they physicians, nurses, social workers, or food service workers.”

“People tell you to treat everyone the same and I think that is completely misguided. We have to treat everyone differently and respond to their uniqueness.”


 Celano says she frames the hiring process as working to find a culture add instead of a culture fit. “Obviously values have to fit, but I’m looking for someone who is going to add and push us to be even better. I don’t want someone looking to simply fit in,” Celano says.

That can admittedly be a difficult conversation to bring to academic medicine. It’s why Celano has endeavored to bring some of that for-profit mindset and talent to UKHS. “In coming here, I realized that many people have been here for a long time, and that their way of doing things has yielded tremendous success,” Celano says. “But in working to create some positive transformation and a slightly more for-profit in a mission-driven organization, we’re able to get us where we need to go a little more quickly.”

Celano says that she spent her first year establishing this process while developing relationships in order to build trust, or as she puts it, “going slow now to go fast later.” In working to recruit talent from the for-profit sector, Celano says it’s imperative to find individuals who are mission-driven to their core. “In coming here, I had great respect for the people here who had created so much success, which provided a terrific platform on which I could build,” the SVP adds.

There is one mindset from the for-profit world that Celano says comes in very useful in a mission-driven organization. “We always used to describe a situation as life-and-death or that the sky was falling, but it was just business,” Celano says. “Now, we can employ that sense of urgency, because it is life and death we’re talking about here.”

As she continues to push for transformation, Celano says that UKHS may have initially seemed an unlikely home for a woman who had never been to the Midwest, but that the selfless and team-oriented style of the organization has proved inspiring. “They are truly committed to doing the right thing here,” Celano says. “It was so clear that was the ethos here and the driving motive; I knew this was where I needed to be.” The SVP says her position is an honor, allowing her to help a wonderful organization look ahead.