Denise Sims James, national director of engagement, talent, and career enrichment at Trinity Health, feels like she has finally fulfilled her promise to her brother David. Having spent more than fifteen years in increasingly senior HR roles in other industries, Sims James transitioned to healthcare because she wanted to work for an organization that supports vulnerable communities.
Through her brother’s eyes, Sims James was able to see what the most vulnerable often experience. David, who was battling HIV/AIDS at the height of the worldwide epidemic, wound up in a hospital waiting room with his sister. David didn’t have insurance, and he waited for hours to be seen.
“The way they treated him was disrespectful with no focus on care,” Sims James remembers. “We ended up sitting in a corner of the waiting room. He cried, I cried, and he passed away just a few weeks later, on June 11, 1991. I dedicated my degree to him, and I promised him that at some point in my life, I would influence those in need from a career standpoint.”
That journey would take longer than she expected: Denise Sims James began her career at Ford, where she progressed significantly during her tenure. She built great relationships, memories, and positive experiences. Though it was challenging to leave, Denise accepted a senior organizational role at Trinity Health, a faith-based healthcare organization with 115,000 employees, 88 hospitals, 131 continuing care locations, and many other health and well-being services caring for diverse communities across 25 states.
Since coming to Trinity Health in 2020, Sims James has helped the organization reimagine its talent and career enrichment experiences with an intentional connection to culture, engagement, and diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). DEI is especially close to the director’s heart because of her personal and professional journeys.
Born on an Air Force base in Austin, Texas, she lived in Madrid, Spain, and Louisiana before returning to Austin. “I personally did not see my family experience racism when we lived in Europe,” she says. “When we came back to the United States, it was a really eye-opening experience for me.” Even while attending an all-Black school, Sims James was judged for speaking and acting differently than her peers.
“I was just being me,” she explains. “When it comes to inclusion, equity, and belonging, I’ve spent my career creating spaces where you can be your true self and feel good about it. Being open to sharing and learning from challenging stories supports people to advance together for change.”
At Trinity Health, Denise Sims James has further employed one of her strong suits: building and creating strategy around the talent space. She aims a special focus on frontline employees, which in turn improves the care they’re able to give patients. It’s a strategy that works at all levels: promoting engagement, learning, mentoring, coaching, and employee development opportunities.
Sims James led the competency model design, a key Trinity Health project the organization had been working on for several years. “These competencies tie directly into the mission and culture here and are part of a candidate’s journey from their very first interview and throughout their entire experience,” Sims James explains. “In coming here, there was a lot on my plate, and I knew this needed to be taken on first given the impact.”
That work is bolstered by collaboration with numerous internal employee resource groups and internal and external stakeholders. At the time of our interview, Sims James was preparing for a large discussion with the Women’s Inclusion Network and allies to talk about culture, competencies, and personal journeys.
Trinity Health has also partnered with the Marcus Buckingham Company, an ADP Company, using its technology platform to impact engagement. “It’s about learning how you celebrate people and leverage their strengths to achieve their full potential,” Sims James says. “Focusing on those instead of people’s shortcomings helps people connect with what they love, which has a direct influence on our mission, colleague well-being, business outcomes, and retaining our top talent.”
Sims James has also started to make an impact is how the organization engages in what she calls “real talk,” transparency and a willingness to engage in difficult and challenging conversations. The director recently led the design and implementation of talent and succession planning to enhance and accelerate a diverse and inclusive talent pipeline.
Her colleagues outside the company have noticed her dedication. “What sets Denise apart is her ability to see how HR connects to the business and then very purposefully bring together stakeholders to support multiple initiatives aimed at delivering value through people and organization capabilities,” says Norm Smallwood, cofounder of The RBL Group.
Inspired by her parents’ example, Denise continues to find ways to make a difference in the lives of those around her. The director is part of Zeta Phi Beta Sorority Inc., an international community-focused organization.
“Whatever the organization, it is about the mission,” the director says. “At Trinity Health, it’s about serving together, in the spirit of the Gospel, as a compassionate and transforming healing presence within our communities. As I approach any project, initiative, or stakeholder, that is always on my mind.”
And it’s a mission Denise Sims James knows her brother David and her entire family are proud of.
Lessons from David
Denise Sims James experienced a great loss with the death of her brother David in 1991. His death also helped create significant change.
Because David was Black and gay in a military family, Sims James explains there were a lot of emotions and focus on what others would think. “It was a challenging time for us, but in his final days, my brother, dad, and others were able to come together to find healing,” she reflects. “For the rest of his years, my dad was the first person to say that you need to care and treat everyone with dignity and respect. David helped my dad and others find that empathy and compassion.”
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