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Dorian Harriston is the Chief Marketing and Communications Officer at Morehouse School of Medicine. She has been in the role for about six months now, having previously served in marketing and communications roles at Cedars-Sinai and The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center.

Harriston, as her current position suggests, knows healthcare marketing and communications inside out, having built successful brand positioning, digital marketing and content experiences throughout her career. But she joined the podcast to talk about a big part of her career – and work at Morehouse School of Medicine – that isn’t as obvious: Team building. Maybe Harriston’s biggest strength, lying just under the surface of the Marcomm job description, is finding ways to elevate people to do their best work. The result?

  • Aligned teams with every member fully bought into the work and goals in front of them
  • A more diverse workforce, with opportunities for anyone and everyone to grow and advance
  • More equitable, patient-centric care that comes out of clear and personal messaging from that mission-oriented team of marcomm pros.

In this conversation, Harriston talks about how…

  • Everything starts with strong relationships
  • Her personal and professional background influences her role at Morehouse School of Medicine
  • She has taken an already committed, strong team and not rest on that historical excellence but continued to push forward
  • She pursues a policy of confidence, honesty and openness with her team as a way to get the best ideas and outcomes out of the work – and giving those team members a chance to shine in the process.

Read the Transcript

[00:00:36] David Shifrin: Today, I am really excited to be talking with Dorian Harrison, who’s the Chief Marketing and Communications Officer at Morehouse School of Medicine. She has been in the role for about five months now, and Dorian is, I think it’s fair to say, a dear friend of the firm and just somebody that we’ve all learned so much from in our conversations over the years. So Dorian, thanks for taking the time. I know things are incredibly busy for you.

[00:00:41] Dorian Harriston: Thank you so much. It’s always a pleasure.

[00:00:44] DS: So, normally, I don’t ask people to introduce themselves and give all the background, but I do think that because it’s very relevant to the overall conversation today, for reference, give us the rundown on the Morehouse name and the relationship between the organizations that carry the name.

[00:01:00] DH: Absolutely. So, I am at Morehouse School of Medicine, and I’m incredibly proud to be here, not only because of the exemplary team that I work with, but also what attracted me to come here was the overall mission and making sure that we followed that in leading the creation and advancement of health equity to achieve health justice.

I came in the middle of beginning our new strategic plan, and every day I’m learning about how far we are expanding in our service and culturally humble care and all the things we are achieving for our learners. And I’m just amazed every day and becoming more amazed the more time that I spend here.

[00:01:52] DS: Talk a little bit about what that work looks like as you’ve jumped in on this new strategic work and the efforts and initiatives that you’re pursuing. What does it mean in practice? I think the title is obvious, but daily and strategically, what does it mean to be Chief Marketing Communications Officer?

[00:02:09] DH: For me personally, being Chief Marketing and Communications Officer is a culmination of all the experience I’ve gathered over the years. I started off with my background in public relations. I worked in public relations, I’ve worked as a promotion director in radio, I worked in the hospitality industry as a front office director, learning that customer spirit experience, focus, and moving towards that.

I worked in nonprofit or not-for-profit as a Public Relations Director and leading the communication efforts and marketing efforts across a national nonprofit. And then I moved into healthcare, and it was extremely unexpected. I worked at an organization that was considered the gatekeeper for the state for Medicare, and I was given a really lofty goal:

Go into the state, increase the number of mammograms for elderly women, increase A1C tests across the state, and also help integrate electronic medical records in physician offices. And I had no idea how to do that… any of that. But I was able to make highly successful moves and reach my goals all through building relationships and partnerships.

So that’s a lesson that I continue to move forward. Your relationships and partnerships are everything. And I was always – I’ve always considered myself, no matter what position I was in, to be a leader. And I learned that you can lead from every level.

So, I took that experience in healthcare and transformed it by being recruited to The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, and then I gained a lot of my service line experience there.

I gained a lot of learning about how universities interact and academic medical centers – why they matter so much and how that related with the research, the care, and the community. And that culminated by being recruited to Cedars-Sinai and being able to continue that work and also helped to build a department that incorporated research and academics, DEI, health equity, and then community engagement and outreach across the institution.

And that really built helping to build that department and build that collaboration. Because normally in every institution I’ve been in, those areas are a little bit siloed. And that kind of helped me get to where I am now. And so, I had always admired everything that Morehouse School of Medicine had done, but I never imagined me actually being there.

I just watched them, knew what they… what was happening there. And being able to come here and join in that mission is truly a culmination of everything I’ve done in my career.

[00:05:36] DS: So, you talked, Dorian – you mentioned how the transition into healthcare was unexpected. Is there anything about healthcare and academia that sort of feeds or matches up with your philosophy on leadership? Are there things about the industry that we’re in – specifically about caring for patients, training students – that you feel like lend themselves particularly well to your overall sort of philosophy and goals?

Or is that just sort of like, you have your leadership philosophy and your goals around equity and justice? And healthcare happens to be the place where you’re living those out.

[00:06:12] DH: My mother was a nurse.

[00:06:14] DS: Okay.

[00:06:15] DH: She shared a lot of her memories of doing that. By the time I was born, she had retired from nursing. But loved it. And then actually it’s very personal for me because when she got breast cancer, it was discovered in very later stages and going with her to those treatments.

Seeing how people were treated and misunderstood – the right questions weren’t always answered. And she would correct those things or try to assist in making sure she had better care. And then other family members and then myself, who had a surgery, had a very bad experience with that.

Surgery – as far as getting pain medication and understanding exactly what I was saying when I was trying to help with a diagnosis. All of those things really spurred me to say, “What can I do? I’m not a physician, I’m not a nurse, I’m not a clinician. What can I do to be helpful?” And when I worked at an organization, a nonprofit called Vocational Guidance Services, they did a lot of rehabilitative work.

They helped and serviced everyone in the community, including the underserved. And so going to Medicare, all of these experiences said, “Oh, wow. I can help by creating collateral and materials and resources that make it easier for people to help with their prevention.”

“What can I do to make this more understandable? How can I make sure that people have the information they don’t have? And most importantly, how can I give people what they want versus what I think they want?” And keeping that concept in mind has always helped me to make the correlation.

And then jumping into being at a health system that had a university with it. When being at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, interacting with that side of things really helped me make the correlation that this starts in the pathway. This starts by, “How can we make these students before they even get to middle school?”

“How can we bring this information to them so that these are careers?” And my goodness, how many careers are in it – within the healthcare system – that are not just doctors or nurses or clinicians. There are researchers. There are so many different leadership roles within the administrative and support services.

How can we make this more apparent so that this can be more diverse and expanded – and that’s part of the mission of where I am too, to expand and diversify the healthcare workforce so that everyone is achieving health equity. So that kind of became personal to me as I move forward, especially I think that was intensified during the pandemic because it was just kind of like, “What can I do as one individual to be helpful when these things are occurring all over the world?”

[00:09:35] DS: Dorian, I want to continue on that track a little bit and, at Jarrard, we look at just about everything we do through the lens of, “What do you say to or do with internal audiences, and then what do you say to external audiences? How do you tailor that engagement with each group?”

And then you get everybody aligned in a way that meets their needs so that everybody internally or externally can be along and be part of the process. So, with that in mind, there’s a couple of places I want to go starting with as you were just talking about elevating and diversifying the workforce. And I’d love to start internally with you and your team, and just talk about how you walked through the door the first day – you looked around. How did you identify the people that you wanted to join your team and elevate them and support them, and then continue to engage them so that you’re all pulling in the same direction?

[00:10:25] DH: I was very lucky when I came to Morehouse School of Medicine. I had a team that had been diligently working and were super engaged with the mission. And so, I didn’t have to make them enthusiastic about their work or convince them that this was the right place for them. They had already decided that they were committed and loyal to that mission, and they had been doing that consistently.

So, that was the easy part. The challenging part for me was knowing who they are, what their desired positions were – “What do you want to do versus what do you have to do?” Because people are very talented, and I’m talented in several areas.

I can do things, I can achieve things, but what is my true passion and what do I want to do in addition to that? It’s more than an “or,” it’s more an “and” for me. And so, I had to get to learn my team, and I’m still learning them. I wanted to make sure that I observed before I created or recommended any changes because I’m coming into their – how I’m coming into where they have been working, and they know the system.

My goal was to learn alongside them because I have worked in just about every position within marketing communications and almost every department now that I’m thinking about it. Of course, I started in elementary school, David. I won’t say how long that’s been, but I wanted to learn the process and how they did things and where their light was, and in learning that I would be able to create a structure that helped them move forward in the way that the institution needs the support because I don’t believe in making changes before I have the data to back myself up.

I want to make sure that I’m making the right moves, but I also want to be assertive in making sure that we’re moving at the pace that we need to make as well.

And so that was getting to know them. We had a really good – Our learning and development did an excellent session within my first two weeks to say, “This is your team. This is who they are, this is who Dorian is. Ask her anything.” We had a live in-person Reddit session where they could ask me anything.

And then I, in turn, asked them some questions. And then we made – we committed to each other. I committed as to what I would do as their leader, making sure that they continue to develop, making sure that they had the resources they need to do their jobs, those kinds of commitments.

And, in turn, I asked them to commit to me that you will bring your whole self to work. That you will utilize the open-door policy to let me know what is going on and what I can be helpful to you. And then, I told them, “Here’s who I am when I’m at my best. Here’s who I am when I’m not quite at my best.”

Because no one is perfect, and I wanted them to understand who I am, what my leadership style was, who I am as an individual.

And I wanted to kind of get them prepared for that. And I plan to go over that again at intervals because I want to know who they are when they’re not at their best. I want to be able to give them the grace to not always have a hundred percent day. And I want to empower them to make mistakes because I’m a firm believer – and this is something my dad constantly said to me – “I don’t care what mistake you made. How you fix it is my biggest concern – or importance to me is how you’re fixing those mistakes.” And so, I wanted to make sure I communicated that.

[00:14:34] DS: What has that – What has that done for you and your team as you’ve then gone out and done your work in support of the organization to serve patients, students, faculty?

Talk a little bit about that… what that alignment means for the broader work.

[00:14:49] DH: I think that alignment is vital because if I don’t understand who my team is, as a collective and also as individuals, then I can’t help them shine. And that’s my true job… is to block and tackle. And to make sure that they have opportunities to lead and to be spotlighted for their work because I’m asking a lot of them, and I know that.

But it’s because I know that they can deliver. I’ve seen them deliver and now we’re always trying to – our President and CEO, Dr. Valerie Montgomery Rice, always says we are in constant pursuit of excellence. And I hold that to be very true in my team. I’m in constant pursuit of excellence myself, and so it is my job to keep them motivated and align them. And throughout my career, as I’ve built teams or been a part of teams, I haven’t always been the leader of the team. I’m always a collective, no matter where I go. I’m part of a team, whether that’s the executive leadership team or the marketing communications team, or whatever departmental team, the communications, the marketing team, and so forth and so on.

No matter how granular that hierarchy goes, I have to play my part in the team, and that is to – I like to use the phrase, “I’m a leader who listens because things change constantly, especially in marketing communications.”

You constantly have new resources. You have news. You have all of these different things that come in a matter of a millisecond, and you have to be able to pivot and be flexible. And so, as a long answer to your question, I think in any team, it has been the ability to listen, learn, and be able to pivot on a dime at all times.

And that has helped me to be successful in my role, to be successful as a leader and to be open and accepting. And that has also helped me. It’s the relationships. It always comes back to the relationships.

[00:17:00] DS: So, then Dorian, you also at the beginning talked about your commitment to and your focus on health justice and equity, diversifying the healthcare workforce. And so, I’d love to hear about that as well in, again, the same question overall, as you’ve gone about building your team and then you’re looking out to the organization and now working within a historically Black institution – How are you thinking about the pursuit of equity and justice and diversity and inclusion with your individual role in that process?

[00:17:33] DH: When I think about all of these things, I have always taken the philosophy that diversity, equity and inclusion, health equity, and now, health justice are umbrellas in which everything in the organization – in the world – should live under. I mean, it should not be a department, it should not be just a bullet point on values or the statement, it should be ingrained so that it is not a singular form, but an overall concept in which we all live under and operate under.

And I have taken the approach in every organization that I’ve been a part of to see how I can make this more of an impact in culture versus a department or project or initiative that is being done. And so, in doing that I’ve tried to look at each organization and see where that gap is held, because oftentimes I’ve found that people don’t understand exactly what you mean by it.

It takes an education and explanation of how it relates to them. Everybody wants to know, “What’s in it for me?” And so, they automatically, in my experience, go towards, “Oh, we’ll just diversify and that’ll do it.” But are you being inclusive of everyone? Are you making sure everyone feels as if they belong and they have a role in it?

So, when I’ve taken that concept, I’ve tried to ensure that whoever I was talking to, whether that was leadership of the organization, whether that was community, whether that was our internal stakeholders – what’s in it for them. And once I discover what’s in it for them, then I can start building that case.

Is that the bottom line? Well, sure. I can show how that is impacted by our bottom line and how diversifying adds to it and making sure these efforts are included. If that is, “what’s my role?” then let me tell you how you can be a part of this and how this can impact you as well.

If it is our internal stakeholders, then I want to turn them into ambassador. And so, I have to tell them what’s at stake for them to be a part of this this ongoing struggle. And how do we make sure that everyone knows about it, is aware of it, and second, what their role is in it. And third, what is that call to action that I want you to do that’s going to be helpful.

I think it all comes down to – and I hate to keep saying this, David – it is the relationships. It’s how you relate to someone else so that they feel that they have a stake in it. And so, once people decide that, then you can go about changing and impacting those behaviors to make sure that everyone should know what their role is moving forward in that.

[00:20:43] DS: What I appreciate so much about this whole conversation, Dorian, is you joked about you hate to keep saying relationships, but I think it’s so interesting that you’ve, in some ways, given the same answer to each question I’ve asked, which just shows this like underlying philosophy and commitment and consistency.

Like, you have a way of doing things that you’ve developed, and it applies to any – it seems like any context. I love that.

As we come to a close on the conversation here, I’ll ask the ridiculous question to take the last 25 minutes or so and your entire life’s experience and boil it down based on all of this history. And what are the one or two things that you would say to maybe a new leader coming into a role or even a peer?

The core thing that you’ve learned about organizational design, team building and getting everybody engaged and doing their best work.

[00:21:35] DH: There’s so many things, David, but I think I’ll – I think I’ll say two. One is, my father, anytime I came to him or my mother with something new that I wanted to do, or an opportunity that had come to me –because I have been very blessed to have some incredible and phenomenal opportunities come to me – he would tell me, “No one cares if you’re scared. Do it afraid.”

I have always done things afraid, not knowing if I was – is this the right decision? Is this what I need to be doing or where I need to go? I have done it afraid because I lean on – constantly we hear, “follow the science” here at MSM.

And I always follow the data, always follow what I know to be, my experiences, what I know to be fact. And so, that mitigates and lessens that fear as I move forward. But I’ve done a lot of things afraid. I mean, I – that constantly – that’s my advice to people when they tell me, “But I’m, I’m hesitant, I’m scared. I’m cautious.”

I tell them, “Do it afraid.” I have learned so much from our President and CEO, Dr. Montgomery Rice, in the way that she leads this institution as a team. She’s a visionary. I won’t say that I’m a visionary, but I’m constantly looking towards the future. I’m looking at trends.

I’m looking at outliers. I’m looking at what other people are doing, and I’m wondering how I can do it better. And I’m always telling my team, “I don’t have the very best ideas. I may have some more experience in those ideas, but I expect you to poke holes and make my things better. If I give you a concept or idea, I want to play a game and see.”

Because if they can poke holes in my idea or if they can find better ways to do it, then I am definitely humble enough to go with who has the better idea because the ultimate goal is for the institution. It’s not personal. It’s not emotional for me. I want the best idea and sometimes I have ’em, and I hope to not – because I hope that I’m building the team that is better than I am. My goal is to guide them and make them better and get them ready for their next opportunity.

Hopefully they stay with me for a very long time, but I’ve had mentors in my past who have made me better. Every institution and every role that I have had has prepared me for this, and so I want to prepare my team for whatever their next leadership role is… to make sure that they’re getting the development, the encouragement, the leadership, the empathy, and whatever else they need to move forward.

I want them to poke holes in my idea. I want them to say, “Nope, that’s not so great.” Because that makes me proud. That makes me proud when they’re able to do that. Luckily, in my five months, I’m still winning a little bit. So let – we’ll see how that goes, but I’m sure that they will surpass me very soon.

And that will make me incredibly proud. That’s when I’ll know that I have done my job as leading this effort.

[00:25:07] DS: Are you keeping score on the whiteboard?

[00:25:09] DH: Kind of, kind of.

[00:25:16] DS: Dorian, thanks again for your time. This has been an absolute pleasure as always, and let’s try to have another conversation in less than two years this time. That’s on me.

[00:25:24] DH: Yes. Yes. I would love that. That would be great.

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