HR Leader Brings Innovative Mindset to Established Network of Animal Hospitals

Magdalena Bugallo learned new skills and ways of thinking to improve employee compensation and benefits with the People, Culture, and Performance program.

May 14, 2024

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Magdalena Bugallo

With her two Chinese Shar-Peis, Simona and Eros, as loyal office companions, Magdalena Bugallo combines a lifelong love for animals with a passion for human resources. A native of Argentina, she relocated to Tennessee in 2021, and in February 2023, she became Director, Total Rewards Experience, for VCA Animal Hospitals.

Acquired by candy and food manufacturing giant Mars in 2017, VCA Animal Hospitals is headquartered in Los Angeles, with more than 25,000 associates in 1,000+ hospitals across the U.S. Magdalena, who goes by “Macu,” was hired as a change agent to improve the Total Rewards Experience, enhancing compensation and benefits offers for associates — in support of the organization’s business goals. The work demanded a thorough review of current programs and processes, along with new ways of thinking.

“The company has always had an entrepreneurial approach,” Macu says. “We had been in business since 1986, and we needed to rethink some processes and reshape them from scratch. We needed to build on our foundation but think like a startup.”

The job came with challenges. Veterinarians and veterinary technicians are in short supply, she notes, while the COVID-19 pandemic brought greater awareness of mental health and work-life balance issues. Employees, she adds, expect more flexibility and support. “I need to design programs and solutions that can help our company attract and retain top talent,” she says.

Macu already had a bachelor’s degree in human resources and a master’s in coaching and change management. As she embarked on her new role, she wanted to refresh her own perspective as a career HR professional. “I thought, OK, I’m in the U.S. and I love learning,” she recalls. “Where could I learn how the most innovative industries approach problems and solutions? I was looking for a startup mindset.”

As she researched educational programs, Macu was drawn to Stanford Graduate School of Business (GSB) and its sunny Silicon Valley campus. “This is where amazing top tech companies grow and ideas are born into bigger things,” she says. “This is where I could boost my curiosity and my creativity to bring something new to this job and develop myself, too.”

The Stanford Executive Education program People, Culture, and Performance: Strategies from Silicon Valley was just what Macu was looking for.

Learning with Other Industry Change Agents

Macu attended the one-week, on-campus program, which uses Silicon Valley models and mindsets to help participants recruit, retain, and inspire people for performance and growth. She was pleasantly surprised at the diversity of industries and experiences among her cohort of peers.

“The world was represented,” she says. “Seeing people from different countries and cultures approach the same challenges in different ways was mind blowing. That sparked my creativity.”

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If you have a curious mind and want to be amazed by a level of academic knowledge and experiences you’ve never seen before, then this is the program for you.
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Magdalena “Macu” Bugallo

Macu immersed herself in the program’s curriculum, which offers insights, strategies, and tools around key themes of growth and performance, design thinking, data analytics, diversity, and implementation and personal action plans. She enjoyed experiential learning activities/exercises involving leadership and team collaboration — opportunities to build self-awareness through “aha! moments of seeing yourself by how others see you.” Macu has since adapted the program’s exercises to use in her own team building.

Bringing Startup Ideas to a Time-Honored Brand

The program’s combination of lectures, exercises, and case study analyses helped Macu understand real-world lessons from Silicon Valley and embrace its spirit of ingenuity.

“This program taught me the startup mindset is to test, try, fail, learn, and try again,” she says. “Traditionally, in American culture, failure is not taken well. I wanted to bring back a mindset of it’s OK to fail. Let’s look at what happened. Let’s analyze. Let’s learn and see how we can make it better.”

Following her participation in the People, Culture, and Performance program, Macu applied what she learned to streamline HR processes across the VCA Animal Hospitals family. “We received compliments from senior leadership saying, ‘We’ve never seen processes go as smoothly — as perfectly — as this year. No errors. Literally no errors.’”

She looks forward to drawing on what she learned to help her organization promote its mission to “take care of the future of veterinary medicine and improve the health and well-being of our people, pets and the planet” — with her furry office mates keeping her motivated. The startup mindset she gained at Stanford GSB helps her to stay energized and find new ways to show staff they are highly valued and appreciated.

“I’m exploring innovative solutions on how to approach our communication and capability building with our leaders,” Macu says. “That’s what’s ahead.”

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