Dennis Allen doesn’t like to talk things to death.
It’s not that the CEO of Hattie Larlham is opposed to open and honest debate; he just thinks that words are meaningless if they’re not followed up by a decisive resolution.
“You can’t just let the conversation go on and on,” Allen says. “You have to say to people, ‘Give me the resolution to this issue,’ and they’re expected to do that.”
This philosophy has proved invaluable at the 858-employee nonprofit. Comprising seven agencies that provide services to hundreds of children and adults with development disabilities, Allen says the organization would collapse under the weight of idle talk. Instead, he presses for forward-thinking solutions when managing an annual budget of $31 million.
Smart Business spoke with Allen about how to steer any debate toward consensus and how to strengthen employees through mentoring.
Steer toward the solution. I have no problem in encouraging debate. The issue is when the debate ends, there has to be a solution.
I don’t like it when we talk and we talk and we talk, and at the end of the day, we have no resolution to that issue. Shame on us for not being able to recognize it and address how we can take what we have, our skills, our talents, our resources, whatever is necessary to be able to then address that and bring that to a favorable and positive conclusion or resolution.
You allow a good, honest, open discussion, but there are going to be times you need to say, ‘Answer this question. Address this scenario. Tell me how you would address this, or how you would correct this.’ By throwing those things into the discussion in a reasonable way, you’re redirecting people’s focus, and you’re redirecting the discussion. At the end of the day, you have to call for the resolution.
Proclaim the mission. I think there are times when we really, as leaders, we have to be out in front of our staff. We have to be out proclaiming or explaining why we’re doing what we’re doing and so on. If you don’t stay in touch with all members of your staff and keep them informed, they soon start questioning what you’re doing and why.
If you’re communicating the mission and communicating the direction that you’re taking, staff members are better able to understand that and better able to work with you on it and buy in to what the change is that you’re looking to make.
I can cast all the vision I want, but if people don’t understand it and they can’t buy in to it, that vision will die. It’s no different whether it’s a for-profit business or a nonprofit agency.
If the leadership isn’t out there in front of the people explaining what’s going on and where, you’ll have a lot of people who just maybe don’t want to buy in or can’t understand or don’t want to accept it.
Make yourself visible. I try wherever I can to pop in from place to place when I’m out traveling between appointments. I try to spend a little bit of time and have a casual conversation with the staff.
That gives me an opportunity to look at things and ask what’s going on and pose some strategic questions. It gives them opportunities to ask me questions.
When I go into some place, I primarily look to see how things are operating. I can ask individual employees directly, ‘How’s your work today? How are you doing?’
They feel good about the fact that you have the CEO or one of the leaders of the organization out there spending time and asking their opinions and asking them to give you input. It helps me immensely to know how services are going along.
That goes a long way for the employee to feel that their opinions are valued and they are valued as a person and as an employee. It gives me an opportunity to thank them for their good work.
Guide employees through mentors. We use some of our training and development staff as mentors. It could be a veteran nurse mentoring a new nurse. It could be a habilitation assistant mentoring another habilitation assistant who is new, and so on.
What we’re really looking for are the people who have the most experience on the job in that job we’re trying to train. You can bring anybody in and say, ‘Today, you’re a mentor.’ That doesn’t always work.
That mentor should be right there side by side with the person making sure their training is good and that they are applying it directly. They have to be in touch with the person: ‘How are things going? Any problems I can help you with? Anything I can line up for you?’
Once that process occurs, the new employee feels much more confident and feels their skills are much stronger and sharper because that person took time to really focus on them as a person and care about what they’re doing.
Whenever they are in contact with the employee, they have to then report back as to the results of that particular encounter. If there are problems, we want to know about that. By establishing that kind of relationship, you want to be able to encourage the employee that they’re a valued employee and that we want them to stay.
HOW TO REACH: Hattie Larlham, (800) 233-8611or www.hattielarlham.org