Richard Chambers spent 36 years working for organizations that were always operating under the watchful eye of the taxpayers. Anyone who knows anything about how things work in the government sector understands that a great deal of patience is usually required.
When he moved into his new role as president of Molina Healthcare of California in August, much of that went away. Instead of reporting to taxpayers, he was now reporting to shareholders.
“The challenge was being able to adapt to everything I had learned in the previous positions and adapt it to help Molina and to learn the private sector,” Chambers says. “What does it mean to be in a publicly traded company and meet those expectations?”
It’s not easy when you step into a new organization as the CEO. You face all the same challenges that any new employee has to deal with, such as where is the copier, who do I talk to about getting some business cards and where does everyone eat lunch?
But in addition to all of that, you’re the CEO. You may be new, but you’ve got employees looking to you as their boss and expecting you to act accordingly.
Chambers says it’s best if you don’t give it too much thought and just try to be yourself.
“People are very forgiving,” Chambers says. “They don’t have to think you’re the smartest guy or the coolest guy on the block. They just want to know you’re attempting to do your job and that you do want to listen to what they have to say as employees.”
So that’s what Chambers has done. Molina is part of Molina Healthcare Inc., which generated $4.77 billion in revenue in fiscal year 2011. Chambers has spent his first months on the job getting familiar with his employees and what they do and working to identify areas that with improvement could make his 259-employee division even better.
“When you first come in, you have to understand the culture of the organization,” Chambers says. “You have to get to know the staff that works for you and your leaders to gauge their knowledge and abilities and understand how the company operates.”
One thing he won’t do as he gets more comfortable with his new position is make assumptions.
“People step in and they assume that because they have so much experience doing the same kind of work, they assume that they know it all and they want to impose what may have worked in previous positions on the new organization very quickly,” Chambers says.
Here’s a look at why that approach doesn’t work and how Chambers has gone about gaining the respect of his new team.
Be a good listener
Before you try to put your foot down and make a big impression on your company, you need to know whether that impression actually needs to be made.
“Sometimes there are situations where change needs to happen pretty quickly because it’s a broken organization,” Chambers says. “But oftentimes as you step into the organization, you’re coming in as a new leader for the future, but the organization is not broken.”
The latter situation is one when you need to keep your thoughts to a minimum, ask a lot of questions and listen to the responses. To do otherwise causes a lot of stress.
“It usually creates a lot of havoc and uneasiness about the transition,” Chambers says. “As a leader, you have folks who work for you and they become distrustful of what your agenda is. What’s the security of their positions?”
You need to take advantage of the attentiveness that you have in those early days as a leader. They say that when a new president takes office in the White House, he or she never has a higher approval rating than during those first 100 days. You usually get a similar kind of honeymoon period, albeit on a smaller scale, as a new CEO.
“People look to you as the top leader,” Chambers says. “They want to respect you, believe in you and follow you. It’s important for leaders to capitalize on that. People will give you a lot of room knowing that you’re learning the organization. But you have to step into that expectation and run with it.”
Running with it doesn’t mean making across-the-board changes that show you’re in charge. It means talking to the people who have been there about what has been working what needs to be tweaked or maybe even completely changed.
“Most of the time, you’re inheriting a senior staff that has been around for a while,” Chambers says. “They know what’s going on, what’s broken and what needs to be fixed and what you as a new leader can help them do. You need to listen to them.”
It’s not that you’re taking off your CEO hat as much as you’re going in with a sense of trust and hoping that the trust is reciprocated. If you find that it’s not, you can do what needs to be done.
“You’re learning if you can trust that senior leadership team,” Chambers says. “Pretty quickly, you can evaluate who you can trust and who you might need to watch a little more closely as to what they are informing you about. Be a good listener and a quick study. Attend meetings and understand how the organization works.”
Don’t limit yourself to the senior management team as you get familiar with the company. Make an effort to talk to people at all levels.
“The leaders aren’t the only ones who probably know what needs attention from you as the leader,” Chambers says. “It doesn’t take much time before you can figure out where you need to spend your time and intervention in the short term as you figure out what you’re going to do in the long term to help the strategic direction of the company.”
Just do it
If you’re the kind of CEO who struggles with relating to your employees on a personal level, especially when you’re a new CEO, Chambers says you need to get over it.
“They’ll respect you for whatever your personality is, whether they know that you’re totally comfortable or not,” Chambers says. “The key is that you engage in the effort to listen to what they have to say. Schedule meetings, make yourself visible, walk around. It may not be the thing that a leader is naturally comfortable doing.
“But it certainly does make a big impression and does help the staff commit to following you as a leader who they think wants to try to connect and understand what they are going through as employees of that company.”
You won’t be able to get to know everybody in a close way in your first month or maybe even in your first year on the job. But if you keep working at it and keep talking to people, you’ll make an impression.
Molina has three regional offices outside of Los Angeles County and has made it a point to visit each office and help employees get to know him as he gets to know them.
“I got introduced, talked about myself and my background and what I hoped to achieve being the new president,” Chambers says. “Then I got a chance to meet them individually in those meetings, who they were, how they ended up here and how long they had been here. So it was a good opportunity.”
Even if you’re not a new CEO, regular opportunities to interact with your people are a good idea to keep the lines of communication open between you and your staff.
“We’d have a lunch about every three weeks in which 10 to 12 staff would come in and we’d bring in lunch and we’d sit for 90 minutes with those staff,” Chambers says. “It was an opportunity to talk very openly and candidly. I’d talk about what was going on in the organization, but it also gave the staff opportunities to ask questions in a very safe environment.”
When you do find areas that you feel are in need of change, you want people to believe that you’re considering change to make things better and to increase the odds of a successful outcome.
If you get people who think the old way is the best way and shouldn’t be changed, you need to take a constructive approach.
“I like to challenge them by asking, ‘Are you getting the results that you want with the way you’re doing it today?’” Chambers says. “Here are some examples that I have used in other companies I’ve worked for and it seems to have worked. What do you think about that? How about if we try changing what we’re doing now? You get them off of, ‘That’s the way we’ve always done it and that’s the way we want to do it.’”
In these ongoing difficult economic times, many people view change through the prism of how it might affect their job security. Chambers is confident that his team feels secure and knows his primary goal is to ensure that his people have the resources they need to do their jobs.
But he understands why employees get nervous about their future. He says the best way to ease those fears is to encourage employees to work hard.
“What we always emphasize is there are no guarantees for anyone in any job,” Chambers says. “It’s important to work hard and try to develop yourself and learn new skills and have opportunities to progress in the organization. That’s really on them. They have to demonstrate their worth to the company.
“If you do a good job and show up every day and do all the right stuff, it’s pretty assured that you’re going to be valued by the organization. That’s what everybody should do as they approach every day at work. How can I help the organization and work as hard as I can?”
It’s a question you need to ask yourself too. And as you’re getting around and talking to people and making things happen, you can’t forget to give yourself time to do your job.
“It’s finding balance in your schedule,” Chambers says. “If you find you’re doing nothing but putting out fires every day, you’re really not serving the goal of forward-thinking. I read a management book once and one of the biggest recommendations was there have to be chunks of time in your schedule every day in which you get time to think.”
In other words, if you’re always in a meeting or on the phone or analyzing a sales report, you could be neglecting a big-picture topic that you need to be thinking about. You have a leadership team for a reason.
“Sometimes you have to leave it up to them to be the ones who are doing the day-to-day management,” Chambers says. “There’s no way the president or CEO of the company can do both of those. Otherwise they are doing a disservice if they are not focusing on what their leadership role is for the organization.” <<
How to reach: Molina Healthcare of California,
(888) 665-4621 or www.molinahealthcare.com
Richard Chambers, president, Molina Healthcare of California
The Chambers File
Born: Quincy, Mass.
Education: Bachelor’s degree in psychology, University of Virginia.
Why did you choose psychology?
I was feeling my way through and decided psychology sounded like something I was interested in. I was going to go on to law school after my undergraduate degree, but I ended up deciding to go work for the federal government and stayed for 27 years.
My whole working career has been working on the Medicaid program and health care for low-income populations.
Who has had the biggest influence on your life and why?
I would say my father. It was integrity and honesty and the importance of working hard. One of the things I always remember is he said it doesn’t matter what you do in life for a job, just make sure that when you’re finished doing it, you’ve made it better than the way you found it. That’s what I’ve tried to do with every organization I’ve been in. When I leave or change jobs, I want people to say it’s a better place for me having been there and people are better for having been there.
What one person would you really like to meet?
President Obama. He’s the leader of the United States and has probably the toughest job in the world. I’d love to understand what it means to sit in that position, what it means to be a leader and what lessons I could learn from him.
Listen before you act.
Don’t worry so much about being cool.
Get people excited about opportunity.