How Janet Meeks helped transform the culture of St. Ann’s

Janet Meeks, former president and COO of Mount Carmel St. Ann’s, believes in stretching yourself.

Her career started in banking, and her mentor constantly gave her unfamiliar tasks. He asked her to create a personal banker program and named her interim vice president of marketing, a year out of graduate school.

Today, Meeks tells young professionals, particularly young women, don’t be afraid to take risks.

“Always step forward when there are opportunities for stretch assignments because that’s how we learn and grow,” she says. “And that’s how you begin to develop the full set of tools that you need in your toolkit as far as your leadership competency.”

She applied those same lessons later in health care, after switching industries in 1983.

Mount Carmel Health System recruited Meeks in 2004, and she told the CEO she’d be delighted to move from Florida to Ohio in return for one thing.

“In this case, I was making a multistate move, and I had a long-term dream of leading a hospital,” she says. “So I made a commitment that I would come and help them get the corporate development programming refined if they would let me lead one of the hospitals at some point.”

Eighteen months later, Meeks became president of St. Ann’s. The next nine-and-a-half years were among the most gratifying of her professional career, as Meeks helped create a culture of accountability.

Strategic change

In 2006, St. Ann’s financial performance was suboptimal, patient satisfaction was among the worst in Central Ohio and the employees weren’t fully engaged. While the staff was proud of its culture of compassion, Meeks says there wasn’t accountability for consistently achieving results.

In order to transform the culture, her leadership team followed triple “A” leadership — alignment, accountability and acknowledgement. The change was easy to articulate, but difficult to pull off, she says. It was a five- or six-year journey.

“In a culture that considers itself to be compassionate, when you start introducing more granularity or more specificity in the goals, some people will say, ‘Oh, this is counter to our culture.’ Or other people will say, ‘You’re micromanaging.’ Or, ‘You don’t trust us,’” Meeks says.

As you increase the levels of accountability, you have to bookend that with lots of praise when people get it right, she says.

It helps when your team embraces the new vision, but that doesn’t mean you won’t have difficult conversations with the few still not on board.

You need thick skin because you will fall prey to criticism, Meeks says — even though you’re correctly acting as a fiduciary on behalf of the organization.

“There are a lot of people who think that when you talk about culture that it’s soft stuff, and it’s not. It’s absolutely strategic,” she says.

Corporate culture is, in fact, moving front and center in the boardroom. Meeks believes it should be a top priority for the C-suite because the health of the corporate culture will most likely correlate with the organization’s performance in the long run.

It’s personal

With culture change, employees must see the connection between corporate goals and their daily work. It needs to be personal and hit the head-heart connection.

The staff also needs to know how they are doing, no matter how busy you are. You have to let people know they’re making a difference.

“Giving staff feedback on a regular basis is so crucial because, to tell you the truth, they are just hungry for it,” she says.

But that feedback goes both ways, some of St. Ann’s most gratifying and effective results came from listening sessions.

“It was like going to a fire hydrant for a sip of water because people had so much feedback that they wanted to share,” Meeks says. “When we were able to take that feedback and use that feedback, they felt valued and they felt honored — and it made them want to provide even more input and insight into how we could innovate.”

You need a solid bottom line and outstanding quality and safety. But how you get there, in Meeks’ opinion, is through highly engaged employees who appreciate how what they’re doing every day affects the organization’s growth.

Passion with purpose

Business leaders need to do more with less, so it’s important to match passion with purpose, Meeks says.

“When we were beginning to create the vision to transform our culture into one of compassionate accountability and beginning to create this vision to transform the hospital into a regional medical center, we were very quick to learn that we did not have all the resources we were going to need in order to make those dreams come true,” she says.

So, St. Ann’s created eight leadership councils — colleague communications, colleague engagement, community relations, growth, leadership development, patient experience, philanthropy and mission.

Each council had a charter outlining specific work it needed to accomplish, and middle managers and a few upper leaders were enlisted as co-leaders.

“We required every one of our 70 to 80 leaders to get involved in at least one of those councils,” Meeks says. “We told them: Find something you’re passionate about and get plugged in.”

By exposing people to new areas, they became better managers and leaders.

“The results were absolutely remarkable as far as the amazing work that these teams were able to accomplish, frankly, without much expense at all,” she says.

Meeks also held the councils accountable. She met monthly with the co-chairs to discuss their accomplishments and what barriers needed to be removed.

These kinds of relationships matter, because sometimes you have to slow down so you can speed up.

“When you go into a new role within an existing organization or when you go into a new organization, you have fresh eyes and you often times can see things that need to change,” Meeks says. “I have learned that unless the house is burning down, you don’t assemble a committee to say, ‘OK, we’re going out that door.’”

You have to build trust and get to know people first, she says. If you don’t come in like a bull in a china shop, you can get greater change accomplished in a shorter amount of time.

 

Meeks’ thoughts on…

Retirement

While Janet Meeks was president and COO at Mount Carmel St. Ann’s, her husband, Dick D’Enbeau, was president and COO of Mount Carmel New Albany.

The two retired in the summer of 2015 — a purposeful plan that went back three years. Meeks didn’t want to be the football coach who stays one season longer than she should have.

“It was a gift because we were able to leave both of our organizations in a level of optimal performance, and leaving the organization in very capable hands,” Meeks says. “And that feels good.”

To avoid going from pedal-to-the-metal for 38 years to a full stop, the couple created Healthcare Alignment Advisors LLC, which offers advisory services to C-suite executives.

“It’s really not rocket science,” she says. “It’s about being brilliant at the basics.”

Meeks says it can be difficult to find advisers who tell CEOs what they need to hear.

“I think that kind candor is critical,” she says. “And I think CEOs need to receive that type of kind candor because there’s no C-suite executive I’m aware of who has the luxury or spare time or money that could be expended on useless mistakes or re-work.”

Networking

Looking back on her career, Meeks says with 12- and 14-hour days at St. Ann’s, she often didn’t have time for networking events or to meet somebody for lunch.

“If I had it to do over again, I would have started purposeful networking a lot sooner,” she says.

Meeks has discovered that the women’s network in Columbus is the most vibrant and supportive she’s experienced in any of the cities she’s lived in.

“We are so blessed to have so many female executives who are stepping up to support one another, to see each other excel, as opposed to some communities where I understand that you can have a queen bee syndrome,” Meeks says. “I don’t sense that in Columbus. It’s just been awesome.”