Living values Featured

7:00pm EDT January 26, 2010

They say you can’t judge a book by its cover, but Mark S. Heaney thinks his company’s Web site is a pretty keen indicator of what you’ll find inside Addus HomeCare Corp.

The first thing you’ll notice on the home page is a collage of photos scrolling across the top of the screen — some of the employees who provide home care services for the company, along with a few of their clients. Above them, a banner proclaims their beliefs and values, from communicating to caring to celebrating everyday heroes.

You’d think you were watching a slideshow from a small, close-knit office where everyone shares a single coffee pot.

Not quite.

Addus is far from compact, with more than 12,000 employees scattered across 120 offices in 16 states. But that stretched geography doesn’t mean Heaney has to sacrifice the feeling of closeness.

“Our approach to every employee is that we want you to feel connected to this organization, even though you’re not here every day,” says Heaney, who was named chairman of the board in June 2009 and has served as president and CEO since May 2008.

He does that, first, by referring to headquarters as the support center rather than the corporate office. But he really keeps employees connected by reinforcing a consistent culture founded on the beliefs and values that headline the Web page.

Heaney could rely on policies, procedures and centralized processes to do that, and does when he can. But he also faces another challenge — because Addus provides Medicaid Personal Care Programs, each one is subject to state-regulated requirements, from the name of the program to the qualifications of the provider.

So Heaney isn’t after absolute conformity when it comes to all of the details. Instead, he keeps the employees aligned on culture. Already, he’s grown Addus from 2007 revenue of $195 million to 2008 revenue of $236 million.

“So what becomes important is: How can you maximize your efficiency and effectiveness — and maximize your margin — while you operate in all these different states under different sets of rules, which affect your operation?” he says.

Here’s how he does it.

Establish a consistent culture

Heaney starts by reinforcing a single culture throughout the company. That would be a lot easier if every employee came into the office — or any office at all — on a regular basis. But because many work in the homes of seniors and rarely report to an office, Heaney can’t rely on holding meetings or hanging posters.

“How do you teach a Marine to be Marine?” he asks. “You … create an environment in which the values of the Marines are consistently reinforced. That’s what we do — we create an environment where those beliefs and values are consistently reinforced and talked about.”

Whether you’re fostering military men or Medicaid providers, the first step to creating the environment you want is articulating what that is. Start as soon as employees are hired.

During Addus’s two-week orientation program, new hires are assigned to coaches who make sure they each go through the same steps. New employees must schedule meetings with every executive in the company, at least by phone. Each executive explains his or her job, how it fits into the company and how it affects the new employee. To show they’ve completed each step, employees must collect signatures from the executives they meet. Later, their files are audited to verify they’ve received all of the necessary training.

But how do you explain something as ethereal as a corporate culture?

“If you want to know what your company is, where it’s going, it’s best to know where it’s been,” Heaney says. “To communicate the culture of the organization, you really want to spend time on the history of the organization and the different mileposts that the company experienced along the way.”

Explaining how and why your culture was developed will help employees understand it better than if you just hurled them into it.

Talking about the past should lead into your vision for the future.

“It’s important to talk about where the company is going,” Heaney says. “‘This is what we want to be; this is why we want to be it.’”

But you wouldn’t drop your Marines on the battlefield with just an orientation handbook. So continue reinforcing your beliefs and values to keep employees connected to the culture after their first couple of weeks.

Sometimes, that involves simply pointing out examples of your culture in action.

“You literally will tell somebody that we’re doing this because it’s consistent with our beliefs and values,” Heaney says.

So if one of your values is personal growth and development, you should support that with a training program or a tuition reimbursement system — but also explain the correlation.

One of the most obvious examples of how Addus reinforces its culture through communication is the company’s Web site. The beliefs and values get first glance at the top of the page, and an additional link gives more in-depth descriptions of each one.

The home page also showcases a scrolling news box that alternates company updates and industry statistics with accomplishments of employees and their children — from a 40th wedding anniversary to the birth of a grandson, a son’s football scholarship to the completion of a sign language course.

In addition to the online updates, employees get newsletters featuring people’s names and accomplishments. They also attend regular training sessions where leaders repeat the themes of the organization.

Classes in the Addus Learning Program are posted to the company calendar so everyone — from the receptionist to a division vice president — has a chance to accept the invitation until the class fills up. Everyone must attend a certain number of classes per year.

“The content for Addus Learning ranges from really simple things: training on your telephone, training on spreadsheets, on new programs or upgraded training on systems that we’re already using,” Heaney says. “But then it can be on industry trends, on customer service, work safety.”

Regardless of the topic, there’s always an opportunity to emphasize the bigger picture.

“There are two important purposes for the Addus Learning Program,” he says. “One is to develop personnel. But the second — and, frankly, maybe the more important thing — is to create a vehicle for communicating the culture and values of the organization.”

Enforce your expectations

You can repeat your culture until you’re blue in the face, but compliance really starts when you enforce the environment you want.

“It’s making sure that things that you do and the things that you make people do are all consistent with your beliefs and values,” Heaney says. “It’s not like, ‘OK, it’s policing values time.’ You should have policies and procedures — and approaches to policies and procedures — that are consistent with your beliefs and values.”

For him, that means establishing a clear process to deal with employees whose actions don’t line up with your values. Heaney says identifying those cases is easier than it seem s because falling short of a value usually affects other areas of performance. For example, Addus values dependability — but failing to return calls or to show up at the office will send up obvious red flags other than value-related ones.

“If an employee is consistently late for work [or] consistently missing work, they’re consistently generating complaints from the consumer, these are things you can quantify and you can correlate them to a norm,” Heaney says. “We have metrics that we can use to measure their performance, and it’s compared to the expectation.”

In addition to performance metrics, you should also keep an eye on the nuances of how employees act.

“You can listen to people and how they relate to others,” Heaney says. “We treat people with respect; that’s one of our beliefs and values. I can measure that because I can tell you when I’m hearing respectful language and when I’m not.

“So there’s a combination of actual metrics and the more consistent measurements you do when you’re working with somebody — tone, response time, those kinds of things,” he says.

Though the way you identify cultural compliance at your company may differ, the important thing is that you have a structured system to correct it.

“An employee has to be told that they’re not conforming,” Heaney says. “And then continuing not to reform, it has to be written that they’re not conforming. They have to be given a pathway for getting into compliance, and then if it continues, there can be either a final warning prior to discipline or a termination.”

Although it seems like a scary process for employees to go through, the mere existence of such a detailed disciplinary system should be reassuring.

“You’re saying, ‘I’m confident that if I ever get myself off track, there’s a system for me where I’ll be certain that I know I’m off track and I have the ability to remedy,’” he says. “It also works to reassure staff that this is a place where there are no surprises with regard to my performance or my employment.”

Allow room for autonomy

As important as it is to maintain consistency across an organization, you have to remind yourself that you’re not running a militaristic boot camp. Once you align everyone under the framework of your culture, you have to allow room for regional operations to flesh out what that means at their office.

Heaney wants to see things hanging on office walls that reflect the local personality — whether it’s employee of the month plaques or paraphernalia rooting on the local baseball team.

“Uniformity is actually something we’re not looking for,” Heaney says. “We want uniformity of the basic message, but communities are all different and we want our leaders to reflect their community. We don’t need them to be automatons. They can do it their way.”

For example, agency directors at Addus are required to create outreach programs to educate people in their communities about available government-funded elder care programs. The directors receive thorough training — and retraining, through Addus Learning — on what their outreach messages should entail. Their manual identifies outreach targets and which messages would appeal to each one — for example, it would note that employers want to hear that elder care programs can increase productivity for employees who care for parents.

But the key is that employees aren’t given a script on what exactly to say or how exactly to design their outreach programs.

“There’s uniformity in the training and messaging, but as to how they develop their business development plan and their execution of it, we don’t manage that,” Heaney says. “We look for people to play to their strengths.”

To make sure employees do stay within your corporate framework when you offer autonomy, it’s smart to have checks and balances in place.

A team setting can provide checks during a project, instead of waiting for an end review. For example, agency directors work together with salespeople and the regional director to create their outreach programs. That way, if one employee starts to veer off path, the multiple perspectives of others can bring him or her back on board.

But you should also have executives monitor their direct reports consistently. Regional directors check in with agency directors weekly and keep track of their numbers daily.

Heaney also relies on systems to keep employees in line, at least for back-office issues. He recommends centralizing all of the administrative transactions you can.

“It really comes down to a uniform, broad-based operating system,” he says. “Following the system requires you can’t wing it. It’s going to ask you, ‘What the hell are you doing?’ Everybody’s following the same procedures so you have predictability.

“It allows us to keep overhead down. It allows us to keep manpower focused on customer service and business development as opposed to transactional production.”

Finding a balanced level of consistency is really about distinguishing where you expect rigidity and where you allow creativity. Clear communication and reinforcement make for a smooth operation.

“There’s a high degree of confidence that the procedures are being adhered to,” Heaney says. “You don’t allow the sites to follow nonstandard procedure because otherwise you have chaos. So we’re rather rigid in the back office but creative in the front office.”

How to reach: Addus HomeCare Corp., (847) 303-5300 or www.addus.com