Shelly Sun was quite confident that BrightStar Care would emerge from the 2008 recession intact and ready to grow. The challenge was convincing employees and franchisees that the health care staffing solutions provider could achieve such a daunting goal.
“Access to financing to start franchisees had dried up and was completely unavailable,” says Sun, the company’s co-founder and CEO. “That meant our ability to grow and add new franchisees to fund improvements in our system had declined.”
As a CPA, Sun decided to put her experience in the financial realm to use and tackle the financing issues. She asked her franchisees and employees to look at what they could do to increase efficiency on their end.
“I really empowered my team to take on those initiatives and work with the franchise advisory council on key sets of goals that were going to move the profitability and top-line elements of the model forward while I focused on capital access,” Sun says.
Through it all, Sun demonstrated her confidence. But it was the steps she took and the action that followed her words that enabled everyone else in the organization to feed off of that confidence and become believers themselves.
“It’s really important to spend time helping every employee understand what makes a business tick and how their role in the greater ecosystem can make a difference every day,” Sun says.
The result of the collaborative effort is a company that has bounced back and is poised to grow from 250 to 300 locations by the end of 2013, including new locations both in the United States and overseas. BrightStar has about 60 corporate employees and 25,000 employees in its overall system.
Sun says a key to BrightStar Care’s continuing success is a culture that has prepared employees to be ready to adapt.
“We’re rarely doing the same thing three months from now that we were doing three months ago,” Sun says. “We’re just not that type of culture. We’re an ever-changing culture. We believe the way to be the leader in this industry is to continually be improving what we do and the outcomes we deliver for the franchisees and consumers we serve.”
Here are some of the ways Sun uses employee engagement to help BrightStar succeed.
Focus on solutions
You’ve got to empower employees and give them opportunities to discover the solution to problems on their own. But that doesn’t mean they have to be completely on their own. Whether it’s you or a supervisor, employees who are developing still need the support.
“I use a 1-3-1 approach with my people,” Sun says. “For every one problem that they have, they need to bring three possible solutions and one recommendation. If someone walks up to me with a problem, I’ll say, ‘OK, great. Go think about that problem a little more. Think of three possible solutions and a recommendation. Then let’s sit down and talk about it.’
“I won’t let you follow through with a poor recommendation. It’s likely one of those solutions or a combination of them is going to get us there. We continue to reinforce that thought process, engagement and ownership at the employee level. We have every manager within our organization do that with their people.”
It’s easy to talk about, but Sun says it’s often much harder to follow through when the pressure is on and it feels like a problem needs to be solved right now.
“What’s hard for most leaders, and I’m no different, is it’s often faster to solve a problem for an employee than it is to let them think it through on their own,” Sun says. “But the outcomes are so much more sustainable for me in following that 1-3-1 approach wherever possible.”
Another thing to keep in mind is that delegation can come with urgency. If something needs to be done more quickly, tell the person that they need a solution tomorrow instead of next Wednesday.
The key is to make sure on an ongoing basis that you’re making time for your people, specifically your direct reports, to help them and to support them in helping their team members.
“I block time on my calendar so that 10 percent of my time is spent with each of my five direct reports,” Sun says. “When I lose sight of that because of other things going on, the ripple effect of that will begin to show up two to four weeks later. ... Make sure you’re dedicating time to your people.”
Keep looking for talent
Sun loves to see people who are already on the team blossom and fulfill or even exceed their potential. But she’s always keeping her eyes open to bring new people in who can join the team and make the company even better.
“I won’t go recruit a specific individual because I likely know their peers or their boss and so that would be inappropriate to do that,” Sun says. “But I might post on my LinkedIn status that we’re seeking a new director of field support for the West region. And within 12 hours, I might have eight people who are in my network reach out to me and say, ‘I’ve been waiting for an opening to work for BrightStar. You guys have such a great reputation.’”
The key to generating those kinds of feelings about your business is to have a strong culture where employees are eager to welcome new people aboard.
“It’s important externally for the leader to be very articulate about the vision and strategy of the organization,” Sun says. “It’s equally important, if not more important, to be able to do that internally so employees understand where they are at is the best company they could possibly work for. That way, they are talking to friends and family about how great it is to work at BrightStar. That’s how you get great future employees.”
Sun says networking isn’t just about talking to people about job openings that you have today or will have tomorrow.
“You never know where an opportunity is going to arise or what a relationship is going to lead to,” Sun says. “We all have a lot to learn from one another, and we need to enjoy that journey along the way.”
Make your company desirable
You’ve got to think beyond what you do each day to crank out your products and services. Who benefits from the things your company makes? What difference do your employees make in the lives of others? Those are things you need to think about if you want to build a strong culture that can withstand challenges like a recession.
“You need something that people are looking to get behind,” Sun says. “If they are a really talented individual, salary usually isn’t the reason people take jobs or keep jobs. They want to respect the company that they work for. They want to be proud to talk about it with their family at the dinner table. They want to understand where and how they are going to grow with the company.”
Don’t be mysterious about your company’s growth plans. Be clear about the plans and clear about what steps employees can take to be part of those plans.
“What’s the future state of the organization?” Sun says. “Is it planning to grow, add new business lines and new brands? If exceptionally talented people come in at a lateral level, do they have the opportunity once they prove themselves to move up because the company is going to be different and growing and expanding in future years?”
While a good culture alone isn’t enough to drive a company to success, a bad culture can easily poison a workplace and make it nearly impossible to succeed.
“You’re not going to keep the best people if you’re telling them from A to Z what to do and you’re not empowering them to make their own impact and their own difference every day,” Sun says. “As the leader, I set the direction and the vision clearly enough where they can tell it’s Swiss cheese. But I’ve empowered them well enough to be able to know that they have a significant role in plugging those holes.”
And when the times turn tough, show faith in your employees that they have what it takes to pull your company through to the other side.
“Our people saw we were in it with them and we weren’t cutting people,” Sun says. “That empowered our people to want to go even further than the extra mile. We would remain loyal to them and they would remain loyal to us and give us the extra effort to help our franchisees succeed and get to the other side, no matter what that took. They knew we were making sacrifices to not cut staff to keep our profits in line with where they had been historically and let profits suffer.”
How to reach: BrightStar Care, (866) 618-7827 or www.brightstarcare.com
The Sun File
Shelly Sun, co-founder and CEO, BrightStar Care
Born: Knoxville, Tenn.
Education: Bachelor’s degree in accounting, University of Tennessee; master’s degree in accounting, University of Colorado
What was your first job?
I worked in a shoe store, Franklin Shoes. I spent every paycheck on shoes. I’ve had a strong work ethic from a very young age, and I’ve always had a shoe fetish, too.
Who has been your biggest influence?
My father was a very strong workaholic and entrepreneur, so I always saw the work ethic and determination. But for me, it’s about trying to balance having both the success that a great business can deliver while also having people like and respect me — respect being more important. That includes my own family.
Who would you like to meet and why?
Marshall Goldsmith. He’s one of my favorite authors and has written some of the most impactful business books for me personally — being able to take some of what he has written for everyone and be able to talk about my specific circumstances as a leader in my organization. It allows me to look at how I could more specifically apply great leadership principles that have been helpful in the abstract, but would be even more helpful in the specific.
Give employees a chance to solve problems.
Articulate your strategy.
Make your company a great place to work.