Power to the people Featured

7:00pm EDT December 26, 2008

Deb Leon wants her employees to be empowered, and that means they can make decisions that she doesn’t agree with.

For example, the president and founder of Health Contact Partners Inc. recalls a time when she and an employee disagreed. So instead of continuing the argument, they decided talk again the next day — and Leon came to a realization.

“I realized that the decision we were making — the ability for that person to make this decision was more important than the decision itself,” she says. “That’s what actually turned the corner for me.”

Smart Business spoke with Leon — whose health call center employs 100 people — about how empowering employees can help you better fulfill your customers’ needs.

Q. How do you determine what customer needs your company can fulfill?

It’s twofold. No. 1 is establishing need. There’s a need for all sorts of things. Our clients probably have a laundry list of things that they could use from us.

Secondly, is it something we can deliver very, very well? Is it in our short grasp? If it’s not in our short grasp and we want to take a look at something, we then have to weigh the advantage and the cost of putting our resources over on something that’s too far out of our grasp. We go through that exercise of saying, ‘All right,here’s the resources that it’s going to take’ — planning it out down the road for product development, program development, marketing.

You start bringing [in] the IT [department], all those pieces that have to support that, and start looking at this from a research standpoint. Are we willing to invest in the resources that it’s going to take while not pulling off from our current business?

And that’s that balance. There is this fine line between balancing your current book of business and the products and services you offer and making sure you are delivering at a high-quality level that keeps you ahead of your competition.

What we found to be most effective is there’s always another circle beyond where we are at that is within our grasp, and it’s a bit of a stretch, but it’s not a mega stretch. Every time that we’ve mega-stretched, even if it’s successful, there has been collateral damage to the rest of the business.

So, we’ve learned a lesson for us about that, about saying, ‘All right, this is going to have to be in either our primary circle or the next ring out.’

Q. How do you establish that balance between taking chances and not hurting other areas of the company?

Leaders tend to be more visionary, and what leaders can do in a company is their vision is absolutely valuable and needed. However ... the vision isn’t really the hard part. The vision is actually the easier part.

All the folks who have to then create this and make this product something or make a service something or take it to market, the leader has to be able to allow them the ability to veto the idea, the vision.

They have to know they have veto power ... and our business skyrocketed once we did this here.

We give the management team full veto power. (It’s) a little bit risky. Not all companies can do that. But, once somebody has full veto power, they are more responsible then about their decision.

Let’s say someone from human resources says, ‘Well, I just really don’t like this, and I don’t think this is going to work, and I don’t want us to do it.’ And you can say to them, ‘Well, you have the power to say no to this. Do you want that power right now? Do you want that authority? Are you saying that you want this to not happen?’

What happens then is it empowers them to think strongly about their decisions and their viewpoints, and they’ve got to make a really good case then. So, it’s now no longer an opinion; they have some real weight.

Q. How do you deal with it when you disagree with an employee’s decision?

What I learned most was the ability to separate the need to be right, the need to be the leader, the need to have the final decision. Take all that stuff out of the mix and say, ‘All right, really, really, really listen to what is being said. What is really the impact?’ And weigh it as someone from the outside would do without attachment. What are the pros and cons of this?

HOW TO REACH: Health Contact Partners Inc., (847) 465-5000 or www.healthcontactpartners.com