Challenges come from every direction at any time of day or night, budgets are always limited and good people hard to find. A diverse group of people have to work together towards a common goal in order to overcome the daily obstacles of business.
This requires leadership.
There are different approaches to leadership. Some look to form consensus, some study data for hours and some simply go with their gut instinct.
But when a decision must be made, all eyes turn to the leader for the final judgment. It is that person’s decision as to what strategy will be taken to solve the latest problem.
Here’s how five of Cleveland’s top women executives overcame a challenge in her respective organization to keep the company moving forward.
Patricia Nobili, Achievement Centers for Children
When Patricia Nobili took over as executive director of Achievement Centers for Children, she was charged with one thing: change.
But getting people to accept change, particularly when it means applying business principles to a nonprofit, is difficult.
“I was hired here to make changes,” says Nobili. “We had phenomenal programs, but the agency hadn’t kept up with the environment and what the environment required them to do if this was to remain a vital and viable organization. Change is hard for everybody, but if the change seems to fight with your mission, you have a huge challenge.”
Nobili’s staff was committed to serving the needs of children with disabilities and their families. They didn’t see the link between practicing good business principles and achieving the mission of the organization. Nobili had to make that connection and ingrain it into the culture of the organization.
“Making a profit is not what spurs or excites them,” says Nobili. “I’m not saying we have to make a profit, but what we are obligated to do - myself, the managers, all of us - is there has to be a culture you develop. You have to connect the positive consequences of when you incorporate positive business principles into your nonprofit that you can better serve your mission.”
Nobili started her makeover with a heavy dose of communication aimed at connecting good business practices to successfully achieve the organization’s mission.
“I told them, if we go on doing business as we are doing, it will be easier for some of us in the short-term because we won’t have to learn all these new things and think beyond what some of us want to think about,” says Nobili. “But we’ll be doing it at the expense of children born with disabilities tomorrow. In the long-term, we will be weakening the organization. When I made that statement, light bulbs went on. None of them would ever want to make things easier on themselves at the expense of the children.”
Now, it’s no longer alien to have a therapist or social worker talk about productivity and billable hours like it had been in the past. The staff understands that more billable hours also results in more charitable work being made available for those families with needs but not the ability to pay.
“In the beginning, the communication was an educational component of a cultural shift,” says Nobili. “I say shift because I was trying to protect what was so excellent [about the organization] while bringing in new thoughts and methods. I was always walking that line.”
She says when implementing change, you have to be patient and be willing to accept that not everyone will accept your plan. Almost her entire top management team turned over as a result of her changes.
“Even if someone is telling you something you disagree with or don’t understand, take the time to listen,” says Nobili. “Let them be heard then suggest and interject and do as much as you can. But there does come a time where they are either with it and believe in it or they don’t.”
And if they don’t, they need to move on. But no matter how slow the progress, never give up.
“Don’t beat yourself up if you are not making as much progress as you would like,” says Nobili. “Seek help. I sought out members of my board and my colleagues. You never give up. I happen to believe that failure is a temporary state. It is only permanent if you give up.”
Margie Flynn, BrownFlynn
If you want to have a creative culture, you need a purple cow.
That’s why you’ll find purple cows in the office of BrownFlynn, a community relationship management firm.
“Brown cows are boring,” says Margie Flynn, co-owner of the company. “We needed to be a purple cow to show that we are different and remarkable. Good is no longer good enough.”
It’s this type of thinking that Flynn says she and her partner, Barbara Brown, have strived to embed in the culture of the firm. To compete, they knew they needed dedicated employees who believed in the mission and values of the company as much as they did, so they have worked hard to create a culture that would attract the type of people they needed to grow.
Flynn and Brown spent two-and-a-half years searching for an office that projected the right mix of professionalism, quality and creativity, all while being warm and welcoming. When they found the right space, they set up a work-out room in the basement of the former residential house and encouraged employees to take a break from work.
“We hold meetings outside at the picnic table and encourage them to get outside and enjoy the sunshine or go for a bike ride,” says Flynn. “We provide opportunities for them to interact with one another in fun ways.”
Employees were rewarded with a shopping trip to Chicago a few years ago; this year the company is celebrating its 10th anniversary with events centered on the number 10.
“We try to create a fun and rewarding environment with lots of open communication,” says Flynn. “We ask for feedback constantly. We are open as to where we stand relative to our financial targets, so they understand the role they play.”
As the company grows, Flynn sees the interviewing process as critical to make sure the culture stays true.
“We have a smaller environment, so we really want the right fit,” says Flynn. “We want to get a really good sense that they have the same values, work ethic and desire to make a difference in the community.”
Once hired, the person will also find a culture emphasizing innovation.
“We promote risk-taking so they are not afraid of making mistakes,” says Flynn. “As entrepreneurs, we strive to grow and expand, but we have to be willing to allow them to really share in the opportunities to venture down new paths. Some ideas will work and some not so well. In the end, it’s all a learning process.
“Instead of how did you fail, it’s what are the lessons learned.”
Employees are encouraged to speak up and disagree with something as long as there are sound rational reasons behind it.
“That’s what creates a better product and better service” says Flynn. “We are looking at things through a lens of a team with a multitude of experience and background. All of that makes our work richer and helps make what the client receives that much richer.”
It all goes back to the idea of the purple cow. Good isn’t good enough, so how can everyone work together to be better?
“Other CEOs might not embrace or build this type of culture, but the return we get is tremendous,” says Flynn. “We get a more committed workforce. Those individuals working here are willing to be true ambassadors for the organization. It comes from the heart when they are out speaking in the community. They are truly part of BrownFlynn.”
Jerry Sue Thornton, Cuyahoga Community College
Regardless of what business you are in, innovation undoubtedly plays a role in staying relevant to your customers and one step ahead of the competition. As a leader, not only do you have to be innovative, you have to find a way to drive innovation throughout your organization.
“For us, the biggest challenge, which presents a great opportunity for us, is staying on the leading edge of creativity and innovation in our programming and education,” says Jerry Sue Thornton, president of Cuyahoga Community College. “We are very connected to the community, its growth and development, so our challenge is reaching and motivating creativity among our staff, faculty and administrators and supporting that innovation.”
Driving innovation means accepting calculated risks. Without risk-taking, your organization will never be innovative.
“We constantly promote it as a learning environment, which allows people to make mistakes and take risks,” says Thornton. “If you believe you are learning, then it is OK to make a mistake. It’s OK to try something new and different and not have blame. We continue to promote that while we are teaching others and engaging others in learning. We are ourselves always striving to gain some new insights and new ideas, to find creativity and unleash it in new ways.”
Thornton says one way to do that is create a culture where people feel comfortable that they can make a mistake, while at the same time applauding each others’ successes.
“We talk about it as learning,” says Thornton. “We go at it from a base of learning. When someone tries something that doesn’t work out, we’ll say, ‘What did you learn? What would you do differently and how would you advise someone else regarding that?’ We make it into a case study, because maybe someone at another campus or another site might be thinking of something similar.
“Maybe the idea wasn’t a bad one. Maybe there were circumstances that created an issue for us.”
Consistency across the organization is also important, especially when you have multiple sites. If the leader’s message of innovation isn’t being ingrained into the culture at every location, then there are resources that aren’t being fully utilized and the customer’s experience will vary.
“The other area we strive for is the one-college concept,” says Thornton. “We are no different than Nordstrom or any other company that has multiple locations. It’s extremely important that the customer has a consistent standard experience even though they might be on the West Campus, which is very different than the East Campus.
“It doesn’t matter what Nordstrom you go into. It could be Seattle or Beachwood. Everyone is going to have a common experience even though you know the clothes may be a little different, but there should be some commonalities that make you feel comfortable. We are striving for that one-college concept so to the customer it is a common experience. It is standardized and I know what I can expect. We’re not there, but it’s something in our culture that we are striving to get.”
Claire Young, The Cleveland Clinic
No matter how successful an organization, finding enough good people to help you grow is always challenging.
For Claire Young, the chief nursing officer at The Cleveland Clinic, it’s even tougher because of a nationwide nursing shortage. So to make sure she has enough nurses to keep the more than 1,800 slots filled, she has spent a lot of time tapping the expertise of the nurses already on staff to get ideas about what she can do to attract and retain nurses.
“My theme has been to be visible and listen,” says Young. “I conduct town hall meetings on a quarterly basis. I make what I call rounds, where I stop and talk to people. I’m talking to employees, not patients. I’m confident the patients are in good hands. The employees are my constituents.”
Young gathered as much information as possible from her employees using employee satisfaction reports, one-on-one discussions, group meetings and exit interviews. She identified nine common themes from all the feedback and put together nine different teams to address each theme.
For example, one theme identified was retaining senior nurses.
“These people might have been here 15 to 30 years and don’t necessarily want to be by the bedside all day long,” says Young. “We need their knowledge capital, so we looked at what we could do to keep them.”
The solutions found by the team varied from increased recognition, like a gold watch, to extra help for retirement planning and abbreviated shifts.
Another team looked at information technology.
“What technology can we implement that will make the job more easy and efficient?” says Young. “The teams were very popular and I found that listening to employees helped me learn so much more by putting the ball in their court.”
Communication and eliminating rumors can go a long way toward increasing job satisfaction. When Toby Cosgrove first took over as CEO of the Clinic, his health initiatives spurred all kinds of rumors.
“People were saying that he was going to fire all the fat nurses,” says Young. “Some of the rumors were fabulous. We put together a Web site and called it Rumor Control Central. People could send an anonymous e-mail and ask about anything or say anything. I responded in a six-week period to 800 e-mails.
“It made a huge difference because everybody was worried.”
One of the other issues that Young identified and addressed was flexible working hours.
“The flexibility of nursing is one of the things that is so attractive about the profession,” says Young.
With a workforce that is about 85 percent female, Young was hearing feedback that even greater flexibility to help work around childcare and family issues would be an incentive to stay in the workforce, or in some cases, to re-enter the workforce on a part-time basis.
“We instituted what we call a parent shift,” says Young. “It allows nurses to work the hours they set so they are not tied to a rigid shift. They can work in two-hour increments, as many as they like, up to eight hours per day.
“It allows someone to work and still enjoy raising children or meeting the obligations of a sick parent.”
Since instituting the program, more than 15,000 hours have been worked by people using the parent-shift option. With the nursing shortage, the full-time nurses have been more than happy having the extra help when it’s available.
“This is a buyer’s market,” says Young. “They can choose to work anywhere. My biggest challenge is to stay competitive.”
Linda Bluso, Brouse McDowell
In the old days, a law firm was as stable as could be. You started with the firm, you lived with the firm, you died with the firm.
Hardly anyone left, lest they be viewed as disloyal by the legal community.
But things have changed. It’s not uncommon for a top-performing attorney to pick up and move to a firm across the street - and take their highly valued book of business with them.
The new attitudes present challenges, and at the same time, opportunities.
“It’s a challenge to any law firm as they build their talent,” says Linda Bluso, partner-in-charge of the Cleveland office of Brouse McDowell. “It also creates opportunities for law firms looking for talent. You can now find talent that is willing to be agile and make a move.”
The change in attorney attitudes has hurt some old-school firms that have problems dealing with the defections. But to survive in today’s competitive legal arena, you have to adapt to survive.
“I think we’ve adjusted our attitude as a firm,” says Bluso. “We have gotten away from having hurt feelings about people leaving. We understand the realities of today’s legal climate. You don’t underestimate people’s abilities to make choices about where they want to work.
“I would say the way you keep people is you have to look for why they would want to stay and look at those underlying reasons. It often focuses on a sense of belonging and a sense of ownership. How does one get that?”
One way that has worked for Bluso is seeking more input on firm governance and firm decisions.
“If someone feels part of a cause, they may be more committed to remaining part of that cause or firm,” says Bluso. “That idea crosses over to many types of businesses today.
She says getting input through meetings and one-on-one discussions is a good start.
“Often times, just being heard is enough to make someone feel satisfied at the firm,” says Bluso. “I think it’s important to know what people are thinking at all levels of the firm. What are their perceptions and convey your messages so they hear it from you first hand.”
Two-way communication often helps solve problems or offer new view points on old issues.
“I think everybody has some creativity, originality and innovative thought in them,” says Bluso. “I like to tap into people’s ideas. I’m never surprised when a good idea comes out of somebody.
“I think you need to not take yourself too seriously and put aside your ego. You have to appreciate the fact that someone working with an issue or problem first hand is the person that could hold the key to the solution.”
When you take this approach, you can create that sense of ownership that is so important to retaining talent.
“You have to constantly be in touch with what your talent is looking for and what is going to make them happy,” says Bluso. “It’s as if you are attracting customers. Attracting talent is like attracting customers. You have to know what your customer wants and what your talent is looking for to retain them.
“Different generations want different things from employers. We as employers need to be sensitive to that. If we can adapt, then we will be the ones with the best talent.”
How to reach:Achievement Centers for Children, (216) 292-9700; BrownFlynn (440) 484-0100; Cuyahoga Community College (800) 954-8742; The Cleveland Clinic, www.clevelandclinic.org; Brouse McDowell (216) 830-6830
Editor’s note: Come hear these five dynamic business leaders share their experiences and thoughts on leadership April 18 at the 2006 Women in Business Conference. For more details contact Deborah Garofalo at (440) 250-7021 or email@example.com.