Ronald Hill Featured

7:00pm EDT November 25, 2007

Ronald Hill fights every day. As executive director of the Western Reserve Area Agency on Aging, Hill is in a constant battle to get advocacy for his organization, find help with his mission and topple lobbyists toting around bigger budgets than his. To go round after round at the agency responsible for planning, coordinating and administering federally funded programs and services for older adults in Cuyahoga, Geauga, Lake, Lorain and Medina counties, Hill has to help his 210 employees find the passion and resolve to stick with him in a never-ending effort. Along the way, he’s learned that the best way to maximize his $92 million budget at WRAAA is to give those employees a say in how the agency tackles its challenges and motivate them by letting them take the lead on projects. Smart Business spoke with Hill about how he creates a democratic work environment and why communication is key to improving morale.

Build a management democracy. I believe in a democratic work environment. You give individuals the freedom, latitude and resources they need to manage their units or to accomplish their goals.

It’s important to foster the development of leadership in the organization because we need as many advocates as possible. Part of that leadership style focuses on trying to develop leadership democracy among my managers.

I have a lot of management meetings and maximize input from managers and, where possible, my supervisors and staff. Try to create as many opportunities for staff to have input and kind of keep them informed on what’s going on in the organization.

Wherever possible, give them the opportunity to have input on the decision or to include them in problem-solving, so they feel that they take ownership of the organization.

From personal experience, when you are kept in the dark, you just don’t even care, you don’t even buy in to those decisions since you don’t know what’s going on.

Hire by committee. In hiring, I don’t interview folks alone, I take a team approach. I’ll go with maybe four or five people who are part of the team and include individuals who the person we are hiring would be accountable to. That’s part of that whole culture of maximizing opportunity for input in every possible level.

That’s important so those individuals know that anybody we hire, they shared in the decision-making. Then, they also have a stake in supporting that person to make sure they succeed in the position.

Hire for a cultural fit. It starts in terms of looking for people who fit your prototype. You have to understand the environment that your organization operates in.

We have a social mission, so I’m looking for people who have a strong commitment, a strong social consciousness and who have a lot of competency skills in the area. It’s important to hire people who share my philosophy or at least embrace the philosophy in the industry of aging.

You look for people who can mirror your values. You look at their career path in terms of what organizations they have worked in — that’s a major part of it. Then, in the interview, ask questions to elicit responses that you would hope would be indicative of a consciousness that meets your mission. Try to understand somebody’s core values to make sure they are congruent with your values as an organization.

In doing that, I find that the better candidates do a lot of research early on, and we don’t have to ask as many questions; they try to present a posture that they feel we would find desirable.

That’s part of my job as a leader; find the people who have those values and commitment, then you don’t have to do as much as you would in other arenas because those people are self-motivated, and they understand the environment as well as I do. They understand the challenges, barriers and opportunities, so you help yourself in that regard by selecting good people.

Motivate employees with new challenges. We deal with needs of an aging population, so the environment is challenging and stimulating. So even those support staff members who get heavily involved across the board, I involve them in taking on a lot of projects and let them take the lead on some projects where they can step outside of their traditional duties and apply their expertise to some other areas where they might historically not have had an opportunity to do that.

That helps to motivate them, keep them engaged.

I think all my managers take advantage of any time they can engage in something outside of their comfort zone and apply the competencies that they have. Again, I try to provide opportunities for my managers to participate in those whenever possible, and also to participate in the brainstorming that goes on, and that helps in trying new, innovative approaches to projects and problems.

Be flexible when it comes to improving morale.

Communication is the key as far as I’m concerned, and it’s two-way communication. You try to really understand their needs, their perceptions and understanding.

Morale goes up and down, there’s no question about it, so you work on understanding what has impact on morale. We went through a situation where something was really affecting morale, it was a personnel policy change, and we underestimated the impact. After we realized the impact, we took a step backward, reconsidered it and reversed our decision based on the negative feedback we got. A lot of leaders, once that decision is made, they’d just stick by that decision.

In reversing it, I got a thank-you card expressing their appreciation for listening to them and not going forward with that policy change. ... Sometimes you don’t have that flexibility. Sometimes to comply with the law or some other mandate, you don’t have any choice, but this was clearly one of those situations where we had a choice.

It’s important to be flexible in your decision-making and be willing to admit your mistakes. I have no hesitation in admitting that I’m wrong or that I don’t have all the answers. Sometimes things require a compromise.

HOW TO REACH: Western Reserve Area Agency on Aging, (800) 626-7277 or