Group effort Featured

8:00pm EDT April 25, 2009

Kathie Mancini had a culture problem that couldn’t be fixed with corporate cash.

It was 2005, and Mancini was the chief operating officer of newly formed Molina Healthcare of Ohio, a subsidiary of giant Molina Healthcare Inc. And though corporate could filter money down for holiday parties and company outings, Mancini realized her people didn’t have the right connection to the community or to the vision at the company that delivers health care services to persons eligible for government-sponsored programs. The success of her growing organization rested not just on retaining top talent but also sparking that talent’s passion.

So Mancini developed the company’s Employee Activity Committee, a front-line employee group charged with handling the internal and external components of the company culture.

Today, Mancini is the plan’s president, and she does almost nothing for the EAC. In fact, employees own it to the point that it has a self-sustaining budget. But even though she wants the committee to take care of itself, she hasn’t lost sight of how important it is to the booming growth at Molina, which posted 2007 premium revenue of $436.2 million.

“It’s key to everything we do here,” she says. “There are a lot of call centers our staff could work in, so the more special we make it here for them, the more they feel like they’re serving a goal or purpose to help people, the more different we are, and they choose to stay. It helps with employee retention; it helps with morale.”

The whole process, Mancini says, was surprisingly achievable. First, she had to personally get involved to get it started, handpicking a few people she knew had a passion for internal and external programs. From there, the leadership team set some basic parameters about what the committee could do and then they simply let go, handing the reins over to passionate employees.

Get the party started

It started with a simple conversation and a realization that Molina was a company filled with people looking to do something more than just work. Mancini and Molina’s then-president realized they couldn’t do as much as they would like because people kept coming at them with external charity ideas and internal culture ideas that they just couldn’t act upon.

“We really talked about how we could get more engagement with the community that we serve,” she says. “And I was like, ‘Gee, I see all kinds of opportunities and we try to fulfill them, but it’s just the community outreach folks that are trying to meet all the needs from the agencies that we hear about,’ and he said, ‘Well, is there a way to make this companywide so more people can get involved?’”

There was. And Mancini says the company’s solution didn’t take a special culture coach or hiring someone to take over company activities.

At the time, there were fewer than 80 people working in her division and Mancini wanted to find a way to involve and engage front-line employees. Thus, Molina’s employee activities committee was born. Mancini says step No. 1 is about having the right people involved.

“You have to find the right people within your organization that really feel strongly that they can bring along the others and then you have to let them own it,” she says. “Because if we came to them and said, ‘OK, here’s what you’re going to do,’ it wouldn’t be as fun. This way they get to be very creative, and it’s a lot of folks that don’t get to be creative in their jobs on a daily basis. So they get to be creative and come up with the different competitions … or the different events we do and how we implement those and really how they advertise those to the office and make sure it comes through.”

Mancini says part of this includes an assessment that requires you to find the original people that can take the task. If you can think of a few people who could handle the role of successfully running your corporate culture right now, you’re probably ready to start. She started small, hand-selecting some people she knew were heavily involved in things like charity projects and often asked others to join them.

“When you work with people, you just know the ones that would take something and run with it, and I had a couple of people, one was actually my administrative assistant, and then there were various others who I knew the second I told them what we wanted to accomplish they’d be gone,” she says.

Set the parameters

During the infant stages of the EAC, Mancini sat in on the meetings to make sure the group was working within Molina’s vision. Once she saw they were acting in the best interest of the company culture, she made herself scarce.

“After the first three to four months of really getting it off the ground, I’ve never been to another meeting,” she says.

In fact, there are no executives — or managers, for that matter — on the committee at all.

“It’s not supervisors, managers, anyone in any sort of leadership position,” she says. “It’s really the folks that maybe from their role they don’t see on a daily basis how they’re fulfilling the mission, so they really want to contribute in other ways.”

The key is creating a feeling that employees own the group. You do that by letting them share the lead.

“The key is finding the passionate, organized people and what they do is say, ‘OK, we’re going to do X events for the year,’ and then they make a captain for each event so that not one person is doing everything. They really share the role of leading different events or drives that we do.”

As Molina has grown to more than 280 people, Mancini has let the group expand on its own, and it now has about 15 people. Along the way, though, Molina has asked that employees share that captain’s role — the EAC representative for a certain event — and keep a democratic view on representatives and programs.

“They do an annual survey through the staff here and say, ‘What events do you like and not like, are there suggestions you’d like to make, and is anybody interested?’ Then they pick a representative from each department so everyone is equally represented (along with) a couple extra people that have been volunteering for events during the year.”

Apart from the annual survey, the leadership team at Molina also gives some geographical requests to help equalize external efforts.

“We make sure it’s allocated equitably across all of our territory, so we’re not doing too many things in Columbus,” she says. “We need to do things in Cincinnati or Dayton or the Appalachia area. So sometimes we have to help with that, but once we have the parameters, they come up with everything.”

The EAC is also charged with spacing its events out to maximize interest and productivity. They can do one smaller staff event per month — such as an ice cream social — one thing for the quarterly all-employee meeting and one charity event every two months. With the charity events, Molina asks that as many as possible are about giving time so people don’t always feel like they have to donate financially.

“We try to mix that up so they can give things like their time, so it’s not just financial contribution,” she says.

The last touch point for management at Molina is the company’s human resources manager. Though the HR manager is not formally on the committee, Mancini says you want to have someone who understands company policy sit in and make notes of things that will affect people’s work just to keep things running smoothly.

Let your people take charge

Once Mancini and her leadership team kick-started the EAC, they did something many companies would struggle with: They completely let go.

To really engage employees, Mancini says you need to let them take over everything — the agenda, the planning and the budget.

“That’s why we have a waiting list for the EAC, because there’s such opportunity to help people, and it makes people feel better about their jobs because some folks sit on the phone or they type contracts in the computer and they think, ‘What am I doing to help our population?’ Well this gives them an avenue to do that,” Mancini says.

That empowerment also means giving aspects of your vision over to the committee’s creative license. Whenever Molina wants to celebrate anything, the company lets the committee take the reins. When the Ohio plan hit 100,000 members in 2007, the committee went around and passed out 100 Grand candy bars.

“It’s stuff like that, little things,” Mancini says. “They did a customer service week this past year. They did the theme of one world, one goal — one team, one goal — so they made a passport for each of the staff, and they went to different suites, which were each a different country, and they sampled food or played some games and really focused on service, the staff really enjoyed that.”

Those little things motivate employees with a social reward comparable to a raise.

“They get a lot of recognition for being on this committee, the staff sends kudos and thank-yous,” Mancini says.

And while that empowerment is a fantastic thing for Mancini to see, she also notes a very executive-friendly portion you can build in to an employee program — and you’ll like this part.

“The best thing is it costs absolutely nothing,” she says. “They’re driving toward a purpose, and a lot of times in business, people focus on ‘people just want their paycheck, it’s all about their paycheck,’ and it really isn’t. It’s about where people feel valued, appreciated and engaged, and that’s what this helps with.”

Creating a program that costs nothing was a simple step for Molina: They let the EAC figure it out. While the corporate entity still gives money for holiday parties and the like, Mancini told the group it could do other events if it could afford them.

The funding comes from things like a post-holiday white elephant sale, an annual book sale and a chili cook-off where people volunteer to make and sell food.

“It’s what they can earn during the year, and they make magnificent things happen, and really it’s because of the creativity and the engagement they have,” she says.

Those engaged employees have been pivotal in helping Molina push forward. Beyond markers Mancini likes to celebrate, like more than 16,000 school items collected during a drive for underprivileged kids, Molina also surpassed 175,000 members in 2008. That growth sparked it to $602.8 million in premium revenue in 2008, a jump of better than 38 percent from 2007. Mancini can’t overestimate the role the EAC has played in that success, from retention and employee engagement to the overall company culture.

“It helps greatly,” she says. “Every day it reinforces the culture. We’re the kind of company where we let you go work on these community events or employee events that help everyone and spend a little bit of time away from your work to do that. It reinforces that we care about our staff, that we care about those we serve, and it also helps them to go back to loading hundreds of contracts into the computer because they feel like they’re making a difference in other ways, too.”

How to reach: Molina Healthcare of Ohio, (800) 642-4168 or www.molinahealthcare.com