Kathy Selker, president and CEO of Northlich LLC, a full-service advertising agency with just under 100 employees, knows that to be successful you have to stay true to your values and what you do best. By sticking to this philosophy, Northlich has become a leader at what it does and has attracted the attention of customers looking to do the same.
“One of the challenges is not to chase every opportunity and just to stay focused on that which we do with excellence,” Selker says. “We’ve held ourselves to that standard, but sometimes it’s tempting to do other things.”
To make your core values a key ingredient in the everyday functionality of your business, you have to abide by them in everything you do.
Smart Business spoke to Selker about how she makes decisions with the company’s core values in mind.
Identify core values. I was given some very wise advice a few years ago, and it’s become wiser over the years. You have to really take the time to identify your core values. I went through that exercise, shared that with the agency and have kept those close to our heart.
You have to do the work to identify your values, and you have to share your values; otherwise you can cheat. You have to do your best to hold yourself accountable to those values. I know people say that all the time, but it was the best advice I’ve ever gotten.
If you use that instead of filters to say, ‘Is this client a match for us? Will we be able to demonstrate our commitment to transparency, courage, greatness, passion or not?’ That’s been very helpful. There have been times where I’ve been in a relationship, and it’s not going well and you have to step back and say, ‘You know what, here’s the core issue here.’ We are committed to doing great work here, excellent work, not compromising, and we’re in a relationship with a client where their objective is different than that and it’s causing us great stress internally.
Determine bad relationships. No. 1, are we the right match for them? Can we do what they need to have done? No. 2, is there a value and chemistry match? We’ve all had difficult relationships and sometimes in a client-serving business you’re going to have challenging relationships, but you have to have a certain amount of chemistry and a certain amount of clarity about what we’re trying to accomplish and if it’s possible to make sure it’s the right match. The economics have to make sense. There are certain kinds of things we choose to not work on, certain products we choose not to work on. It’s just not a match for our folks, and certain industries we try to stay out of because we don’t have the depth in that area. Sometimes you make a decision to pursue something or accept an assignment and then you realize it was a mismatch. It’s an art; it’s not a science.
I’ve had relationships where I’ve taken the deep breath, had the important conversations and made the decision and walked away. I’ve had other relationships where I’ve just kept it going and it didn’t get better, it got worse, and it probably cost more than it helped me. You have to make value-based decisions. You have to be true to yourself and you have to do what’s right in the best interest of your employees and, in our case, our agency’s reputation. If you compromise something that’s core, that’s a mistake. In my head I can think of four mistakes where I failed to decisively make a hard decision. Every single one of them later I knew where I didn’t do what I needed to do when I needed to do it. It’s tough and you’re not always going to get it right, but you have to hold yourself to that standard.
Stay true to your business. The first thing you have to do is take care of your current relationships. Start by taking good care of your people, because they are your ambassadors to your clients and to your community. Take equally excellent care of your current clients and current relationships. That has helped us really weather through this tough, tough economy; keep great clients and great people and it’s also been a door opener to more great clients and great people. That’s a fundamental.
Secondly, really doing the hard work and identifying the intersection between the kind of work you can do with excellence and what the market conditions are interested in hiring. You have to really have a hard conversation with yourself. What are we great at? Not what do we want to be great at. But what are we great at and how do we go connect with that in the marketplace. So you have to both do the thinking work and then you have to also execute.
HOW TO REACH: Northlich, (513) 421-8840 or www.northlich.com
As he sat in a meeting to discuss the future of his organization, Vince McCorkle had another one of his aha moments. However, he soon realized the revelation was something his team had noticed for a while.
“I had been in one meeting — it was part of the strategic planning process — and said, ‘You know, we behave too silo-like within our health system,’ and I’ll never forget someone said, ‘That’s because we’re structured like silos.’ says McCorkle, CEO of Akron General Health System. “And that person was right.”
When McCorkle join AGHS in April 2010, the organization had recently completed a revitalization process following several tough years. While it had accomplished great strides since, as the dust settled, employees realized it was time to take another look at a developing a plan to move forward.
“The improvements they made were operational improvements, refining the systems, some of the basic blocking and tackling that needed to be done had happened, but everyone was really looking and saying, ‘We want to know where we are going,’” McCorkle says.
Though Akron General hadn’t had a strategic plan in years, the problem with getting anywhere wasn’t just with the lack of a strategic plan, it was the way the organizations itself was set up. McCorkle knew well that if your structure isn’t driving function, then culture can eat strategy. So AGHS was going to develop a new strategic plan, and it needed the combined, united support of his 5,700 employees and a participative culture that could enable one.
“So we’re saying, we want a common mission, common vision, common value systems,” he says. “Certain things are going to make sense to be done at the system level, but we have to respect the uniqueness and the different gifts we have in different parts of the system. It’s not centralization; it’s system thinking.
“If you say we want to behave like a system, then structure will drive function. We have to structure ourselves or restructure ourselves so we don’t behave like silos. For me the ‘aha’ was the structure was forcing us to behave like silos. It wasn’t the behavior. It was the structure.”
Before you can unite people in a vision, you have to first recognize what is keeping them fragmented in the first place. McCorkle knew he needed to understand why and how his employees operated within their own constraints and rules to see where there was opportunity to connect them.
“The great challenge was having the discipline not to just come in and intuitively start doing things but to really go through a defined process involving both internal and external stakeholders to really architect the future of the organization, reaffirm its mission and redefine its vision for the future,” he says.
If your organization is made up of silos, you can’t just write a new rulebook that applies to everyone. As a new leader, you won’t know about all the various cause-and-effect relationships that exist within your organization unless you dig a little, which is why McCorkle decided to spend his first months as CEO seeking input from people who knew the ropes at AGHS, including employees, patients, community members and the board of directors.
“My goal for my first three months was really to listen and learn, to speak with as many people as possible and get their insights,” McCorkle says. “I believe that everyone is 100 percent in their point of view, but that point of view was shaped by where they sit in the organization. So I felt like I had all of these mosaic pieces and I needed to really carefully assemble them together to get an accurate snapshot of current reality as well as the aspirations, these different individuals, clinical leaders, management, trustees had for the future not only of our organization but the greater Akron community.”
To find out what his people think, McCorkle’s strategy has been simple: Ask them and they’ll tell you. And as a new leader, he says if you see something you don’t understand, ask why. There’s probably a good reason why it is the way it is.
Also, in order to get accurate information at the management level, it’s important to eliminate any feeling of organizational or management hierarchy that could inhibit or isolate some people from offering their input or giving honest information.
“I think every one of us in the organization has an important job to do,” McCorkle says. “We are privileged to be able to care for people at some of the most vulnerable times in their lives. Because we have different titles or a nerve chart, it doesn’t mean what I do is any more important than what you do. We’re a community of inspired people wanting to make a difference, and so I don’t believe that we should use the hierarchy of titles.
“I was convinced that our plan would have much more applicability and sustainability if we had that genuine involvement versus someone like myself who comes to work in a business suit saying, ‘This is the direction I think we should go in.’”
It’s important to encourage your employees to share their opinion, but if you want your culture to enable strategy, you also have to make sure employees and stakeholders feel like that contribution makes a difference. This means showing them that their ideas for improving the organization aren’t just heard, but considered and appreciated.
“If you go through a process where individuals can have input and you honor that input — you are upfront and say, ‘We may not be able to do or we may not think what you are suggesting is one of the critical things we need to concentrate on this year or the next three years, but we want your input’— then people generally will feel that they have ownership in the direction of the organization and they can buy into it,” McCorkle says.
His goal at AGHS has been to help every person feel connected to the larger goal of helping patients. He often tells people the story of a group of people who were touring Cape Kennedy at an off time. When they noticed someone sweeping the floor, one visitor asked, ‘But what are you doing here?’ The man sweeping replied, ‘I’m helping to put a man on the moon.’
“It’s that sense of greater purpose; you’re not being a bricklayer but building a cathedral, not being a technician but being a healer,” McCorkle says.
To show people they are part of the vision, you have to make that vision participative. Whether or not a team member’s idea seems actionable or actually pans out, it’s important to show that person that you aren’t just blowing it off. It’s better to tell someone, ‘This idea won’t work,’ then give no feedback at all or worse, say something negative. Just as respecting input is the key to promoting ideas, criticism is the quickest way to kill them.
One way McCorkle ensures he gets a reliable picture of where AGHS stands, positive and negative, is having guidelines for handling feedback. These guidelines ensure his people embrace even the most unpopular ideas with kindness and equitable consideration.
“I didn’t use this language, but essentially, here are the rules of engagement,” McCorkle says. “We want to assume that people always have good intentions, and even if they do something that you say, ‘Well, that was a wackadoodle move,’ you have to say, ‘I’m assuming they have good intentions.’ You do not attack or criticize the person, but you work to better understand their ideas or their behavior.
“I’ve asked many people I’ve met with, ‘If you see me doing something that makes you pause or I’m not doing something that you think I should be doing, would you please tell me, because that’s the only way that I can learn. I have had occasions where people have come in and said, ‘I don’t know if you’re going to want to hear this or not,’ but then they tell me and I thank them. There’s amnesty in that, and that builds trust, I think, when I’m open to that feedback and they are mutually open to that feedback.”
Still, even though a participative management style can help you motivate and unite your team, at the end of the day, you have to remember a collaborative culture is not a democracy.
“I really like a lot of participation,” McCorkle says. “I think it’s healthy for people to be able to disagree, but you can never abdicate your role and responsibilities as CEO of the organization. So you listen. You try to incorporate the best thinking, but then as Howard Sherman said, ‘The buck stops here.’ You have to make that decision. Hopefully, it’s always a well-informed decision and I would say directionally correct. Generally there is more than one way to do something, and when you have the clarity in terms of values, purpose and goals, those decisions usually will be directionally correct.”
Share as you go
Despite working in health care, McCorkle doesn’t believe in the saying “no news is good news.” Rather than being confined to his office as a CEO, he knows it’s important that the engagement and participation of his people is matched by his own willingness to share what he knows.
“I’m convinced that people love to handle good news, they can handle bad news, but it’s really hard to handle no news,” he says. “So [it was] giving feedback on my learnings as I was going, or maybe even saying, ‘This is what I sense. Could you please help me understand it from your perspective?’ There were many ‘ahas’ in that process.
“You might go into one group and you have a position leader and you might have someone that’s a secretary in the same group pulling oars in the same direction. I also believe it’s important not to hunker down in the CEO’s office, but to get out in the organization — talk to people. I try to allow time in my schedule when I do that rounding that I can stop and engage in discussion, see how people are doing, because it’s those personal relationships that I know are critical to forming the culture of the organization.”
As the head of the organization, you have a bird’s eye view of how different areas and teams operate. So the more you learn about what makes each these areas unique, the more you can find ways to bring out their commonalties. Building a two-way dialogue between you and your team can help you identify commonalities and partnership opportunities together that you wouldn’t see just sitting behind a desk. Armed with that knowledge, you’ll be able to connect people in a plan that suits the organization’s best interests.
“I think every day you can look back and say, ‘What did I learn from that?’” McCorkle says. “And it brings fruit to bear. So if I’m working with a group of talented people I might say, ‘Let me share some scar tissue with you. This is something I’ve learned and you may want to consider it as you are forging and architecting this plan.’ That’s maybe something I can bring to the table given my tenure in health care. But there are many ways to accomplish the goal. It’s not Vince’s way that’s important.
“I believe that it is through relationships that we all reach our fullest potential. I am committed to lifelong learning. You can’t have an attitude that because you have a title and a role, you know everything. It’s really valuing people and walking the talk in terms of authentically letting them see you value them and value their insights. It tends to be very, very energizing for me and I think very energizing for the people serving in the organization.”
How to reach: Akron General Health System, (330) 344-6000 or www.akrongeneral.org
The McCorkle File
Akron General Health System
Born: Wilmington, Del.
Education: Bachelor of arts degree, St. Joseph's University in Philadelphia; MBA and master of health and medical service administration, Widener University in Chester, Pa.
McCorkle on making mistakes: If I make a mistake, I think it’s inherently important that I say, ‘I made that decision, and if I had to do it over again, I would make a different decision because X, Y or Z. They always say hindsight’s 20/20 and maybe my rationale for making that decision then was because of X, Y or Z, and either we couldn’t foresee this or I should have done more homework.’ People will respond to that … because we’re human, and we’re not perfect and we’re going to make mistakes. Try to minimize them and move forward. I had a meeting just yesterday with a major consulting firm, and they were coming in and they had made a mistake, and they were there to apologize and, quite frankly, hopefully not lose the account. I had to stop and say, ‘OK, thank you, but let’s not look backward. Time is too important. We’re going to concentrate on the future.’ And they said thank you, and they were immediately energized. I think rather than play defense, they are going to move rapidly forward and help us.
On setting goals: You have to set bodacious goals to say this is where we aspire to be. If we don’t set those bodacious goals, we have no chance of getting to them. If we make a step backward or we make a mistake, it’s not to finger point and assign blame, but to say, ‘What can we glean from this as learnings and how can we minimize the chance that this is going to happen again?’ It’s in that spirit, we’re all in this together. We’re a team and we’re looking to improve having personal mastery but also mastery in terms of the clinical and total system of care that we provide to patients and their families.
Thomas Kirkpatrick, a 19-year veteran of the Procter & Gamble Co., had an urge to try his hand at entrepreneurship. In 1998, he bought the assets to Eco Engineering LLC, a lighting energy services company.
Kirkpatrick saw big potential for the service his company provided, but it was lacking an organizational culture. The values that Procter & Gamble used touched home with him, and he figured those same values could work for his small business.
“Those ethics fit well with my own beliefs, so I tried to establish those same values here,” says Kirkpatrick, president and CEO. “I wanted to develop the organization to create a culture that would bring the good things I experienced at P&G and leave behind some of the things that could plague a larger organization and prevent it from being a nimble, customer-focused organization.”
By following core values and his company’s vision and mission, Kirkpatrick revitalized Eco Engineering, which saw 2009 revenue of $15 million.
Smart Business spoke to Kirkpatrick about how he runs his business by sticking close to the values he knows can create success.
Establish cultural values.
As the CEO of a small business you have the sole responsibility in being the leader to establish the vision, the values and the culture to set the tone for your organization. It surprises me every day how carefully people observe what you do, whether or not you’re setting high personal standards. It is absolutely essential and critical to communicate well and make certain that you are sharing your own personal character and standards.
As a CEO, you need to make sure that you communicate clearly the mission and vision of the company. [Employees] need to have something they believe in with passion and something they can get excited about.
You’ve got to decide what kind of an organizational culture you want to have, your values. You need to establish honesty, openness and integrity and create partnerships. Once you get a clear mission and core values set up, you will be able to get an organization in place that can go to work. You have to put together a set of measures so that you have something you can look at to see if you are achieving what you set out to do. You then have to evaluate what you have established, and from there, you set out to try and be the best.
Record and update values.
One of the first things I did back in ’98 was put down on paper a vision, a mission and core values. Most small business owners might say they don’t need a vision, mission or values. But they would agree that they need to provide written guidelines on how the work needs to be done. Some have very basic guidelines and others just use an apprentice program where new people learn just by watching. They need to formalize that and instead of letting new people learn by observing, they need to force themselves to put the process down on paper, and as a result, they can have specific measures of how they’re succeeding or where they’re falling short. That will help them become a better company.
It’s important to continually be looking for the best practices from outside your own company. Participate in a CEO round table to share ideas with other CEOs or keep up on the latest business books. It’s making sure that the CEO doesn’t get so caught up in running the business day to day and that you’re taking time for your own personal development. If you’re not out there looking for the best practices and bringing those to your organization then you’re going to be stagnant.
Reinforce core values.
Every three to four weeks, I meet with all 53 employees, and every quarter, I meet with my leadership team, and we review our values and how we are doing. Have we made progress over the last quarter in working toward our vision and our mission? Are we living up to our core values? I reinforce the fact that our whole focus is customer satisfaction and that we are proud of ourselves and we want to be the best. The only way to do that is by focusing on getting better. As I review these values, it hopefully empowers every employee to live up to those.
HOW TO REACH: Eco Engineering LLC, (513) 985-8300 or www.ecoengineering.com