How Nancy Brown engages employees to improve the American Heart Association Featured

8:01pm EDT May 31, 2011
How Nancy Brown engages employees to improve the American Heart Association

Nancy Brown knows that to achieve an organization’s goal, you have to continuously improve and get all your employees working with you.

Brown, CEO of the American Heart Association Inc., wants to see the cardiovascular health of all Americans improve by 20 percent while also reducing deaths from heart disease and stroke by 25 percent by 2020.

“Having a bold goal, the entire organization rallies around is one way that we’ve been able to really propel the organization and grow our revenue as well as grow our mission impact because everyone is focused on the same end point and on the same strategy to achieve the end point,” Brown says.

But getting nearly 2,700 employees focused on improvement involves more than just setting a goal. She has to actively engage them in the business and challenge them to help her find better ways of doing business.

“The day you think you’re the best as you can be is a bad day for any organization because that’s the beginning of a downfall,” she says. “There’s always ways that things can be improved or reinvented, so setting that culturally as the expectation that we can always improve, we always want to do better, there’s always new and better and different ways to improve the work that we’re doing — that creates an environment where people are willing to be open about what works and what doesn’t work.”

Create a think-tank group

One of the most important things Brown did to engage employees on improvement was to create a CEO think-tank to help her find new ideas for the business. She pulled in many of the brightest people in her organization from the areas of science, marketing, communication and business.

“Think about who the best and brightest minds are who are willing to be open and that will have significant expertise to contribute to your business goals, and make it informal,” she says. “Don’t create another bureaucracy. Make it that they are truly a think-tank providing advice and guidance and thinking. Bring them together and pose some of your most important business questions, and listen to what these experts have to say.”

She says that before you start this process with those people, you have to communicate what your expectations are for the group.

“Level-set expectations at the beginning that this is an informal group of advisers versus this is a formal committee or group that will have decision-making authority,” Brown says.

When she has these meetings, they typically last about six hours for in-person meetings and about two hours for conference-call meetings. With long meetings, you’ll need to keep people focused during this time.

“Always have an agenda for the meeting for the things that are most important for the organization,” she says.

She provides a quick overview of each piece of the agenda or the background of the status of the item at the beginning of the meeting, and she always uses strategic discussion questions during the meetings.

“It can be deadly to have a random discussion that takes you nowhere, so by having strategic discussion questions framed in advance, the discussion is more focused, and the feedback is as valuable as possible,” she says.

Brown’s think-tank came up with more than 100 ideas to sift through. When you’re trying to narrow ideas down, it’s important everybody is on the same page.

“Upfront, before you start the selection, make sure that you have agreed upon the criteria that you will use to focus on ideas, because if not, people then will lobby for their favorite idea,” she says. “If you have objective criteria upfront — say, must reach the maximum number of people possible or must generate the maximum number of revenue possible or whatever the criteria area — and you work through a facilitated process to narrow down the list, the likelihood of success is better. People will not focus on their pet project but rather on the things that can truly make the biggest difference.”

And like most communication efforts in business, Brown says you have to continue to reinforce this while you go through the selection process.

“It’s all in how you set up the discussion,” she says. “Say that often — ‘We all come to the table with our passions and the things we think are so important, but we need to really be objective because we only have the capacity to do so many things at a time, so let’s figure out the things that could have the highest return and focus there.’ It’s all in setting the tone of the dialogue.”

With expectations clearly set, she then had to start knocking ideas off of the 100-item list. Start with the obvious.

“Some of them were outside the realm of the competencies of the organization, so they were easy to come off of the list,” Brown says. “We then looked at what might have the biggest impact toward our mission and biggest possibilities for revenue, and that’s how we prioritized our ideas.”

For a new initiative, it can be a challenge to place a number on what you think it can return, but you have to try. Brown looked at the market potential, the product they would be creating and what the possible maximum impact could be. Then she looked out over a five- or 10-year span of full implementation, and they discussed how they could ramp up that business line and what the growth and net revenue associated with it could be. She says that until the business plan is actually created, these are just rough numbers.

With that approach, Brown and her team narrowed the list down to 11 ideas. Some of those were quick wins and easy to implement, and others would take longer. She’s currently building business plans for five of those ideas that the organization will move forward with.

“Have a process where you’re constantly challenging yourself,” she says. “Is what we’re doing good enough today in light of the world we live in, and if not, what do we need to do to modify our approach, our products, our services to be as relevant as possible?”

Survey employees

In addition to the think-tank, another way Brown engages employees to improve the business is through an employee engagement survey.

The survey is conducted at the same time each year, and every employee has the opportunity to participate. It was created by the Gallup organization and has 12 questions, and if every employee answered 5 on every question, you would have a fully engaged work force.

The organization started doing this about seven years ago and has created benchmarks specific to the American Heart Association.

“We looked over a period of three to four years,” Brown says. “Where were we getting the highest level of engaged employees, and what were those pieces of our organization doing, and how could we share that information with others?

“Take the time to have someone in your organization analyze by department or function where you’re doing best and hold up those successes for others to learn from.”

After the surveys are administered, Brown says you have to communicate the results to your employees. Within the next quarter, employees learn what the surveys revealed. Doing it within a quarter gives you time to analyze the results, but at the same time, it’s still fresh in their heads.

“Make sure to share the results,” she says. “Employee engagement surveys shouldn’t be something that you do, and the CEO and the management looks at it and never tells the employees as a whole how did we do.”

It’s not a time to try to cover up anything they said either.

“Be very open about the results, open about the places employees feel really good about and open about the places that employees think that things can be improved,” Brown says. “That way people know that this is an open forum, that their feedback is valued and that some action is going to be taken based on the feedback that is provided.”

It’s important to also show a plan for how you’re going to work on the things they brought up. This isn’t always easy to create, but it’s the effort that speaks loudly to employees.

“Some things are easily fixable, and other things take culture change, so it’s hard to give an exact [timeline], but showing that there is a plan and how management takes the feedback seriously is the most important thing, and engaging and enrolling the employees to make the changes is important, too,” she says.

She emphasizes during these sessions is that engagement is a two-way street and the dynamics of the organization are not such that managers can fix everything.

“A lot of things in organizations have to do with how employees communicate to each other or having employees feel comfortable raising issues on a day-to-day basis with managers — not waiting for a once-a-year employee engagement survey for those things to be discussed,” she says. “It’s making sure that the environment is such that this is something we’re going to work on together — not, ‘This is management’s problem to fix.’”

When you get these results back, you need to decide what to act on and what to hold off on.

“Leaders who are engaged in what’s happening in their organization, it’s likely intuitive to them the things that really matter and the things that might be important,” Brown says.

But being in tune isn’t just your job — it’s also that of your leadership team. Each leader has to ask questions and listen to people he or she doesn’t normally talk to.

“It’s such an obvious way that all of us work in organization that we each have our leadership teams that we work closely with, and those are the people we hear from most and we ask questions of most,” she says. “But it’s being deliberate about moving outside of that — going to people who are directly implementing your work or mission every day on the front line and getting their feedback is really important. Make that investment of time because that’s some of the most important time that can be spent.”

When you’re in touch with your organization, you can better decide what initiatives to focus on. Regardless of what you choose, take the time to communicate not only what you implement but also why you can’t implement some suggestions. Doing so is important to employee buy-in for anything you’re trying to achieve as an organization.

“Having employees and volunteers fully engaged and fully enrolled in what’s going on in the organization is the most critical factor for success for my business day-in and day-out,” Brown says. “Even if I can’t or choose not to act on every single suggestion that’s received, making sure people know their feedback is valued and that we’ve heard them but we’re making a different decision for X, Y and Z reason, people get that. They understand that.”

By engaging employees this way, it not only has helped improve the organization, but Brown has also seen a direct impact on the $628 million organization.

“The results of the survey have helped because, first of all, our employees know we care about what they think every single day,” Brown says. “Secondly, because the survey gauges the level of engagement of the employees, we’ve been able to tie employee engagement to lower turnover and to higher productivity, and that’s helped the organization.”

How to reach: American Heart Association Inc., (800) 242-8721 or

The Brown FileBorn: Port Huron, Mich.

Education: Bachelor’s degree in marketing and communications, Central Michigan University

What was your first job, and what did you learn from it that still applies today?

Scooping ice cream at Stroh’s Ice Cream Parlor when I was 15 years old. [I learned] hard work and the importance of customer service — the customer is first.

As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?

I wanted to be a broadcast journalist. It was funny, when I went to school, I gained a huge interest in debate and communications, and then I realized that the opportunities for me would be broader if I focused on broad business and marketing.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received, and who gave you that advice?

Listen with an open mind. [That’s from] an early mentor of mine in one of my first professional jobs.

What’s your favorite board game and why?

My favorite board game is Monopoly. And why is it Monopoly? It’s probably Monopoly because I love to focus on generating revenue and raising money.

If you weren’t doing your current job, what would you do?

I think I would love to some day teach at a university in a business school, because I love to interact with people who are eager about their future and interested in learning, and I would like to be a part of that.