How J.R. Thomas works to find people who can sustain MedSynergies’ pace Featured

8:01pm EDT May 31, 2012
How J.R. Thomas works to find people who can sustain MedSynergies’ pace

One thing MedSynergies Inc. has gotten good at is growing fast. The company’s revenue has been rising at an eye-popping rate, 30 percent plus for eight years running. But a byproduct of that whirlwind growth is that it’s difficult to find and retain workers who can keep up the pace. Sometimes people get left in the dust.

“The biggest issue we face is getting and keeping quality people,” says J.R. Thomas, CEO of Irving, Texas-based MedSynergies, which manages business operations for health care providers. “It’s tough to recruit and develop human talent while growing so quickly.

“Our growth comes in spurts,” Thomas says. “It’s not a linear model, and that can make it hard for people. The issue of the skill sets that are needed, the talent level that’s needed, coupled with the inadequacy of the educational system we have today, plus the complexity of people’s personal situations — this all creates serious challenges in terms of getting and retaining talented workers.”

MedSynergies’ leaders began to notice the problem eight years ago. “In 2004 we did a large transaction to put private equity in the company to grow it, and we hired a lot of people,” Thomas says. “We received plenty of impressive resumes, but we found that some of the people we hired had performance issues that weren’t evident through the interview process or the reference process. We weren’t getting the value we thought we should get. It became a real problem.”

This led to an uptick in employee turnover, which produced a slew of issues for MedSynergies. “When you start to get into a situation where you’ve created a hyper turnover rate, you start to lose the culture of the company you’ve built,” Thomas says. “You start to see tension develop between the people who’ve been around for 13, 14 years and the new people you’re bringing in. You have to find a way to reinvigorate your company’s culture and teach your fundamentals to all the new people — your mission, your tactics, your strategy. As one of our people said, ‘We have to “MedSynergize” these people in how we do business.’

“The cultural aspects of turnover are a substantial investment,” he says. “It can be an expensive process. But if you don’t deal with it, you can’t grow over the long term.”

In the eight years since its growth started accelerating, MedSynergies has experienced mixed results in recruiting and developing staff. “Overall I’d give us a B or a C,” Thomas says. “I’m not sure anyone ever gets an A in that process. And it’s an ongoing process; I don’t think it ever gets completely resolved. You just try to keep getting better at it.”

Train the troops

MedSynergies has undertaken a number programs and initiatives aimed at improving its recruitment and development of employees, with varying degrees of success. One of the first was a training program the company’s leaders dubbed MSI Boot Camp.

“We looked at this problem in 2004 and saw that it wasn’t going to go away,” Thomas says. “In fact, we began to see that the magnitude of the problem actually gets bigger as you grow. And this isn’t a matter of simply identifying a problem and then solving it. You can get better at mitigating it, but I don’t think you can solve it.”

New business was rolling in, so MedSynergies’ leadership team had to set up the new training program on the fly.

“At the time, we didn’t have a lot of time on our hands to create PowerPoints, to have great thoughts about how we were going to build our culture and onboard people,” Thomas says. “I think most small companies have that problem because everybody wears so many hats. We had to move. We had operations, we had new customers, and we were trying to hire people and grow. So the decision making was pretty quick.

“We started the boot camp and started walking our employees through things like the life of a claim and our five key metrics, which are one of our cornerstones — the foundational elements of a physician’s practice,” Thomas says. “It’s one of the things you’ve got to do right first because it’s a precedent to everything else. There’s some pretty core stuff you have to do. And very few people do it well. It has a lot of process rigor around it.”

Boot camp was an apt name for the program, as Thomas describes it.

“It was two 10-hour days, roll up your sleeves, hard core,” he says. “We covered areas like what you tell the client, what it means, how it impacts the company. And we got good results. One byproduct of that process is we found out some people at various levels of the company had skill sets that were above what they were hired in at. And we found the converse was true, too. Some people who were supposed to know it all and be an immediate impact player couldn’t dribble the ball.

“So it helped us evaluate, from a senior management perspective, our talent level in the company at that point. It also helped our ability to recruit, and it started building a culture about how we do our business.”

Go back to school

Another step MedSynergies took was aimed squarely at the problem of recruitment and the shortage of suitable talent.

“One of the big obstacles we face is that the level of talent we need at all levels of the company to meet our growth needs exceeds the ability of the city and the region of North Texas to supply it,” Thomas says. “We are really struggling to find talent at $12 to $15 an hour all the way up to $100,000 a year — and even above that level.”

MedSynergies is partly addressing this problem by partnering with a local institution that Thomas says is overlooked by many businesses in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex.

“Probably the biggest unknown, unappreciated asset in Dallas-Fort Worth is the Dallas County Community College,” he says. “It’s huge. It’s one of the largest assets that, economically, we don’t know anything about. Most people don’t. I didn’t.”

A MedSynergies client who is involved with the community college convinced Thomas that his company would benefit by partnering with the school.

“We committed to do a couple things with the community college,” Thomas says. “One is we wrote a check to build a portal to help their students get jobs. So what they’re in the process of doing now is building a website where students can put their resume out and apply for jobs.”

Thomas says that part of his motivation for entering into this partnership was selfish. “I wanted access to their best and brightest to hire, at all levels of the company,” he says. “The community college is a great economic tool, and it’s a great societal tool. These are kids that are really working their way up. They either go on to four-year colleges or come out with a two-year degree, and they turn into great employees and do a phenomenal job.

“The other part is we want the community college students to look back and say, ‘They helped me get a job, so therefore I want to perpetuate the program,’” he says. “So it’s not just a charitable event. It’s really a business enterprise to pay back the school that’s done so many great things for you.

“I have high hopes for that,” Thomas says. “I think it will help our hiring process, and I think it will have some societal benefits for the community college and raise some awareness about how good a job they’re doing. They’re doing absolutely phenomenal work at the community college level. So I’m real enthused about that.”

Identify your stars

To help with employee morale and improve information sharing, MedSynergies has launched a monthly executive-employee communication program called Lunch With Leaders.

“It’s a monthly luncheon,” Thomas says. “It’s an open sign-up-to-have-lunch-with-an-executive program. Lunch is provided, and it’s a free-ranging group discussion. So you’ll hear things like, ‘I don’t understand my benefits. Are they better? Are they worse?’ Or there will be discussions about topics like working from home and other policy issues. It’s a great format to communicate with employees throughout the organization, because we find that they know a lot about what’s going on, while many of us sitting with C’s in front of our titles don’t really know that much about what’s going on.”

The Lunch With Leaders program has another important benefit. By fostering interaction between executives and employees, it makes it easier for MedSynergies’ higher-ups to identify who the company’s future leaders are likely to be.

“We’re trying to identify our superstars,” Thomas says. “There are probably 45 people in this company who are outstanding, phenomenal talent. And at the other end, there are probably another 45 people that the company will do great things without. And identifying both is very important to us.”

Asked what advice he would give other executives facing a similar predicament dealing with the dearth of available talent, Thomas says trusting your judgment is crucial.

“When you start to have a concern and you start to think there’s a problem or a potential issue, that means there is one,” he says. “Don’t second-guess yourself. You need to think about some of these issues, and you’ve got to continue to review your management team and your staff, and if you have a concern or issue, you need to trust yourself. You need to communicate it and deal with it immediately. Don’t wait.”

Another piece of advice Thomas offered CEOs is to be willing to admit you’re fallible.

“We all have egos, but sometimes you’ve got to be able to say you made a mistake, and address the mistake and move on,” he says. “We’ve done that. It’s not fun; it’s not easy. But when you tell someone ‘I made a mistake’ and you correct it, you build trust in that employee — whether it’s lateral or above you or below you. It doesn’t matter. They’re all important.”

Measure success

Asked if he thinks MedSynergies has turned the corner toward resolving its problems with attracting and retaining talent while maintaining its rapid growth path, Thomas says he sees signs that the company is improving, and he feels that constant improvement should be the goal because true resolution isn’t possible in this case.

“It’s an evolutionary process, and I don’t think we’ll ever truly resolve it,” he says. “But we’re making a lot of progress. We’re seeing better employee satisfaction. We’re seeing more referrals from existing employees for jobs. We’re getting more job applicants for open positions than we used to have. On the other hand, we’re also seeing a downside: We’re starting to see our people being recruited by other companies. People say, ‘Hey, I want to hire from MedSynergies because they have some knowledge we can use.’ But that’s part of the deal.

“If you’re doing the right things as the CEO of the company, the average performance of the employees should continually improve,” Thomas says. “In other words, on the bell curve, you’re constantly trying to move your average toward the right, which is better performance. And as you move the bar to the right, you’ve still got to deal with the part that’s to the left — the people who are not performing to the level that the job needs.

“And it never ends. You’ll never get to where everybody is an A performer. It’s mathematically not going to happen.”

HOW TO REACH: MedSynergies Inc., (972) 791-1224, www.medsynergies.com

 

THE THOMAS FILE 

Name: J.R. Thomas

Title: CEO

Company: MedSynergies Inc.

Born: Little Rock, Ark.

Education: B.S. in zoology, University of Arkansas; MBA, University of Texas

What’s the most important thing you learned during your years in school that you use today?

It has nothing to do with the technical components, the debits and credits and pension accounting and microeconomics and macroeconomics. The most important issue about going to school is who you’re sitting next to. Because business is about people and the things they have to deal with, the issues and pressures and performance. And it’s not about psychology or sociology. It’s about how people make decisions and how you’re going to attach and relate to that customer.

What was your first job, and what did you learn from it?

When I was growing up, I worked on our family farm. Among other things, we had a commercial hay and straw baling operation. In high school, my brother and I baled 44,000 bales of straw in a month. And the concept of quit never existed. We were greasing a hay baler early in the morning in the dust and dirt, and we’d come home at 7 o’clock at night, dirty as hell, sunburned, mosquito bitten. But the value of that is we learned that when things get tough, you’ve got to put the hammer down and keep going.

Do you have any overriding business philosophy that you use to guide you?

There’s no substitute for work. Go to work every day. Have a blue-collar mentality. Bring your lunch pail to work.

What trait do you think is the most important one for a CEO to have in order to be a successful leader?

You have to have integrity and respect. There are lots of smart people out there, but to get people to charge a hill, it’s about more than organizational structure or market opportunities or empowerment. It’s about these people sitting side by side with you. Are they going to march up the hill with you? They’ve got to trust you and trust that you’re going do the right thing.