Sharing the keys Featured

8:00pm EDT July 26, 2008

Nanncy Schlichting wants to get everyone at Henry Ford Health System excited about where the organization is headed. In a health system composed of about 22,000 employees spread across 200 locations, it’s quite a task.

So she thinks big. Really big.

Once a year, Schlichting, the president and CEO of the $3.5 billion health care system, brings her entire management team together. That is about 1,500 people, so they don’t use conference rooms or even banquet halls for networking. They use landmarks.

Most recently, Schlichting’s all-leadership meeting took place at the Fox Theatre in downtown Detroit. Before that, it was held at Ford Field, the 65,000-seat home of the Detroit Lions.

At a time when one-on-one, personalized communication has become increasingly valued in the world of business, Schlichting calls the annual leadership mass gatherings one of the most important prongs in her communication strategy. The reason? Strength in numbers.

“I think it really allows for all of us to get excited because there is power in the collective energy of 1,500 people coming together once a year, to really get excited about what we’re doing and the accomplishments we’ve had [and] the things we have to focus on for the year ahead,” she says. “The energy and momentum are really enhanced through meetings like that.”

The energy that is generated at the annual leadership meetings is then driven throughout the organization as managers return to their employees with the latest messages from Schlichting and her senior leadership.

When the local leaders at Henry Ford Health System go back to their individual locations and offices to communicate with their employees, they aren’t going it alone.

In a very real way, the messages they hear during the all-leadership meetings stay with them.

After each meeting, Schlichting’s team provides local managers with a “tool kit,” designed to help managers maintain the energy generated during the meeting and keep the lines of communication open and running.

The kits contain, among other things, DVDs of presentations from the all-leadership meetings. The DVDs are testimonials from patients and their families about how the work done by the health system has impacted their lives.

“There are some very inspiring stories of patients’ experiences at Henry Ford,” Schlichting says. “We had one patient this year who came from England for his brain tumor surgery and follow-up care, and he told what it meant being a part of Henry Ford, what it meant to work with our staff. Those are the kinds of messages we use to really inspire everyone to realize that what we do every day is amazing. While it can be routine for us, it’s certainly not routine for our patients and their families.”

The all-leadership meeting is just one example of how Schlichting communicates with her work force, but it’s certainly not the only way. Only through a constant campaign of communication and engagement can you both focus and energize your work force every day to drive growth.

Perpetuate common goals

While bringing many people together to network and cross-pollinate ideas at an event like the all-leadership meeting has its advantages in and of itself, in order to truly reap the benefits, it must be part of an overall, year-round communication strategy that emphasizes common goals.

“We look at it as a strategy, not an event,” Schlichting says. “What do we do to follow up? How do we continue to help people communicate messages and support their work?”

The leaders at Henry Ford Health System look at communication and motivation in the same light as any other company strategy. It takes a systematic approach to achieve success.

“We think communication and engagement of our work force is absolutely critical to our success,” she says. “It’s one of the most important elements in key performance areas, whether it’s quality, customer service, community outreach, our academic mission, leadership strategies, financial results or growth. It’s all about how we connect with the people in the organization and how they connect with who we serve.”

Those seven key performance areas are what Schlichting calls the “seven pillars” on which the health system is built. Those seven pillars form the basis for operating the system, so it’s critical that employees are focused on and familiar with them.

“We have a diagram that shows our seven pillars,” she says. “Each of them has a strategic aim and specific strategic priorities that our board approves. We describe the seven pillars as the ‘Henry Ford Experience,’ which is performance excellence in all that we do, in each one of our seven pillars.

“We talk a lot about what supports those pillars, our values and vision and mission. Our framework really comes from a process that allows us to integrate across the system a common understanding of the seven pillars of performance. It gives us a common vocabulary, a common way (to) look at the overarching goals of our system. It’s really created a lot of support and integration and alignment that we wouldn’t have otherwise.”

Harness employee potential

Focused, motivated employees form the engine that powers your business. If you’ve done your job in communicating motivating messages to your work force, you then have to be able to harness their muscle and brainpower to move your company ahead.

At Henry Ford Health System, Schlichting engages and motivates her employees with an eye toward innovation. She wants

to maintain an environment where employees feel free to come forward with ideas and suggestions about how to make the health system produce better results for patients.

If your employees are willing to step forward and offer their ideas, it’s your job to encourage those ideas to keep coming. Schlichting says the best way to do that is to say one word as often as realistically possible: yes.

“The best way is to say yes a lot,” she says. “If people come forward and you constantly tell them why you can’t do things, it does not encourage innovation. If you try to find a way to support their ideas, even if they might need to be changed a bit, but you say, ‘Yes, I like what you’re thinking; I think there is way we can work with that,’ that’s what encourages people to come forward with more ideas.”

If you are consistent in encouraging people to come forward with ideas and careful not to dismiss ideas without careful consideration, it will become part of your reputation as a motivator. Schlichting says that’s a reputation you want to have.

“What happens is that when people are supported, they tell a lot of people that their ideas are going forward,” she says. “Probably one of the best examples of that came from one of our physicians. Our robotic prostate cancer treatment was created and developed here at Henry Ford. Initially, when the idea surfaced, I think a lot of that physician’s colleagues questioned whether it made any sense. Typically, when most people come forward with new ideas, people tell them why it should-n’t happen. So when you’re open and you kind of work through a process, even if it takes awhile, good ideas can get better.

“In our case, the prostate cancer program is now the largest in the country in terms of providing minimally invasive, robotically assisted prostate cancer surgery. When you’re in an organization where people rally around good ideas and help those ideas move forward, they get better. They get sharper and more focused, and we’re able to make that happen.”

Pay attention to ideas, even if you don’t end up using them. Simply letting employees’ ideas die on the vine through neglect is another dangerous demotivator. Schlichting says employees crave feedback; if they don’t get that feedback, they’ll equate it with rejection, whether you mean it that way or not.

“If you don’t provide them good feedback and let them know something is being considered, they basically will quit bringing those ideas forward,” she says. “If they’re dismissed or just devalued by a lack of attention, you’re not going to be very successful in bringing new ideas from that individual. And that word gets out, too. There is an incredible affect on others when someone feels discounted or that their idea wasn’t really considered. Then others will feel like, ‘Well, why should I even think of submitting new ideas to the organization?’”

Stay connected

What you have to say to your employees is important. What your employees have to say to you might be even more important. Ideas and positive communication are only part of it. You and your managers need to make yourselves available for employees to voice their concerns and complaints, as well.

Leaders at Henry Ford Health System allow employees open access via e-mail. It might seem like a small step, but it’s a key step. In some businesses, high-ranking executives shield themselves from an overflowing e-mail inbox by limiting their accessibility to employees. By putting their e-mail addresses out for all in the company to access, Schlichting and her management team are trusting that employees will not inundate them with an avalanche of small-scale issues that could be addressed by those further down the organizational ladder.

“People appreciate and respect that privilege (of accessing me directly),” she says. “I don’t feel like I’m inundated with questions or issues that are not appropriate for me to deal with. Rather, it gives people an outlet if they have a concern or idea, they know they can get to me. As a result, we handle a lot of issues very promptly and quickly because everyone in the organization knows that when I receive an issue that needs my attention, it gets an immediate response.”

Schlichting says it boils down to doing what you say you are going to do. The phrase “walk the talk” is a business cliché, but she says it’s a cliché for a reason: Everybody repeats it because without it, you don’t have any credibility.

“If you have all the right ideas and don’t follow through on them in terms of your own behavior, it becomes pretty hollow,” Schlichting says. “But if you follow through and try to make sure that what you say is what you do, that’s really critical.

“There is a quote I use in leadership talks: ‘It’s not what you say or even what you do that counts, it’s how you make people feel.’ That was a quote from Maya Angelou, and I love it because it’s so true. That’s why things like our all-leadership meetings are important.

“In addition to what you say and what you do, you also want people to feel energized and excited that they’re working in an organization that truly cares about them and how they feel. When that happens, the sky is the limit.”

HOW TO REACH: Henry Ford Health System,