Bill Alvin Featured

10:29am EDT March 30, 2006
Care Choices employees look up to President and CEO Bill Alvin for one main reason: He says “Thank you.” Those two little words let employees of the Farmington Hills-based health benefits management company know that their work is appreciated and does not go unnoticed. Alvin, who has more than 15 years of experience as the CEO of Detroit area hospitals and health plans, says that the secret to successful leadership is communicating your vision in simple terms that all employees can relate to and letting people know what they are doing right. Smart Business spoke with Alvin about his leadership strategies and how he communicates with his employees.

On leadership:
There are two theories of leadership that I ascribe to. One is called the leadership diamond. If you can picture a four-sided diamond, the characteristics displayed there are vision, courage, sense of reality and integrity. The composite of all of those is leadership. I try to embody those characteristics the best I can. That’s not my theory — someone else developed it — but I read about it 15 years ago and it seemed to resonate, and I tried to live up to that.

The second theory of leadership comes from the book “Good to Great,” a very prominent management book. It described leadership as a paradoxical combination of professional will and personal humility focused on the best interest of the organization. If you can think about it that way, it’s a determination to serve the best interest of the organization and an ambition that is not focused on yourself. Any time you start to think about what is in your own best interest, you are skewing what you might do. When you get in the state of mind to do that, it goes back to one of those leadership characteristics, and that is integrity. If you truly have integrity when you are responsible for leadership in a company, you are not looking after your own interests. Focusing on the best interests of the company has always worked out well for me personally, either by preparing me to do something else at another company or performing well in the company that I am responsible for or an employee of.

On communicating vision:
You have to be clear and simple. It should be easy for everybody in the company to understand the vision of the company. When it gets too complex, then people can’t relate it to their own job every day. The vision of our company is, we serve together to provide the care and choices that make a difference in the health and wellbeing of the lives we touch. People can relate to that.

First of all, you develop a vision that is inspiring, something that can really resonate with people. You make it simple, and you speak it simply. And when you show it on a graphic, you show it very simply.

The leadership of the company must embody that vision. If I speak those words and people in the company see me or other members of the leadership team behaving in a way that is contrary to that, then that vision will mean nothing to the employees that work here. If it means nothing to the employees, then it won’t mean anything to our customers — we won’t be able to make those words a reality. You have to develop a single vision, and the leadership of the company, and ultimately, all employees, have to embody that vision. And then you have to repeat it, over and over, time and time again.

Employees were involved in the development of that vision. It’s just like anything else. If people are involved in the development of something and it’s just not foisted upon them, then it means more to them. It means more to people in the company when we demonstrate that employees from other elements of the company, not just the leadership of the company, were involved in developing something.

Create a culture where people expect one another and expect the leaders to embody the vision. A culture where when people see, at all levels of the company, if people are not embodying it or if some of our business principles aren’t true to that vision, then they will speak up, and they are encouraged to speak up. We have cultural characteristics that are published and were developed with input from all levels of the organization and are incorporated into the performance evaluation of employees. People are expected to live those cultural characteristics.

On dealing with employees:
Be approachable, be one of the people. Don’t try that, just live it. Don’t be somebody that is stuffy and sits in the office someplace and thinks they’re living in a different world from the staff employees.

I really believe in concentrating on the positives of people. Not that in a performance evaluation you shouldn’t bring certain things to the attention of people that they could do better, but when you concentrate on what they do well and you nurture their talents and their creativity and thank them for what they do and reinforce the good that they do, you are going to be so far ahead of concentrating on things that people aren’t doing well. Most people know what they could do better. Concentrate on what they do well and encourage them. It’s wonderful to be encouraged, and it’s wonderful to work in a company where encouragement is part of the culture.

HOW TO REACH: Care Choices, (800) 677-6350 or www.carechoices.com