Second opinions Featured

8:00pm EDT October 26, 2007

When forming a vision for a company, you need a lot of things. You need focus and discipline. You need a definite idea of where you want to take your company. You need communication skills. You need perseverance to overcome the inevitable bumps in the road.

You also need an audience.

Francine Parker says ideas will never get off the drawing board if people aren’t there to implement them. So when you are defining the direction of your company, it’s imperative to get everyone involved.

Parker, president and CEO of Health Alliance Plan — a Detroit-based health insurance provider with annual revenue of more than $1.6 billion — makes it a point to seek input from her employees when formulating a plan for the company’s future. Upon becoming president and CEO in 2004, she sought input from everyone in the company.

And when Parker says everyone, she means everyone. “When I was working on a vision for HAP, I used a small group of people to react to the vision and really assist with its development, then we tested it with our board,” she says.

“Then what I did — and some people thought it was rather ambitious — I actually went and met with each employee and rolled out the vision. I established a series of meetings, and I think that at any given point, there were no more than 30 to 40 people in a room.”

By organizing a series of smaller meetings with HAP’s employees, Parker was able to create an ongoing dialogue about the direction in which the company was headed. The in-person meetings spawned e-mail correspondence, and feedback is something she continues to solicit to this day.

“You’re not going to move an organization without (your employees),” she says. “They are the organization, they are what breathes life into it. If they’re not involved, it’s not their vision.”

Making your vision become their vision starts with the culture you create.

From the bottom up

A CEO has to know when to take the reins of a situation and when to back off and let others do the thinking. You can’t turn everything into a popularity vote, but in many cases, you need to have your decisions influenced by what your people have to say.

Parker says that’s why a top-down approach is normally not a good idea for creating policies that will affect how everyone in the company will do their jobs.

“One or two people can’t know everything,” she says. “You can set the climate, but let’s say, for example, that in quality, if you’re working on improving the treatment of diabetics, you wouldn’t have a top-down approach. You’d want to have a nurse-educator, a physician, you’d want to have somebody from the pharmacy talking about compliance. You’d want an ophthalmologist because of the importance of diabetic retinal exams. So you’d want a team there that would look at all aspects of something.”

Part of engaging employees on their level is to enable them to not only provide feedback on your ideas, but come up with their own ideas and pitch them to senior management.

Team-building is an important part of creating and developing new ideas at HAP. Parker gets different levels of the organization involved in each idea by assigning a “sponsor” from upper management to work with the development team. The management member acts as a liaison between the front lines and Parker’s staff.

Having a member of management working with employees on a project also allows Parker and her staff to keep tabs on the progress and productivity of each project.

You don’t want to see ideas fall flat but some will, and knowing what is going on at ground level will allow you to better steer the energy of your people toward the projects that have the best chance to benefit the company.

Parker says letting employees take ownership of their projects is a tremendous motivator, but will lead to inevitable clashes when you decide to not implement an idea. Having employees who strongly advocate for their ideas isn’t always a bad thing. It can be indicative of someone who is passionate about what he or she is doing, which is a necessary ingredient in moving a business forward.

“There is danger when you involve employees in these processes and danger when you don’t,” Parker says. “Sometimes you might not take all the ideas, so if you don’t take all the ideas, you need to be able to say why you’re not.

“The good thing is the passion people have around their ideas, but some days, it’s bad to see the passion when you go to say no to something. But I’d rather have them involved than not. If somebody can’t own it and be a part of it, I don’t see the responsibility to want to make it work.”

In an attempt to spark as many ideas as possible, Parker has established quarterly meetings called the “basket of ideas.” She and her senior management team host a cross section of the company’s employees in a breakfast brainstorming session centered on a given topic, such as growth or products. Employees are encouraged to attend and submit their ideas.

Those meetings, which began shortly after Parker assumed the top post at HAP, are one of the primary means by which she continues to engage employees on a large scale.

“That established a climate of actually wanting to engage employees in living a vision and helping to shape that vision,” she says. “They actually get the information, they send it to me, I get the e-mails from employees, we test ideas with employees. It does-n’t need much coaching because we’ve established that as our climate.”

Effective communication

The best ideas might start near the bottom of a company and work their way up, but the only way employees will feel motivated and enabled to help form and drive your company’s vision is if they’re hearing the right words from management — and hearing them consistently.

Quarterly meetings are a good way to engage employees in person, but Parker says it has to go beyond that. Good communication is something that happens every day in many different forms.

“Effective communication takes on many forms,” she says. “For me, it needs to be down to earth, and the message delivered depends on the communication you use.”

Motivating employees doesn’t always have to be about communicating long-range visions about where you want to take the company in three to five years. Sometimes, it’s about showing employees that good things are happening here and now, no matter how small the event might seem at the time.

“A while back, for example, we had significant growth in one of the companies we serve,” she says. “In the Michigan economy, as many people might know, there hasn’t been a lot of good news. Our major employers are the automotive companies, and that means the top three customers have cut one-third of their work force.

“We share news about layoffs and bankruptcies and things like that, but when there is good news, like we had a gain of several thousand new customers, I make a point to jot a quick e-mail to employees to say it, to make sure we end the day on a good note, that we grew by this much, and you all contributed to our growth. I get so many e-mails back from employees thanking me for things like that.”

Parker also uses feedback from customers as a motivational tool. She has organized positive letters from customers into a slide show that she shares with employees who don’t regularly interface with customers. Just because an employee doesn’t work in a customer-service position doesn’t mean he or she doesn’t serve the customer. She says that everyone in the company contributes to the overall customer experience and should be exposed to customer feedback.

“We have 850 employees, and many of them don’t get to hear the actual voice of the customer,” she says. “Sometimes a computer programmer never hears what the customer thinks or the person in charge of security or the mail room, and they are so appreciative when you show them the positive feedback you get.”

Parker says that as you attempt to get employees involved in the future of your company, it is important to keep communicating the same messages in different ways. It comes down to casting the widest possible net with your communication because people won’t react the same way to every message.

“Some people are comfortable in face-to-face interaction,” she says. “Other people like a note. It’s funny because I’ll send a thank-you note, and people will post it on their cubicle, they’ll share it. For that person, the note probably means more because they can pass the note on to other people. Just as people learn differently, I think people react differently and like to be communicated with in different ways.”

Making time

E-mail is a pillar of Parker’s communication philosophy, but she says there is still no substitute for meeting in person. That’s why, as much as her schedule will allow, she makes time to meet with her managers and employees face to face.

There will always be something that comes up and could sidetrack you. But if you really want to make in-person communication a priority, Parker says you’ll find a way to make it happen.

Parker tries to get creative when it comes to balancing face-to-face communication with a busy schedule. If HAP purchases a block of tickets for a charity event, Parker will use it as an opportunity to meet with employees and also give them the reward of a night out.

“In a lot of organizations, people in senior management, they end up having to go to a number of charity functions, and they end up just becoming routine,” she says. “What they don’t realize is there are a number of people in that company who would have loved to have gone to that restaurant or that hotel.

“What I try to do is multitask. If I have to go to an event and have an opportunity to bring 10 people with me, I’ll bring 10 people that have worked on a project, so it’s sort of like killing two birds with one stone. I look at my schedule and come up with creative ways to spend time with my employees.”

If the latest daily crisis is getting in the way of your ability to communicate with and involve your employees in the company’s direction, Parker says it might be time to re-examine your priorities.

No one gets it right all the time, but you’re never going to have employees who are enthusiastic about shaping your company’s future if you don’t first project enthusiasm for their input.

“Sometimes I do it well, and sometimes other things get in the way,” she says. “I have an internal gauge where I know that I’ve reached a point where I need to stop paying attention to a crisis.

“I need to have face-to-face communication with people. I might get more out of it than some of my employees do. Being with my employees energizes me, and I can always tell when I need to be recharged. That’s one of the neat things about being a CEO. I used to be the COO, and as the COO, you get to handle all the crises. I used to tease the former CEO, I used to say, ‘You get all the fun stuff, and I handle all the crises.’ But now I get the fun part and get to delegate some of the crises, which is a nice move.”

HOW TO REACH: Health Alliance Plan,