Collaborative effort Featured

7:00pm EDT February 24, 2008

Denise Christy has a special formula for building a sense of teamwork among her senior managers. It’s centered on two main ingredients that form the backbone of her weekly interaction with her direct reports: eggs and coffee.

Each Friday morning, Christy and her seven-member managerial team at Humana Michigan meet at an area restaurant for breakfast. The team talks about in-house items of business, customer matters and trends in the local economy that might affect the $332 million Michigan branch of nationwide health insurer Humana Inc.

Christy, the president of Humana Michigan since 2003, says the breakfasts started as an attempt to stop a growing negative trend in her business. Her managers were becoming so wrapped up in running the business, they weren’t finding opportunities to connect with one another.

“I found I wasn’t getting enough downtime to speak with my direct reports, so we started to have breakfast with each other every Friday morning at 7:30,” Christy says. “We go to a little café, and it’s not a staff meeting, it’s just a cup of coffee and some eggs. We’ll tell each other what is going on in the marketplace; what are you hearing on the streets, what is going on with your customers? It’s an opportunity for the whole team to have a chance to dialogue about the business.”

Those breakfasts, she says, have done more for developing unity and camaraderie than any formal meeting she could ever hold.

There is still a time and place for formal meetings with an agenda, but Christy says any good business leader will never underestimate the power of casual banter over coffee and food. It is one of the most effective ways to not only allow employees to share ideas with each other but to also strengthen the personal relationships that will allow them to comfortably work together.

At Humana Michigan, Christy tries to make everyone feel like they are a contributing member of the team. She says a team-oriented environment isn’t something you can control from the head office. You must cultivate teamwork by getting out among your employees and setting the example.

Encourage collaboration

If you try to do too much by yourself, Christy says you’ll quickly learn the importance of a group approach in business. She learned that lesson the hard way when she once tried to shoulder an entire project on her own.

“I had one of the hardest, most humbling experiences when I tried to do this huge project on my own,” she says. “It clearly wasn’t the success it could have been had I brought my colleagues and others in the organization on board earlier and made them a part of the process.”

It gave Christy a new perspective on the old phrase, “No person is an island.” After that experience, she made it a point to place an emphasis on collaboration. The only way to emphasize collaboration is to communicate the need to collaborate to everyone in the company, and do it repeatedly.

Christy says the key to getting employees to buy in to a collaborative environment is to show each person that his or her contribution makes a difference to the entire company. That means you need to be able to take the wide-scope goals of the organization and drive them down to the individual level.

“You need to be able to personalize it,” she says. “Make sure people understand how important they are to accomplishing our goals and that you see what they’re bringing to the table personally.”

Though it’s time-consuming, Christy drives her message of team unity down to the lowest levels of the company with in-person engagement of her employees. If you put people first, chances are your employees will put people first.

Christy meets with her management team once a week over breakfast, and while that’s an important aspect to her weekly casual communication, it’s only the beginning. She says you can’t just stop with your direct reports; everyone else in the company needs to see you and interact with you on some level.

Christy has quarterly all-company meetings in which she brings together virtually the entire Michigan wing of Humana and makes herself open to questions. But she says some of the most effective engagement can happen on a much smaller scale.

“There are regular staff meetings and ongoing chain-of-command communication,” Christy says. “But then there are more simple forms of engagement, like gathering around someone’s birthday cake. It’s that personal inclusion and being a part of a team that is so important, and everybody sees that and is supporting each other. A lot of fun and camaraderie happens in that type of communication, and that’s important.”

Putting aside the persistent waves of e-mails and paperwork in order to speak with employees requires discipline on your part, but she says it comes back to setting the right example.

“Sometimes, you just have to put it aside,” she says. “People might walk into my office, and I can tell that they want to talk. I might be responding to something, but when I sense they need to talk, I shut down the e-mail, turn around, sit down and grab a cup of coffee.

“As a leader, you have to be tuned in to that. The most important thing as a leader is to be about not your agenda but your team’s agenda. Ultimately, that’s the real work that needs to get done. What you need to find out is what they need from you so they can do their work more effectively. Sometimes, it’s just 20 minutes with you to get you up to speed, share a problem or get your thoughts on something. The most important thing a leader can do is be present for that person, really listen to them and give them what support you can.”

Explain the big picture

Companies from coast to coast have spent untold gallons of ink printing company newsletters in which executives wax poetic about the virtues of teamwork and unity.

Newsletters and companywide e-mails are a great way to disseminate information to many people in a short amount of time. But Christy says there is no substitute for the example that a few well-placed people can set. If you can get even a few people to buy in to the message you are trying to communicate, it increases the odds that others will buy in, as well.

Once again, it goes back to the example you set. If you demonstrate and ask for the right things from your employees, she says they will usually give you what you are looking for in return.

At Humana, Christy wants her team members to always consider the broader picture of the state of health care in Michigan when making big-picture decisions. To gain that perspective, she asks that her managers serve on area nonprofit boards.

“I have a different approach from a leadership perspective,” she says. “I don’t think it’s about just coming to work every day. I think we have to be connected to the community.

“My giving policy is that if there is a nonprofit that needs financial support, I don’t necessarily give that underwriting support unless someone on my team is involved in that organization. The money has to go with the talent and the people so there is a deeper connection. I want my associates to be connected to the community, to understand the broader issues in Michigan, not just what is happening within our industry.”

Putting your employees in a position to gain a new perspective on how their work affects the larger picture in both the company and the community is a great enabler. Christy says it not only fosters a collaborative mindset, it also allows many employees to feel empowered to start team-based initiatives of their own. When you have people who feel enabled to take charge, they will find other people who have the same teamwork values, and a positive snowball effect can begin in your company.

“Many people spend so much time focusing on their day-to-day activities, they don’t see how it relates to the community at large,” she says. “With putting that policy in place, that emboldens them because they actually go to nonprofits, they get positions on boards, and they have their company’s support behind them. It really widens their eyes, and they start to hire talent and find resources that connect with similar values.”

Be persistent

If you have the communication culture and people to support a team-oriented environment, your job still isn’t done. You need to keep hammering away at the same messages and demonstrate the same accessibility that got you to where you are.

Christy says slacking off on your message once you’ve had a measure of success is possibly the worst thing you can do as a leader. Not only will weeds grow under your best-laid plans for teamwork, your employees will lose confidence in your ability to follow through on your messages.

She says it’s especially important when you are introducing new ideas or procedures to your team or if you are new to the job.

“You’re not going to go in and win the business fast,” Christy says. “It’s not a quick hit. Persistence is everything. It’s about everybody being consistent on their messages and staying true to their journey. Ultimately, long-term success is nothing more than building on previous successes and learning from failures you might have had. If you can keep everyone on the same page and learning from their mistakes, you become a better company.”

Getting a culture of collaboration to take root is a process of repeated teaching and learning every year. The best employees will open themselves to learn from their mistakes and will realize that just because they might have had some success, it doesn’t mean they have all the answers. Christy says underlying it all is a constant focus on the core values of your company.

“The success comes from the fact that the employees who will make you successful have learned from that journey, that they have understood that underlying it all is our mission, our journey, and as long as I stay true to that course of action, I can get creative, be innovative and allow us to have a long-term impact in the marketplace,” she says.

“One of my favorite customers is a Japanese-owned company. Through them, I’ve learned so much about this notion of Kaizen, the idea of learning from our mistakes, using them as that teachable moment — to be able to gain insight from it. If a mistake happens once, that is a learning opportunity. If it is repeated, there might be a deeper problem that we need to change. But the first place you go is to learn from the opportunity. That is a principle that serves every company well if they adopt it, and it starts with you sharing mistakes openly, being humble and learning. If you can do that, it takes the fear away.”

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