Robert B. Conroy Jr. Featured

7:00pm EDT December 26, 2007

When Robert B. Conroy Jr. attends new employee orientations at St. Petersburg General Hospital, he makes it a point to know beforehand something about each employee. Whether it is where he or she previously worked or where he or she went to school, the president and CEO of the 219-bed hospital, which employs about 550 people, sets aside time before each orientation to memorize the facts and bring them up in conversations. Conroy does this as a way to connect with new employees and open the lines of communication with them. And, he says, the feedback he receives tells him that his effort shows employees he has a genuine interest in them. Smart Business spoke with Conroy about how to show people you are listening and how to communicate change.

Be visible. In our case, since we’re a hospital, the customers are obviously the employees but equally so are the physicians and the patients. So we sort of have multiple customers. My visibility to the organization with all the customers, I think, is critical.

To the extent that the patients are not cared for in my office, I prefer to visit with the staff and the physicians out in the hospital. My main objective is to do as little business in my office and as much out in the hospital, and that subsequently creates the visibility.

By being accessible, typically the customers — the patients, physicians or employees — will engage me when I’m out there and give me their ideas.

Stay in touch with your work force, and your work force probably is in touch with the customers. Then, obviously, don’t be 100 percent dependent on your work force to keep you in touch with the customers. You have to have some direct communication with your customer in order to really understand what they are thinking about your organization and how it’s performing.

If I was in window manufacturing, if I had a plant, I’d be visible in the plant. If I had customers, I would have to go to the customers to be more visible where my windows are being sold.

Listen. We are in a service industry, and I think when you are in service industries, you need to have good listening skills, whether it’s the employees talking about the organization and the culture or the physicians talking about the services that we’re assisting them with as they treat their patients or the reason we’re here, which is taking care of patients.

There is a lot to be learned, and, as a leader, we need to harness that information in order to use it to make our strategic plans.

Show people you are listening to them. First and foremost, it’s the one-to-one contact. As they engage you, you have to make some time to have the personal one-to-one contact with your customer. On a group basis, obviously, I think you have to have your normal meetings, either with your employees, we call them town-hall meetings, or with your management team.

Have an exchange of information and leave time so that it becomes a two-way dialogue and not just a monologue or delivery of information on my part. Always allow enough time for them to express their opinions, either about what I am talking about or what may be on their minds at the time.

You have your presentation, and then you open up the floor, so to speak, about the presentation, and then you leave time about any other issue that may be out there that may not be on that particular agenda.

Clearly communicate and monitor change. When we are communicating change, you have to make sure that everyone knows the direction you are headed. That’s the senior management team, the middle management team, and since you have them on board with the strategic plan and the vision for the organization, then they can assist me in imparting that to the employees.

Since we are a 24-7-365 organization, it’s almost impossible for me to individually communicate to everyone.

I’ll have group meetings ... but I’ll also delegate that responsibility once I’m sure they understand it, and I’ll hold the middle management and the other senior managers accountable for sharing and communicating that message. Just like advertising, I think it has to be repeated a lot.

In that context, if it is coming from more than one person, it shows a team effort, it shows a team commitment. It also allows us to get the message out several times, so as no one misses it. And, if we are making changes, that they are aware of those changes and they hear about them before they experience them.

In our situation, we have multiple customers; we have changes we have to communicate to the patients, changes we have to communicate to the employees and to the physicians.

When I’m out and about, I’ll ask people if they’ve heard about the changes and validate that on a personal level.

Don’t give the impression that you always have the right answer. As leaders, I think we may think we have the right answers. Leaders often get the right answers, but typically, they don’t do that alone. They do that by surrounding themselves with other good leaders or future leaders.

The pitfall would be not listening to the people you have surrounded yourself with. If you’ve done good, targeted selection and selected the right people, then I think listening to those people and engaging them and using their ideas would be the best advice I would have for avoiding pitfalls.

HOW TO REACH: St. Petersburg General Hospital, (727) 384-1414 or www.stpetegeneralhospital.com