Karen Sexton says it sounds kind of corny, but it’s true: You have to empower your employees to be successful.
To Sexton, vice president and CEO for hospitals and clinics at The University of Texas Medical Branch, “empowerment” is an umbrella word that describes a strategy of listening, supporting, communicating and staying visible to your employees. In other words, it’s not as magical as it sounds.
Regardless of your industry, Sexton says empowerment is the sum of a number of common-sense actions meant to keep employees involved in the present and future of your company. If you are responsive to the needs of your employees, you are already well on your way to an empowered work force.
“What I have to do is make sure I am attentive to the resources my employees need, both in people and materials,” Sexton says. “I have to make sure they have the best equipment they can use, support them in process change as appropriate and make sure they have the right support from other ancillary services.”
At UTMB’s hospitals and clinics which account for approximately 7,000 of the 12,000 employees in the Galveston-based health care system empowerment has its roots in good communication from Sexton and her senior management. With approximately 100 facilities and total revenue of $1.4 billion in the UTMB system, it’s up to Sexton to make sure everyone hears the same messages, interprets them properly and has an opportunity to deliver feedback to the administration.
For Sexton, empowerment is a constantly present duty that requires attention every day of every week. This is how she does it.
Relating the vision
In order for your employees to understand your company, you first must understand it.
Sexton says communicating to empower your employees begins with a company mission and consistently keeping that mission statement in front of your people.
“You have to understand why you exist, what your mission is,” she says. “Once you have a mission, you have to understand it. For us, it’s providing the best health care for the people we serve.
“Once you understand that mission, it’s easy to set the vision to say you want to be the best, that if you are going to do something, you want to be the best at it. But then you have to work across the departments to help people identify how they want to contribute to that.”
The challenge of creating empowering communication is taking wide-ranging concepts like a companywide vision and driving it down to the individual level so that each person believes what he or she does contributes to the whole of the organization. Sexton says that is your essential job as a leader: to drive big-picture concepts downward through the organization, allowing each level to spread the word to those below.
“Not everyone contributes on the same level or in the same way,” she says. “But it’s helping them align what they’re doing with the values and goals of the institution. It might sound easy, but it’s not.
“In our case, it’s not easy to bring 7,000 people in the immediate clinical enterprise together and moving in the same direction with the same priorities. That’s what leadership really has to do, establish what those strategic priorities are and then help our employees understand how they align with those.”
Sexton says your employees have to believe that no one person is any more or less important to the grand scheme than any other person. It’s a tough task when you oversee an organization that might include highly educated, accomplished administrators on one end, and blue-collar factory workers and support staff at the other end.
In Sexton’s case, she oversees a work force of everyone from doctors and nurses to food service employees, janitorial staff and office professionals. Every day, she has to remind all employees that they are all spokes on the same wheel.
She begins by reminding herself and the administrators who oversee various departments that everyone wants to take pride in his or her work. Through those initial communications with her direct reports, she starts her messages cascading through the organization.
Everyone in your organization is reliant on those directly above for communication. That’s why Sexton says having strong communicators throughout your organization is vital.
“To ensure that we involve the layers between the front-line staff and administration, there are people out with our front-line staff at all times, supervising them and managing them,” she says. “Those are the people who need to understand the values and be able to communicate those and help the employees live those. So leadership development is extremely critical. I can have face-to-face contact with employees, and I should, but I’m not with them every day as they’re doing the work.
“We have to have people who are strong communicators, people who are confident and competent in what they are doing. They are my ears and mouth in the field, and we all need to be working as one.”
The right people
If you know what you value in yourself as a leader, Sexton says you probably know what leadership qualities you value in others.
She says finding the right people and putting them in the right positions is a matter of having the discipline to ask the right questions and remember what each position needs with regard to leadership and communication skills.
Sexton calls it “values-based interviewing,” and it’s a process aimed at aligning personal goals with the organization’s goals.
When trying to get to the root of who a person is and what he or she values, creating a dialogue is essential, according to Sexton.
“You have to ask the right questions and have an opportunity to dialogue about who they are, what is important to them and find examples that easily come forward from them,” she says. “I don’t believe I’ve ever hired someone with a sense that something was wrong, that they might not be the right person, and it really has not come to pass. After you’ve done it for a while, you just learn to ask the right questions.”
Sexton and her leadership ask questions pertaining to how the candidate works with people, what he or she values about his or her relationships with people and his or her history of developing others professionally.
“It’s about asking them how they have helped others to be the best they can be.”
However, leaders first have to be able to lead themselves before they can inspire others. Sexton says frank self-analysis is every bit as important as your ability to analyze others. You must be willing to isolate your areas for improvement and work on them, then encourage others in your organization to do the same.
“I’m lucky enough that somewhere I learned to be responsible and accountable to myself,” she says. “It’s not a hard process for me to do it, but when you’re interviewing people, it’s important to ask the right questions to make sure that this is a person who is really going to put a mirror in front of themselves.
“I don’t remember where I first read it, but sometimes you have to consider that the problem might be looking at you in the mirror. It’s the old adage that if you’re not part of the solution, you must be part of the problem.”
You can’t communicate enough. It’s a business cliché, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you should roll your eyes when someone says it.
Sexton says there are usually ample opportunities for communication with your employees, and no CEO takes advantage of all of them. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try.
“I’m not sure it’s possible to communicate enough,” she says. “You have to do it through different modalities because people like different ways of communication. In our world, we have gotten very used to communicating by e-mail but that has taken away from face-to-face communication, and we need to build that back into the work we do.”
Sexton says it’s better to hammer away at the same messages with your direct reports and be able to trust them to carry the message downward and outward than to try and reach the masses with every word you have to say.
Much of communication is being able to stay simple and authentically communicate your own passion and vision to a few people. If you can sell a few people on what you are trying to accomplish, she says chances are you’ll be able to create more buy-in over time.
“Most of my time is spent either with my direct reports or our directors, helping them understand the passion I have for what I do, the commitment I am making to help them do the best they can do,” she says. “I want to look them in the eye and see if I’m connecting with them, allowing them to share their concerns and joys and desires. That eye-to-eye contact is very important in dialogue because they can take that interaction and go out and touch the thousands of employees I can’t possibly get to every day.”
Much of communication is the grunt work of repeating the same things over and over again throughout the organization. Sexton says it can seem tedious, but it is one of the most necessary aspects of maintaining a good communication strategy.
“We tend to want something new and flashy, but that confuses employees,” she says. “We try to use the same words over and over so that the messages are very clear and succinct. It doesn’t always have to be a new message. In fact, if it is always a new message, it kind of becomes like the flavor of the month.”
The real key to communication goes back to taking those often-repeated messages and figuring out a way to fit them to each person in the organization like a puzzle piece. If you can do that, Sexton says you will create a strong bond between your employees and your vision and core values a bond with the organization that becomes personal.
“For example, patient safety is patient safety, and we can’t say it enough at any level of our institution. There are a lot of things that fall under patient safety, and our job as administrators is to help connect those dots. If we take a new patient registration process, it sounds great and it’s the right thing to do, but if we don’t connect it back to our basic value of patient safety, we’ve missed that opportunity.”
If you’ve shown each employee how individual performances affect the whole company, the best workers should feel empowered to take that responsibility and run with it. Sexton says you should expect a sense of accountability in return for your investment in communication with and educating your people.
“We make sure they know we’re holding our employees accountable for creating that safe environment in whatever you’re talking about,” she says. “It comes full circle in that you identify the core values, you help them see how their job fits in to that, you hire the best people and make sure they’re competent in their jobs, are supervised well and that you have metrics you are looking at to ensure you are meeting targets. Then you connect it back to that unit, employee or manager.”
If you’ve done all that, she says, you should have developed a company culture that values communication and workers who understand the big picture.
“You have to start out with communication being the expectation, knowing that you have a responsibility to communicate,” Sexton says. “I need to respect the importance of my communication as well as the communication of others. It needs to be purposeful and meaningful, and it needs to align with the organization I am responsible for leading.” <<
HOW TO REACH: The University of Texas Medical Branch, www.utmb.edu