These are words Theodore Carpenter Jr. lives by when it comes to communication.
Carpenter, the president and CEO of SelectCare of Texas LLC, says a great communication culture isn’t based solely on your ability to reach your employees. As important and maybe even more so is the ability of your employees to reach you and your senior leadership.
Carpenter says any CEO can get on a soapbox and preach teamwork. It takes an active, involved CEO to get out in the field, on the shop floor and in the hallways and engage employees.
You probably won’t be able to make yourself accessible to all of your employees all the time, but he says if you concentrate on building relationships with your employees above and beyond the simple transaction of payment for a day’s work, you will gain a better understanding of the people who make your company run and, by extension, the company itself.
“What I’m interested in is what they’re talking about in the lunch-room and in the hallways,” Carpenter says. “Then we can address whatever those concerns and issues are and also know what else we need to do. So creating really good, upward-moving information about what is going to happen in the organization is the key capability of listening. That channel of communication needs to be a two-way street as much as possible.”
Carpenter says strong relationships between leaders and employees gives everyone involved a better understanding of how their job benefits the company as a whole. As a leader, you get increased knowledge of the people in your company and what makes them tick. Your employees get motivation and a sense of purpose.
But it has to start at the top with what you communicate. A motivated work force won’t happen unless you take the steps to make it happen. This is how Carpenter has done it at SelectCare of Texas.
Meet in small groups
SelectCare of Texas is a $480 million, partially owned subsidiary of Universal American. The company provides benefit plans to Medicare-eligible clients throughout Texas.
As such, Carpenter must make sure that his work force which includes nearly 600 people in the Houston area is on the same page when it comes to communicating with clients, physicians and each other. With the number of interactions that occur on a daily basis, keeping everyone focused on the same goals and objectives and communicating clearly with each other can be daunting tasks.
“I meet with employees periodically in large employee meetings where I will address an issue and ask for questions that kind of thing,” he says. “But my favorite is to meet with employees in small groups; when there is a reason to celebrate something a department has done or the entire organization has done, then I really like circling up with them, having them tell me about their accomplishments and getting into a broader discussion. That’s the most efficient way I have contact with my employees.”
He says smaller groups allow employees to feel more like they’re addressing you one-on-one instead of holding a microphone at a large seminar, which allows people to relax when they talk to you.
“In the smaller setting, they feel safer asking me questions they wouldn’t ask in a large group,” Carpenter says. “I can also work to create a climate in the room where employees feel like it’s safe to speak up. It’s critical that they do that tell me what’s working, what they’re happy and unhappy about. It’s simply easier to create an open environment for discussing the good, bad and ugly in smaller groups than in larger groups.”
Smaller-scale meetings are an integral part of taking big-picture concepts and driving them down to a personal level for your employees. Carpenter says your employees need to know how their job affects the greater goals of the company or you will have a hard time motivating them with a sense of purpose.
“It’s important people get paid appropriately and have a decent work environment,” he says. “But if you’re talking about commitment as a motivator, then they have to believe in what they’re doing and that it’s adding value to the total mission.”
The difference between employees who do their job and employees who embrace the mission of your company comes down to something called “discretionary commitment.” Carpenter says it’s a long-standing concept in human resources, and it’s the effect of employees knowing their place in the company and feeling empowered to do their part to help take the company into the future.
“It’s the issue of do I understand what I do, where it fits in the process and how it fits to the customer. Those are the things that hold people up to a higher level of commitment to the organization. That’s the difference between showing up for work and just getting by and getting a full measure of productivity and effectiveness out of every employee.”
In the small-meeting format, Carpenter tries to meet with everyone in the company at least two or three times a year in order to strengthen the relationship between employees and management and, by extension, the relationship between employees and the company.
For employees to achieve a high level of buy-in, they have to first believe that your communication is authentic.
“Most employees have pretty good B.S. sniffers,” he says. “That’s why it’s most effective to talk straight with them and try to draw them out as much as possible on the issues that need to surface. And try to be as responsive as we can to those issues.”
Communicate by example
When it comes to communication, you are only going to get out of your employees what you give them. If you want to build a culture that empowers employees to communicate with you, the first thing you must give them is a good example.
Carpenter says it takes a willingness to look at yourself as a communicator, your own strengths and weaknesses, and ways you can improve.
“It starts at the top,” he says. “It starts with how I act with my management team and how I embrace both good news and bad news. My focus is on improvement, and then that sets the standard, and that’s replicated throughout the organization.”
From your office, communication will generally cascade downward, meaning your senior managers’ ability to fine-tune their communication skills is every bit as important as your ability to fine-tune yours.
Much can get lost in translation if you and your managers aren’t communicating the same things. Carpenter says it’s important to stay in frequent contact with the people who head your departments not just on the business matters of the day but on how those matters are being relayed to those lower in the organization.
He says it’s especially true if there is a potential problem developing internally or with a customer. Employees will watch carefully how you handle adversity. They will watch to see if you seek to involve others in the solution or if you tend to wash your hands of a situation in the hopes that someone else will resolve it.
“Our business, along with many others, is a complex business,” Carpenter says. “Ultimately, to be successful, you can’t hide problems, so you really need to embrace this philosophy of, ‘Let’s identify the issues and not hide them or bury them.’ Problems tend not to fix themselves more accurately, problems won’t fix themselves. They take management and employee intervention to get fixed.”
A time of adversity is a good gut-check point for evaluating yourself as a communicator. Carpenter says employees look to leadership for direction when the going gets tough, and your response can either strengthen or weaken the all-important relationships you have been trying to cultivate throughout your organization.
During the tougher times, it’s even more important that you get out among your people, engage them in person and let them see your human side.
“Employees are reading more than your words,” Carpenter says. “They’re assessing the body language are you looking them in the eye? Communication is about more than the words, and you can’t build relationships without knowing that. You might be able to conduct business, but you can’t build a relationship.”
As you formulate a communication strategy, remember that employees aren’t looking for you to be larger than life and fix problems with a wave of the hand. What they want is for you to be straightforward and honest about where they and the company stand.
In other words, don’t talk your employees in circles when they simply want to know what is going on. That is one of the quickest ways to kill your work force’s confidence in you and your leadership.
“If you try to gloss things over, I think you run the risk of employees being cynical about the organization, that you will say one thing and do another,” he says. “The truth is hard sometimes, and if you can’t tell someone something, you have to be upfront that you can’t tell them. They’ll respect that. What they won’t respect is spin and schmoozing.
“At the heart of every answer, every communication, it has to be real and authentic and as honest as possible. I just think employees can tell when you’re not being straight with them, and you have to be straight with them as much as possible for credibility’s sake.”
Developing a culture that values openness from management and input from employees is an essential part of a successful business. But Carpenter says if that culture is not reflected in your customer relationships, it’s probably not helping your business grow.
SelectCare of Texas is in a different situation from most companies in that its primary customers are its Medicare clients and the physicians who serve them. But whether you’re selling Medicare benefits packages, manufactured goods or consumer services, the need to have your culture reflected in your customer relations is essential.
Carpenter says those relationships start at the customer interface. In the case of SelectCare of Texas, company representatives hit the ground, getting out to doctors’ offices throughout SelectCare’s coverage area, interacting with physicians and building relationships in much the same way Carpenter builds internal relationships with his own employees.
“We have a significant amount of the organization that is devoted to supporting the physicians at a very local level, so we maintain a lot of face-to-face, person-to-person contact with the physicians at their offices,” Carpenter says. “Written communication is part of that, but when you’re building a relationship, that face-to-face contact is always best, no matter who you’re trying to build a relationship with.”
HOW TO REACH: SelectCare of Texas LLC, www.sctexas.com