Starting at the top Featured

7:00pm EDT February 23, 2009

Dave Jones says that before you start holding employees accountable for a company’s culture, you have to start by looking at yourself. Jones, the CEO of Memorial Hermann Memorial City Medical Center, says that you have to hold yourself and your management team accountable for the job of immersing employees in a company culture. Without the initiative of a company’s leaders, the employees will not take hold of the culture and live it on a daily basis. Getting employees involved on that level takes consistent communication and a willingness on the part of your leaders to constantly look for ways to improve their communication with employees.

“How do you play on a team? When you get the most people involved, that’s when they feel like they are a critical part of the team,” Jones says. “That is the crux of it. If you can get everybody, 100 percent of your employees, passionate about everything, meeting your mission, vision and strategies, that’s when you’re going to be at your very best.”

In the nearly three years that Jones has been at the helm of Memorial City — a 1,600-employee facility in the Memorial Hermann Healthcare System — Jones has helped develop and implement programs aimed at involving employees in the center’s mission, vision and strategy and making Memorial City a healthier organization overall.

Here’s how he did it.

Reach out to employees
Your vision and the strategy for reaching it might be simple or complicated, but it will require communication in many different forms to reach every employee. “I use a trite phrase, ‘seven times, seven ways,’” Jones says. “We have to communicate to all our audiences and stakeholders who are involved. I personally believe nothing is better than eye-to-eye communication, talking to folks, getting down at the individual employee level.”

Jones says tailoring messages to various employee groups is one of his biggest challenges, particularly in a hospital setting, where the vision has to be communicated to doctors, nurses, office staff and other support staffers. If you head a company that houses employees in various disciplines, you might find yourself in the same situation. “That’s a tremendous challenge,” Jones says. “How do you talk to people the way they want to hear, either in the message points or in the way the message is delivered? Every one of us learns in different ways and employees all accept messages in different ways. There are words executives use that other people might not appreciate. That will always be the case. That’s why there is a connecting factor in communication. You need to be able to connect with someone.”

To aid in the connection with his employees, Jones has taken the extra step of periodically working alongside them at their jobs. He also invites employees to spend time with him while he is on the job. Jones says the chance to spend time with each other creates a level of understanding between employees and management that might not otherwise exist, and it also helps foster the idea that everyone at Memorial City has a hand in steering the organization. “I do it every two to three weeks,” he says. “I work side by side with an employee so I can fully appreciate what they do and how they do it. I observe them in many situations and work with them in the system if I can. That gives me a full appreciation for what they do. “What is happening is that when I’ve come to their space, from then on they’re more forthcoming. Now they’ve seen me work side by side with them, and they have no problem coming up to me in the hall and talking about an issue. The key thing is they have to know me. We’re a team and the collegiality of that is so critical. It’s the means to accomplishing what we want to accomplish.”

Listen before you speak
Engaged employees are employees who will want to offer their opinions and feedback on what you and your management team are doing in order to improve the organization. All it takes is giving them opportunities for feedback.

Every time Jones interacts with his employees, whether it’s on the job, at a meeting or a chance encounter in the hallway, he makes it a point to listen before he speaks. “That’s the first thing I do when I meet with someone,” he says. “I do a lot of listening before I even start offering opinions. As leaders, we have to realize that there are a lot of things we say that employees couldn’t care less about. It may be important to us, but it’s not as important to them. So it starts with listening and talking around the topic of strategy. That’s what brings us together.”

It takes a level of discipline to listen before talking. It takes even more discipline as a leader to be willing to say that you don’t have all the answers. It’s a quality that comes with experience and practice and a willingness to adhere to an employee-first philosophy. “Developing that discipline is where the true art of leadership comes in,” Jones says. “I always tell employees that there is really nothing major that happens in my office. The most important things we do happen at the bedside of the patient each day, and I’m personally not there. “So I have to let the people who work at the bedside know that I appreciate what goes on there, and that plays in to being a good listener. Part of being a good listener is that you have to be prepared to say that you don’t know, and you have to be willing to ask for help when you don’t know the answer to a question. Those are powerful words that a leader can use: ‘Tell me what I need to do. Explain how

I can better support you so that we can accomplish our mission.’”

As the leader of your organization, you probably want to feel like you’re ultimately the one in control of everything that occurs under your roof. You are accountable, but your employees do most of the groundwork and likely have more influence than you over your company’s processes and the final product you show to clients and customers. It’s a key reason why you need to sincerely listen to and value their input.

“If they don’t understand how important they are to you, they’ll wonder why they’re following you,” Jones says. “But if they understand how important they are to the organization, then when you ask them questions, they answer from a completely different perspective. If you set yourself up to be a great leader with all the answers, when you ask them for their input, it’s not understood. But if you ask for their input and sincerely mean it, you create that connection factor with employees. Then they really know that their ideas and insights matter.”

Implement ideas
Listening is only half the battle when building a culture of empowerment. If you listen to employees’ feedback and ideas, then you do not allow them to implement their ideas, the effect is as damaging as not allowing employees to reach you in the first place.

Employees have to help the organization reach its goals. But Jones wants his employees to take ownership in their ideas by developing their own plans for implementation.

As with listening before speaking, it takes discipline to let employees take the reins on a project that could have a wide-ranging effect on the whole business. But effective delegation is a must for any successful leader.

“I’ve learned as I’ve gotten older that your way is not always the best way,” Jones says. “You have to be prepared to let people succeed and fail with their ideas. Obviously, you can’t fail on a regular basis, but allowing that learning experience is part of being a leader.

“If you think someone really has a bad plan or if somebody is learning through an experience and you feel you have something to add, you let them know that upfront. You ask them to prepare something, then sit down and talk about it. If you have developed the right relationship with that person, they’ll come to you if they’re struggling and ask for help.”

To ensure that new ideas are created and implemented with a common focus, the managers of each project put performance standards in place. The standards vary according to each project, but they give Jones and his leadership team a way to measure how the initial idea is growing and if it’s growing toward an overall organizational goal.

“You basically say that these are the performance standards — we agree upon those, we put it in the performance appraisals together, we signed off on it, and I will help support you in accomplishing this,” Jones says. “Again, it gets down to that connection factor, do they really know that you know what is important? Do they really know that they’re dealing with an individual in the leadership role who wants to have a working relationship with them?”

If there is a breakdown in communication, if ideas aren’t finding their way from employees to decision-makers, the first place you should look is at yourself. Engagement of employees starts with the people at the top of an organization. If you aren’t communicating with enough vigilance, problems will begin surfacing farther down the ladder.

“If we’re not accomplishing our strategies and people aren’t progressing, it starts with me,” Jones says. “What do I have to do differently? If the organization isn’t meeting the objectives that were set, any leader should turn inside and ask themselves what they should be doing differently.”

When possible, play to your strength in communicating. Effective communication from the top of the company means better ideas and feedback flowing upward to management.

“You have to decide what your strength is in communication,” he says. “If it’s one on one, you need to use that. You have to recognize that versus if you’re a prolific writer and can write a great motivational piece.

“But the key thing I try to do is say that I’m just like everybody else. I try to be as open-book and self-effacing as possible. That in and of itself will open the avenue to communication. But you have to play to your strengths. When it comes to engaging employees, always ask yourself, ‘How do I communicate best?’”

HOW TO REACH: Memorial Hermann Memorial City Medical Center, (713) 242-3000 or www.memorialhermann.org