If you’re going to get the right things out of employees, you have to put the right ingredients in first.
It’s an idea that has become one of the main pillars of Maura Walsh’s leadership philosophy as the president of HCA Gulf Coast Division, a 12,000-employee branch of Hospital Corp. of America.
Customer service, maximum efficiency, workplace safety or whatever it is you want your employees to value and embrace, you must first set the example at the top. Walsh says you do that through communication both speaking and listening and actively engaging your work force in person.
“It’s not just important but essential that leadership be visible within the organization,” Walsh says. “Leaders need to get to know their employees, and the best way to do that is to walk around, talk to them and give the employees the sense that you’re approachable. You cannot know what is going on in your organization sitting behind a desk. You need to be out talking to employees, asking their opinions, getting their feedback.”
Walking among your employees, asking them questions about their jobs, even casually bantering with them about their weekend plans, helps give employees a sense of confidence in your leadership ability, that you want to be “in the know” and actively engaged in what is happening on the front lines.
Walsh says it also helps tear down the walls that can exist between management and employees. If you can overcome the intimidation that can occur when an employee reaches out to management, you can make strides toward unifying your company around common goals.
As the president of a hospital group, and former president of a hospital, Walsh has learned a thing or two about rallying diverse groups everyone from doctors to nurses to office staffers around a single vision and a set of core values. Walsh says it can be difficult to get different groups to read from the same script, but it’s essential to a company’s long-term survival.
To bring a company together, you must communicate. However, the most important aspect of communication does-n’t start with you. It starts with your employees.
Walsh says you need to find out what motivates your employees, what drives them to come to work each day and to try their best.
She says you shouldn’t assume it’s a one-size-fits-all proposition. Personality, background, job type, all of it affects what truly motivates each employee.
But Walsh goes even a step beyond that. She wants to know what “excites” her employees about their work.
“As you work with your people, you get to see what makes them excited every day,” she says. “For instance, most CEOs are motivated by challenges. On the CEO ranks, there are a lot of commonalities, but you really need to get to know your individual employees, understand what gets them motivated to do their work.”
Just as a manufacturing company is composed of administrators, department heads, manual laborers and other employees whose job descriptions differ from department to department, a hospital has doctors, nurses, cooks, janitors, secretaries among its ranks. Getting to know different jobs, and the people who fill those jobs, is a common denominator among executives who seek to strengthen the relationships within their companies.
Walsh says you need to be able to get on the same level with each department by putting yourself, at least mentally, in the place of the people who work there.
“You need to hit all levels within the organization,” she says. “It’s important to understand what the more entry-level workers think, but it’s just as important to understand what those more up the ladder think. In our case, what our nurses are thinking, what our technicians are thinking, and it’s especially essential to understand what our physicians are thinking and feeling.
“Each employee has different priorities. Here, what is important to someone in the operating room is probably different than for someone who is working in the intensive care unit versus someone who is working in the lab. Obviously, there is always going to be some commonalities throughout departments, but each department, each unit of a business, will have many of their own unique concerns and ideas.”
Drilling down to that level with your employees requires you to go beyond simply noting that you have an open-door policy. You need to get beyond the open-door policy, make personal connections and give employees a reason to connect with you.
“Most employees would not feel comfortable walking into the CEO’s office to let them know what might be happening on their unit that particular day,” Walsh says. “The more visible the leadership team is, the more approachable they are to employees, the more likely employees are going to share with them important information.
“Having an open-door policy is great, but it doesn’t take the place of walking the halls and making sure the folks out there on the front lines know that you truly do care about them and do understand that you want to know what you can do to make the workplace better.”
Enable people to achieve
Walsh says employees need to know that management has placed them in the best position to succeed within the company.
Everyone in the organization from senior management down has to have his or her talent leveraged for maximum effect.
She says the challenge begins at the job interview and never really stops. As a leader, you have to remain constantly on alert for ways that you can enable your employees to achieve more success.
“That’s a challenge for anyone,” Walsh says. “You can only get so much information out of an interview. If you have folks who know the individual you’re interviewing, that’s what I find very helpful. I find just using references, talking to individuals who have worked with the person, is helpful. You might think you’re only going to get a one-sided opinion, but oftentimes, when you’ve talked with people who have worked with an individual, they’ll give you honest feedback about what kind of person they are to work with.”
Once a candidate has been hired at HCA Gulf Coast, Walsh and her leadership team take proactive steps to keep their best and brightest performers, and that includes a chief operating officer development program designed to help the company fill management positions from within.
Familiarity is another key ingredient in building unity within an organization. With that in mind, Walsh attempts to fill management positions with in-house candidates before looking outside the organization.
It isn’t the ideal course of action in every situation, but internal promotion is preferable to Walsh for several reasons: It saves management the task of having to train a new employee from the start, it helps bridge the gap between management and employees when the manager is already familiar with a company’s people and practices, and it gives high performers long-term goals.
“Any organization that does long-term planning should always want to look at individuals within the company, individuals within each division and what their work patterns are going to be moving forward,” Walsh says. “If I feel I’m going to have opportunities for people three to five years down the road, I want to be sure I have the right caliber of individuals to put in those positions. You always want a talent pool your organization can draw from.”
Walsh says she looks for several key traits in people who aspire to management-level positions at HCA Gulf Coast, traits that identify an individual as a unifier and consensus-builder.
Management-level candidates at HCA Gulf Coast, perhaps most importantly, must be willing to look in the mirror and self-assess their own areas of weakness, something with which Walsh has had firsthand experience during her administrative career.
“I was, as many people are, not comfortable with speaking in public,” she says. “It’s something that does not come easily to a lot of individuals, yet in a leadership role, that’s an important skill.”
Walsh overcame her public-speaking obstacle by continually placing herself in situations where she was forced to address an audience. She wants to see the same willingness to tackle personal challenges out of her managers at HCA Gulf Coast.
“Communication skills are part of your makeup,” she says. “Some of us are naturally effective communicators, others are not. But even though we all have our strengths and weaknesses, the more we work in our profession, the more opportunities we have to fine-tune our skills and perfect them.”
When you have finally achieved your goal of a company united around a common vision and a set of core values, your job hasn’t ended. When you arrive at your goal, your job as a CEO shifts to maintenance.
Walsh says you must keep your employees focused on the company’s goals, which is a constant task. If you aren’t vigilant about correcting those who veer off course and celebrating those who set good examples, your new culture will quickly start to erode.
She says it boils down to one word: recognition. You must recognize what your employees are doing and acknowledge their contributions to making your vision a reality.
One of the best ways to recognize an employee is to do it in person. Walsh says it doesn’t have to be a spectacle. You don’t have to gather your managers around a person’s desk and sing a song like the waiters who bring out the slice of birthday cake at your favorite family-style restaurant. Sometimes, it can be as simple as a written note. But you can’t wait weeks until a block of time opens in your schedule.
Walsh says recognition is a dish best served fresh. “When I was working in a hospital with less direct responsibility, I was a firm believer in personal notes,” she says. “I would send a number of personal notes to employees every week. I can remember going to an employee’s office about a year later after I had left the hospital and saw one of the notes I had sent still on their bookshelf.
“I don’t know if I do (recognize people) often enough. I know our lives are very, very busy, and we don’t, as leaders, always take the time to step back and recognize the individuals who are making a difference. But when someone sees a note you’ve written, it sends a message that you know recognition is important. Everyone likes to be recognized for what they do, and I think, oftentimes, we underestimate the value of just one-onone telling someone you appreciate what they’ve done.” <<
HOW TO REACH: HCA Gulf Coast Division, www.hcahouston.com