Steve Ralph Featured

7:00pm EDT December 26, 2007

Risk is the fuel for progress, says Steve Ralph, who as president and CEO of Huntington Hospital continues a tradition of calculated risk-taking that began more than 20 years ago. It was then that a savvy physical therapist suggested that the Pasadena-based community hospital bring in canines to assist with patient recovery and therapy. Though the proposal sparked a wave of initial controversy, Huntington’s leadership team took a risk on a program that proved hugely successful, and canine therapy programs have since become a mainstay in hospitals across the country. Today, Ralph is just as willing to take those kinds of calculated risks, whether implementing new staffing procedures among his 3,247 employees or taking new approaches to patient care at the hospital, which posted 2006 revenue of $398 million. Smart Business spoke with Ralph about visibility, connecting the dots and how to close the loop when communicating.

Make yourself visible. I make a point of welcoming (employees) at every new employee orientation we have. I tell them that they’re going to see me a lot. I’m not one of these CEOs that’s in meetings day in and day out from morning, noon to night.

I spend a lot of time roaming the halls. I spend a lot of time talking, communicating and listening to people.

(Employees can then say), ‘This is a real person. He understands. He can relate to what I’m doing. He can understand the issues I’ve got on the job.’

When you’re visible and a part of the organization, that doesn’t mean that people always agree with everything, but they certainly can appreciate where you’re coming from and develop a respect and a trust, which is important in relationships.

Recognize extra effort. I spend a lot of time just walking through the cafeteria when people are eating and talking to them about their jobs and recognizing people in terms of doing a good job.

Just simple things like, the housekeeper was swamped doing some things, so one of the security guards helped empty the trash. It’s recognizing those people for doing it.

It’s also connecting the dots. In any industry, you’ve got people behind the scenes that are doing a lot of the things, but they don’t get the recognition. It’s important that you balance it and really recognize (them).

We’ve got some ways that people can accumulate points. A patient can recognize an employee, a fellow employee can recognize a fellow employee or a team of employees, and they can accumulate points.

They can use that to benefit something in their department — get a new video machine for their education department, whatever it is. You can do things that might end up being a pizza party for the department.

They feel that they’re an integral part of this organization. They feel good about themselves when we have celebrations, and they’re doing things better.

As long as people feel that they’ve made a contribution to that and have gone the extra mile, they got a lot of rewards professionally and get a lot of rewards within their own peer groups.

Close the loop. Too often, organizations can go in lots of different directions, or people don’t really understand the fundamental reasons for what we’re doing, why we’re doing it and where we’re going. One of the biggest responsibilities that any leader has is to effectively communicate. When I say that, it’s not talking so much. It’s oftentimes listening — listening effectively.

Listening effectively means following up with (employees) effectively.

If I get input from people but I decide to do something else, it’s important to close that loop. Tell people, ‘Here’s why we did it the way we did it. We looked at this, and we looked at that.’

If people feel like you’re giving them lip service and not really listening to them, they’ll quickly say, ‘Hell, I’m not talking to this guy anymore. He doesn’t do anything I say.’ It’s important that you tell people why you made the decision that you did.

Don’t make hasty decisions. You don’t want to act too quickly. You don’t want to be a bull in a china shop, breaking all the glass.

But on the other hand, if you know there are some major challenges in the organization, and there are things that need to be improved, you’ve got to move on some of those things.

You’ve got to gather the data, get the facts, and try to balance the pros and cons. You’ve got to say, ‘In the best interest of this organization, in terms of where we are and where we’re going, this is what we need to do.’

At the end of the day, you’ve got to make decisions and move forward. The key is to make sure you communicated the reasoning behind it and that rationale and develop that confidence that people have to have in you.

(Employees) certainly won’t always agree with you, but if they have confidence that you’re going to listen, look at all sides of the situation, and then make an informed decision, they’ll have confidence and trust in you, which, at the end of the day, is what you really need to have.

Take a hike. People’s success is all boiled down to how they balance their life.

The role of CEO is really a full-time, 24-7 kind of role. You need some downtime to balance your personal life and spend time away from it all.

When I get away, I try to get away. Last year, I went on a hike in Northern Scotland for 95 miles. [Previously] I went on a hike around Mont Blanc, which is the highest mountain in Europe.

I have confidence that I can do that, and things are fine here. I’m not bringing cell phones or BlackBerrys and stuff.

You need time away. People all need some time to think and put their life in perspective.

HOW TO REACH: Huntington Hospital, (626) 397-5000 or www.huntingtonhospital.com