It’s a two-pronged strategy that George Norcross has helped implement at Cooper University Hospital as the $886 million health care system has navigated the choppy economic waters of the past two years.
Norcross — the chairman of the board of trustees — has worked with the system’s leadership to develop the two-pronged strategy. First, they needed to address the manner in which the health system conducted itself as a business enterprise.
“We had to conduct our enterprise much more like a business enterprise, a for-profit enterprise, in terms of cost containment and productivity levels,” Norcross says. “Traditionally, a nonprofit entity might not have the same level of business commitment on productivity that a for-profit enterprise might have.”
The second aspect involved every employee in every corner of the organization. Cooper University Hospital needed to promote the system’s medical services in the community by promoting a positive image internally. In order to be a great place for patients to receive health care, first every employee needed to believe that Cooper is a great place to work.
“One, how do we present to our customers the centers of excellence for our health care institution, whether it be our cancer institute, our heart institute, bone and joint institute, neurological health or otherwise?” Norcross says. “How do we get our audience in the seven southern counties of New Jersey to take an interest in the services that are being provided by our institution?”
Essentially, Norcross and the leadership at Cooper needed to be able to leverage employees by encouraging them and communicating with them. Strengthening Cooper’s position meant a renewed focus on communication and promoting a culture that rewards excellence.
To position an organization to win over the long haul, you need employees who are engaged with what is going on in the organization and will maintain a high level of interest over the long term.
Norcross says a big key to that is to show your employees how much you value them, and doing so beyond your monthly organizational newsletters or in the periodic meetings where you hand out awards and deliver recognition.
You need to show your appreciation and reward high performers on a more consistent, informal basis.
“You need to compliment people on a regular basis,” Norcross says. “Our middle and senior management has spent a considerable amount of time out and about, complimenting people on how they perform over the course of each day. When I’m walking around in our institution, I’m engaging employees in that manner. The person could be working in our maintenance department, in security, a receptionist, a parking attendant. No matter what role they’re in, they need to feel good about their work. They need to be complimented. It’s just a natural thing that people want to hear when they’re doing good work.”
Recognition from management is a component of showing employees how their job fits the overall mission of the organization. As you’re delivering proverbial, or real, pats on the back during your daily interactions with employees, it also provides you with an opportunity to explain or demonstrate how every job in the company contributes to satisfied customers, new and repeat business, and increased revenue.
In a medical organization, it is sometimes difficult for management-level figures like Norcross to draw a direct line from patient care to support staffers who don’t directly interface with patients. But the connections are there, and Norcross takes every opportunity available to refract an employee’s individual contributions through the wide-angle lens of the entire Cooper system.
“Historically, the patient has been served specifically on the physician or nurse level, and it has happened at the doctor’s or nurse’s convenience, not the patient’s” Norcross says. “That’s why we’ve placed a cultural emphasis throughout the organization on customer service in the form of serving patients. Each and every person, whether they’re a parking attendant or maintenance person or doctor or nurse, we emphasize that they’re touching our customers in some way, they’re affecting the customer experience, they’re key to our ability to serve the people who come through our doors seeking care.”
It’s an organizational philosophy that rings true, whether you’re healing the sick, manufacturing cars or running a bakery: If your employees recognize that they’re part of a team and are contributing to team goals, they’ll feel more satisfied with their day-to-day work, and they’ll project their satisfaction onto the customer that they serve.
“Whether it’s a sports team, a business enterprise, a charitable organization or otherwise, people want to be involved in things that they feel rewarded by,” Norcross says. “It could be an emotionally based award, a financial reward, but ultimately, people need to feel that level of excitement. They need to see that they’re doing more than just working from 9 to 5 each day. They need to be a part of something they enjoy, because it’s most of what they do during their waking hours.”
The whole idea of keeping employees focused and plugged into the larger organization is something that you need to incorporate into a larger communication strategy.
Communication is always a critical element of your job — possibly the most important element of your job — which means you need to decide from the top how you want your communication strategy to play out.
Even if you want to get in front of your employees and managers and engage them in person on a regular basis, you’ll still need to develop other forms of communication. It’s something that increases in importance as your business grows.
“It’s always going to start at the top of the organization,” Norcross says. “It starts with the senior executives and middle management, the people who need to understand what the vision, plan and agenda might be and how to communicate it accordingly. It’s a constant challenge to have everyone on the same page on a regular basis.”
It’s a mouthful to communicate an overarching philosophy and plan for how you want employees to conduct themselves and how the business should operate. That’s why the first seed you need to plant is a vision. You need a vision for the future and you need to clearly state it in a form that allows for easy comprehension and no ambiguity as it is communicated throughout your company’s various levels and geographies.
Once you have communicated it, you need to keep communicating it and stay connected with your managers, who also need to cascade the message.
In this process, patience really is a virtue.
“Successful communication has to start with a clear communication of a vision,” Norcross says. “You need to be able to communicate a vision that members of your staff can embrace and something that they recognize as credible. That really can only happen over a period of years. If you’re articulating a vision of a business plan that includes not only the success of the organization but also the rewards that come to employees as part of that, you mus
t implement those plans and rewards in a way that employees find credible and inspiring.”
But that doesn’t mean that you should sugarcoat the truth. It’s great to give your employees inspiration to perform at a high level. It’s great to emphasize the successes and high points that your company is experiencing. But when difficult times call for difficult communication, you need the same level of disclosure.
Once again, it’s part of a larger philosophy on communicating and relating to employees. You build a trust factor with your people by keeping them in the loop with regard to company matters. If you don’t withhold information from employees when times are good, you will reap the benefits in the form of an increased trust factor when times are more challenging.
“When you encounter difficult conditions like what we’ve been experiencing around the country in the past couple of years, you need to be honest and forthright with people,” Norcross says. “If the management of your company has built a reputation of truthfulness and honesty and enjoys a high level of credibility with the staff, you tend to be able to reap the rewards of the success you’ve had. You maintain that trust level during trying times.”
Frank, honest communication also eliminates the “what-if” factor that might be rolling around inside the minds of your employees. Even if you have bad news to communicate, whether it be budgetary cutbacks or head count reductions, the damage you will do to morale by bluntly communicating the bad news won’t be worse than the damage you’ll do by leaving your people in the dark, wondering when or if the hatchet is going to fall.
“The first thing is to eliminate the anxiety which naturally exists in people’s minds,” Norcross says. “That’s why the ability to be straightforward, frank and honest is far more important than anything else. People want straight talk. They want honesty, they want to know exactly what the circumstances are.”
Going hand-in-hand with the straightforward delivery of negative news is the need for open feedback channels.
As much as any other initiative that Norcross and the leadership at Cooper have undertaken to build for the future, feedback channels have helped to increase employee involvement and, in turn, their engagement in the health system’s future.
“In today’s environment, getting out and communicating in a way that encourages feedback is critical to employee involvement,” Norcross says. “You have to solicit and allow those opportunities for people to communicate with you, either verbally or in writing. If staff members feel that they are encouraged to contribute their thoughts or ideas to senior management, you’re going to see that kind of activity take place on an increased basis.
“You just want to continue to instill upon them that this is a team enterprise, that success is based on the contributions of many, and that everybody’s ideas and interests are important. Each employee’s contribution to the success of the enterprise builds a culture of inclusion, and that’s what really leads to a successful organization.”
How to reach: Cooper University Hospital, (856) 342-2000 or www.cooperhealth.org