Manning the trenches Featured

8:00pm EDT October 26, 2007

They’re called “daily minders.”

On the surface, it might seem like a simple daily ritual to outsiders. Every morning, across all of Crothall Services Group’s installations in hospitals and health care facilities across the country, employees meet with their team leaders, who brief them on the cleaning and maintenance tasks of the day.

The daily minders last only a few minutes, but in those few minutes, says Crothall President and CEO Bobby Kutteh, the goals of the entire company are reinforced.

Crothall — a provider of laundry, cleaning and maintenance services to health care facilities — is a company with approximately 25,000 employees spread throughout the 1,400 facilities in which the company provides services. Each of those employees not only has to represent the values of Crothall but also of the facility in which he or she works.

Any CEO, regardless of communication aptitude, would have trouble accomplishing that alone. That’s why Kutteh [pronounced ku-TAY] relies heavily on the people below him to make sure messages stay consistent and goals are accurately communicated.

“You have to have people on-site who can properly communicate and motivate,” he says. “Some of it starts with the willingness of our on-site managers to genuinely care about their people so that they take the time to invest in the person’s training and invest in getting to know the person. Our people need to feel like they’re coming to work to do more than just a job, but that they are coming to a place where they can make a difference in serving the clients.”

For Kutteh, building an engaged work force starts at the front lines, and it isn’t about long-range visions and grand statements. It’s about appealing to your people on a personal level and making them realize that their role in the company matters.

Simple and focused

Your front-line managers aren’t going to be able to promote the company values to their employees if you don’t promote the values to them. That means you need to have an active communication culture that is centered on driving messages downward and outward.

Kutteh says that when it comes to communication from the top, you need to remember one word above all others: Simplicity.

“Simplicity matters big time. You can hear it and read it seven times before you internalize it,” he says. “You need to have simplicity of message and then the ability on the manager’s part to roll up his or her sleeves and perform the function or training. It goes a long way.”

To make sure messages reach their intended targets with a minimum of organizational static, Kutteh emphasizes communications mediums that can reach many people in a short period of time.

Some of the more effective means of mass communication at Crothall are Internet-based. Kutteh reaches all of his on-site managers with Web casts and DVD presentations, and the managers are then expected to use Kutteh’s communications as a basis for starting a dialogue with their own workers.

“We expect (on-site managers) to conduct meetings for their people using my update message as a basis for conversation and interchange and updates on the company,” he says. “Web-based communication is one of the most effective ways we have done that.”

The aim is to keep managers and employees interacting every day, particularly over how the national goals Kutteh and his staff set are of importance to employees on the local level.

“We insist that our people, at a minimum, apart from daily meetings and daily training encounters, meet with their leaders on a daily basis to communicate things from our company, but more important, communicate things of local importance,” Kutteh says.

Focusing every level of the company on the same simple, broad messages is a key factor in getting everyone, regardless of their professional motivation, on the same page and working to put out the same product.

Kutteh says it can be difficult to focus a large organization like Crothall — which had approximately $629 million in 2006 revenue according to Hoovers.com — on a wide-ranging set of client-focused goals, especially when 23,000 of Crothall’s 25,000 employees are hourly wage-earners who might be on board for a paycheck and little else.

Employees who come to a job with a paycheck as their primary motivation need frequent interaction with management to try and make the job about more than just punching a time clock. Despite the fact that much of that responsibility is placed on their direct managers, Kutteh says the responsibility finds its way up the ladder to corporate management, which means Crothall needs to have a system in place for managing employee buy-in by making sure that no one person has too much to oversee.

“The big success for us has been ensuring that our span of control is reasonable and manageable and affords the manager the discretionary time to do all the critical things,” Kutteh says. “So we have ratios of numbers of hourly employees to managers, managers to region managers and on up the levels in terms of the right span of control. It provides a workable oversight and accountability to make sure that the message is communicated or that the function is performed in an adequate manner or whatever the requirement might be.”

No matter how far down you might want to drive the decision-making that directly affects your front-line employees, Kutteh says the ultimate responsibility for getting them to buy in will find its way to you. If you don’t set the proper tone at the top, employees and front-line managers won’t produce the right results for clients and customers.

“It starts at the top of the organization where there is an understanding of the key expectations of our company and that there is a spirit of partnership,” Kutteh says. “You need to have an understanding that even though some people might be viewed as the low man on the totem pole, they’re all individuals that need to be respected, and in turn, included in staff meetings and situations where our services might impact the ultimate outcome desired.”

Growing the right way

Keeping everyone on the same page is critical to growing a successful company culture. It’s also critical to more tangible forms of growth.

Everyone in your company needs to know your strategy for the future and how everyone fits in to the plan for the company moving forward.

If all your employees don’t have a clear picture of where the company is headed and what they can do to help the company arrive there, it can lead to confusion, rumors and, possibly worst of all, unsuccessful growth.

Kutteh says a good communication infrastructure can provide the conduit but you have to monitor the consistency of the messages traveling through the pipeline.

“Communication is No 1. No. 2 is some sort of well-defined and internalized strategy so that people know what your strategy is and that you live it by example, that you adhere to the strategy, and you’re not jumping at every opportunity because it feels good at that moment in time,” he says. “It has to fit in to the overall scheme of things.”

Kutteh says growth that oversteps the boundaries of what your company can successfully provide will cause you to lose customers and lose the confidence of your employees.

If you can’t do it well, don’t do it at all. He’s had an opportunity to practice what he preaches on numerous occasions.

“We’ve had growth opportunities that appeared to be a natural adjunct to what we do, like providing security services,” Kutteh says. “We contemplated it, we did a lot of research, there are companies out there that do security in health care that approached us, but at the end of the day, it just wasn’t something we had the competency to do or the programs, systems and training.

“We felt like the markets and services we were currently in provided us with a good marketing opportunity for many years to come.”

If you don’t have a well-defined set of goals for the company and don’t communicate those goals to your employees, it will become too easy for you to follow any growth opportunity that comes before you and your leadership, which can lead to a false belief that you can pick up skill sets and develop competencies as you go.

“What I say to our salespeople is don’t put something in a proposal if you’re not 100 percent confident that our company can deliver it operationally,” Kutteh says. “Why make up stuff to a potential client just as a short-term retractor when you can’t ethically commit to it on the back end?

“We’re a company that has been growing rapidly and the temptation is there a lot. It requires discipline and a commitment to the agreed-upon strategy to not venture into places where you don’t have the capability. It’s sometimes easier said than done.”

To stay focused, Kutteh involves many different levels of the organization. Not only does it allow him to communicate Crothall’s vision and strategy, it allows managers from across the board to have a say in the company’s growth, and if the managers are having a daily dialogue with their people, it, by extension, allows everyone in the company to have a voice.

Kutteh says it might be an “atypical” strategy for such a large company, but it has worked.

“What we have done in the past is we have hired an outside person to confidentially interview and have open discussions with many of our middle managers and support staff about what is going on,” he says. “We want to know what they see as the future direction of the company, where things are going, where are the hot buttons. Then that (outside person) works with me to formulate that into priorities, into something that can be concisely and succinctly communicated to the organization.”

A consistent culture

Through a time of growth and change, it’s critical that employees feel some sense of stability, or they might begin to lose confidence in the company’s future. For employees to feel stability, Kutteh says they need to feel like the company’s culture is solid.

Again, it comes back to culture and holding people accountable for internalizing the company’s values.

“One of the first questions I ask people when I go to a unit is, ‘Who wants to tell me what the values of the company are?’ and, ‘Who wants to give me an example of what each of our values stand for and maybe share a story of when they think the values might have been breached?’” Kutteh says.

“It’s the constant reinforcement and keeping it on top of their minds that has been critical and powerful for us to successfully maintain our culture.”

In the end, it comes back to the CEO, the president and the senior leadership living the values of the company. If you don’t set the example, no one else will. And you can’t just do it within the confines of corporate headquarters; you have to practice what you preach in front of your people.

“Much of it is through active visitation of your people, through regular and frequent dialogue,” Kutteh says. “Some of it is through training, through employee surveys or even through something spontaneous. But it has to happen. If the people in the field don’t have a respect or 100 percent confidence that I, as a CEO, am living by the values of the company, it could be damaging to the culture and damaging to the ongoing progress of the organization.

“It’s really living the values and living according to the principles of the company, then being good people and good stewards of the company’s most precious asset, and that’s its people.”

HOW TO REACH: Crothall Services Group, www.crothall.com