Giving employees a say Featured

8:00pm EDT April 25, 2009

As David St.Clair has grown MEDecision Inc. from a one-man business in his basement in 1988 to a $50 million company, the hardest part has been allowing others to lead in areas where he lacks expertise.

“[It’s been difficult] figuring out how to allow people with the right experience, the right skills and leadership styles to lead in areas where I’m relatively weak, either by virtue of my inexperience or personality,” he says.

Through trial and error, St.Clair says he’s found a method that has led to success for him and the health care technology company’s 240 employees. It starts with understanding your own weaknesses. Then, you have to recruit people with skills in areas you fall short in. And lastly, you need to convey to employees that it’s OK to offer their opinions and even challenge the boss.

Smart Business spoke with the founder and CEO of MEDecision about how to use your employees’ strengths to balance your weaknesses and better your company.

Determine your weaknesses. It’s being brutally honest with oneself, being introspective enough to recognize and to listen to others about what you’re good at and what you’re not so good at.

Sometimes the business shows it when you try to do everything. But I think some of it is also paying attention to what you’re drawn to and what you tend to shy away from.

For me, for instance, I think I’m very, very good at taking ideas and making them real. I’m not good at making things routine. So I will try to reinvent a process, reinvent a product, every time I look at it or talk about it, as opposed to making it something that is repeatable.

There are very few people, I would argue, who have the breadth and depth to do everything very, very well. Simply pay attention to that, and be willing to bring in the right people to shore up where you’re weak.

Recruit people with the skills to balance weaknesses. In the beginning, I was always looking for what I referred to as athletes, people who are very good with a set of skills but really were in a position to help do virtually anything.

As we’ve gotten bigger, we’ve been able to go and get more specialists — people who have even greater depth in one particular area. You start seeing the opportunity to really shore up your own weaknesses and the rest of the team’s weaknesses because you can go out and look for folks who are clearly best of class.

There are many people who have a tendency to want to recruit … below them, people that they can be sure that they are going to be able to control for the next period of their own careers. You need people who are not always bright but people who are willing … to make their point because I recognize that I am not always right.

Let employees know that it’s OK to challenge you. It’s always difficult for the CEO and the founder of the company to truly be sort of one of a group of peers, so you really do have to work on it.

I have lunches with two or three of our new employees after they’ve been here a few weeks. The purpose of that lunch isn’t to talk about mission, it’s not to talk about our business, it’s to talk about each other, where they grew up, where I grew up. It really is an attempt to let them see, in so many ways, I’m just like them. I try to make it clear that I can be approached that way, as well.

Some of it is based on what happens in team meetings. Particularly the folks that have been with me for the better part of those 20 years, they’ve known us when we were smaller and much easier to deal with, and they will argue with me.

What we have to make sure is that anyone who is observing that recognizes that arguing with David is not a career-limiting move.

You have to walk the walk. What I think about all the time, and I do mean all the time, is, how are my actions encouraging? How are my actions, my approach, my body language welcoming people’s opinions? And just as important, what is it that I might be doing? How am I responding in ways that might be shutting that down? If I’m overly critical, if I’m overly sharp at a particular instance, how many people in that room has that now made worry? It’s something, particularly with the leadership team here, we talk about. It’s not the elephant in the room.

Know when to give in to employees’ ideas. There are certain areas, and this comes in areas of strategy, for instance, where I’ve said, ‘I would be much more comfortable letting go if the feedback I get uses the right words.’ In other words, if I hear that strategy being played back in discussions about what we’re doing and how we need to think of our products from other people, that tells me that our overall guide for our business has been metabolized, that the organization gets it.

It’s really this notion of, ‘Let’s have a conversation where I hear back from you how our vision, how our strategy plays into the decisions you’re making and things of that nature. The more I hear that, the more comfortable I am stepping even further back.

How to reach: MEDecision Inc., (610) 540-0202 or