Communication matters Featured

8:00pm EDT April 25, 2008
Thomas White
President and CEO, Jameson Health System

As a business leader, your professional life — and probably your personal life — is governed by a calendar. What you can and can’t do depends on whether there is any white space remaining in those little dated squares.

But when it comes to making yourself available to your employees, Thomas White says the calendar has to go out the window. The president and CEO of Jameson Health System — a health care network that counts $95 million Jameson Memorial Hospital as it centerpiece facility — says that taking care of your employees and listening to their ideas and concerns isn’t something you fit in when you have the time; it’s a priority.

If you have the mindset that you are there to serve your employees, then making time for others is the essence of your job. White says there is nothing more important to your company than enabling your employees to do their best, and they can’t do their best without your involvement.

Smart Business spoke with White about why your employees are your No. 1 priority when allocating your time.

Remember that communication is your job. Face-to-face communication is a key. In this modern world of instant communication, the telephone and the next wave was voice mail, then computers, e-mails, then the BlackBerrys and whatever else is out there, that’s all fine and good, but there is no substitute for face to face.

I don’t think it’s making time for that. You have to have time for that. What you make time for are the other things, the dayto-day responsibilities you have or your personal life. I’m not saying you give up your personal life, but you have to have time to talk to your people face to face because, otherwise, they’ll forget you or they’ll ignore you.

If you’re only coming around when there are problems, they have every right to say, ‘Where were you when I was really having a problem?’ You have to wander around. Management by wandering around is an old cliché, but I still think it’s workable. Even if you walk through a department or a unit and make an observation and people see you, you don’t have to answer any questions or make any decisions, but, at least, you have the opportunity for informal banter.

You can ask someone about their family — as long as you know they have a family. You can’t manufacture familiarity when it’s not there, but in most organizations, you have PR people or someone constantly feeding you information.

Listen, then listen some more.

You have to talk a lot as the head of an organization, but you also have to be a good listener, then respond to whatever issue there is, not letting it fester or delay, or giving whatever the issues there are a chance to run away from you.

We go through cycles as leaders. When we’re young and we feel we have to prove something, we’re constantly talking about it. Then there is a realization that talking about something is one thing but listening is something else.

You learn to be a good listener. I don’t think you walk out on day one and say, ‘I’m a good listener.’ You acquire that skill, and hopefully, you acquire it quickly enough in your career that it works for you all the time. People very quickly know, not only through your body language but your responses and actions, whether you have really been listening or not.

I don’t think there is anything more demoralizing to someone that, after having given a dissertation, someone looks up and says, ‘Oh, what did you say?’ No. 1, that’s just plain rude, but No. 2, it shows that you weren’t listening. You had better not have any conversations if you’re going to do that.

You really have to mature into that frame of mind. But you have to mature into it at some point in order to be successful. If you go into any situation with the idea that you don’t have to listen, you’re dead.

Show your employees the big picture. We all have assigned tasks within an organization, whether it’s the president and CEO or anyone else. We all have assigned responsibilities, and each carries with it a defined expectation of how the outcome should be, where we should be in terms of progressive positioning.

We look at that and make sure people know that they’re accountable. Then, when they’ve performed in the manner that we expected, we reward them, whether it’s monetary or recognition through the numerous methods we have. Or, if they’re not doing their job, that they are similarly recognized, but that would not be a very good form of recognition, and we would expect them to improve.

Get to know your employees. If you are genuinely interested, you learn details and other things about people’s lives. You listen at meetings when someone is talking.

My senior management meetings always conclude with a round table. Any manager can say anything they want about operations, about any issue they want. Through that, you’ll find out that someone is in the hospital having a procedure. When that happens, I write that down and try to remember it.

When I see that person in the halls or wherever, I’ll ask how the procedure went. Or, for instance, if someone has a new baby, we post that. So you read your postings in the executive dining room. You may never use it, but it’s there.

The more you do that, the more people believe you’re doing it sincerely. But if you’re only doing it once a year, they’ll walk away from you.

HOW TO REACH: Jameson Health System, (724) 658-9001 or www.jamesonhealthsystem.com