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Getting personal Featured

8:00pm EDT August 26, 2009

Steve Walli can feel the eyes of his employees when they look to him for guidance as to which path they should follow at UnitedHealthcare of the Midwest Inc. But Walli says it’s his willingness to ask for the same type of support in return that enables his company to succeed.

“They need to feel like their voice is heard,” says Walli, president and CEO of the provider of health care network services. “They want to be involved in the strategy and they want to feel like it matters when they bring in feedback from the marketplace.”

The idea behind this concept can be tied back to simple human nature.

People want to feel like they have done something to help their organization win, whether you’re talking about a family or a 1,300-employee company that provides health care services to more than 900,000 people.

As Walli looked at the company upon taking his post in 2003, he felt like there was more that could be done to engage and empower his employees.

“It’s got to be actions and not words,” Walli says. “The fact that we’re a large complex organization, there are a lot of different parts of the company that need to work well. We needed to find a way to collaborate better and work more effectively to bring out the best in each person.

“We were successful in the marketplace, but maybe we didn’t resolve things as quickly as we could. It was very clear that interdepartmental cooperation could be improved. To really operate at peak performance, you have to have everyone on the same page, because more satisfied employees lead to more satisfied customers. A lot of this was just empowering people to take on new responsibilities.”

So Walli set out to build a team that felt more a part of everything that was going on in the organization. He began actively soliciting feedback and input and made sure to take opportunities to publicly recognize the talents and skills of his people. He provided opportunities for employees to get to know him a little better and even engage in some playful competition, such as a weight-loss contest patterned after the hit TV show, “The Biggest Loser.”

“We came up with the idea of beat the CEO, and we’ve done a number of different variations,” Walli says. “I was very involved in the recognition program and I took the winners out to lunch.”

Walli won the weight-loss competition. But more importantly for his company, the contest gave employees an extra reason to feel excited about coming into work each day and being a part of the UnitedHealthcare team.

“It’s just making sure people understand that we care,” Walli says.

Reinforce good acts

It’s certainly a nice gesture to say, “Hi, how are you?” to the person you are walking by in the hallway. If it’s an employee who happens to be a few steps down from upper management, it probably means even a little bit more to be personally greeted by the boss.

But if you really want employees to feel that you care about them and value their role in your organization, you need to show it through actions that are both regular and genuinely meaningful.

“You have to be visible, and you can never ask someone to do something that you wouldn’t be willing to do yourself,” Walli says. “You can’t just sit on the fifth floor and dictate to your people. Try to interact with your folks. Go to department meetings. Go to employee recognition meetings.”

When you’re there in person in a situation where an employee is being recognized for his or her performance, it says a whole lot more than if you just send out congratulations in an e-mail or add a note in the company newsletter.

It shows that you thought enough of that person and what he or she did for the business to take the time out of your busy schedule to be there.

“Many times, it’s just that personal touch with people to let them know that you really do care,” Walli says.

Consistency also goes a long way toward ensuring your message is received. If you treat your employees one way and clients another, it could lead to problems.

UnitedHealthcare embarked on a new plan last year to let its clients know that the company was thinking of them. The company began sending Personal Health Messages to its clients through their online accounts to remind them about upcoming screenings that were available or recommended for that particular individual.

“By personalizing the support we provide our customers, we can make a positive impact on the preventive care they receive, which ultimately will lead to better decisions and improved health,” Walli says.

The idea of expressing care for others is obviously very pertinent in the health care industry where people’s lives can be at stake. But the same principle of showing compassion and understanding to others can easily be applied to the corporate world of any industry.

“We’re in the business of helping people navigate through the health care system,” Walli says. “You can certainly look around at examples of people who do things well in your company who also are active in the community. Our mission is to help people live healthier lives, and we have to do the same thing here at work.”

Being healthier in the workplace means things like having open lines of communication, rewarding people for exemplary service and creating an environment where people feel good about coming to work.

People also need to know about the good things that their peers have done. It often encourages them to do the same.

“We need to reinforce how important it is,” Walli says. “Sometimes I found that people didn’t know what other people did. They weren’t quite sure what the job was of people on another floor. You can have a lot more cooperation if people have a better understanding of what folks around them do.”

Talk about growth

Asking employees to invest themselves in your organization becomes easier when you make it clear that there is a benefit and a reason why they should seek out growth opportunities.

“Emphasize the importance of personal development and leadership development,” Walli says. “Ask employees, ‘What do you want to do next? What types of skills do you need to develop?’ It’s a constant thing with us, and we really bang the drum on it.”

Talk to your front-line managers about providing employees with opportunities for growth since they are the ones that tend to have the closest ties to your people.

“It doesn’t have to be extremely formal. It can just be a discussion on how things are going,” Walli says. “Sometimes, it’s amazingly simple. You just have to ask. You tell them, ‘We want to do things to be more environmentally conscious. Who has an interest and passion in this area? Who wants to help us?’ People will step up.

“Say you want to improve the communication between departments. Ask who feels like they could help with that. It’s not top-down, but multilevel communication. Sometimes all you have to do is ask. If you don’t ask, you don’t know who has an interest in a particular area.”

The idea behind all this is to develop people who can make things happen and get things done in your company.

“People can be leaders without necessarily having the title of leader,” Walli says. “The company is certainly better off when we have people step up and be positive forces for change. I consider that a leadership development opportunity and an opportunity for people to take more responsibility.”

Lay out your priorities for the company and be clear about your expectations and show them what will happen if they step up.

“We want to grow our business,” Walli says. “It’s my role to lay out the objectives for our business. You have to give them a reason why things will be better if they meet those objectives.”

The tenacity with which you pursue organizational growth, both individually and on a companywide basis, can rub off on your people or encourage those who may be leery of stepping out.

“Sometimes, you really don’t know how capable somebody is until you ask them to do something out of their comfort zone and then they surprise you,” Walli says. “Myself or someone else on the team may occasionally have to encourage somebody and ask them to take a few risks. More often than not, once they’ve tried it, they find they are able to do it.”

There’s a good chance you’ll encounter some people along the way who aren’t interested in the bigger picture and are quite content with whatever it is they are currently doing for you. Fortunately, you need some of those types of people, too.

“A lot may depend on performance,” Walli says. “If they are still doing their job, certain people are valuable to the organization for the work they do and the things they do. You don’t fire them all.”

However, if the employee proves to be disruptive in his or her resistance to growth and change, then it’s probably time to make a move.

“If someone is not in the right spot, one answer is to fire them,” Walli says. “Another approach is to help them find something else where they have a good opportunity. Sometimes they are much better off. To me, it’s always been a better approach to help them find something else.”

It’s a spirit of constantly looking for ways to move forward that Walli strives for and hopes his employees will also look to uncover, even if there are bumps along the way.

“If you don’t ask the questions, people will feel like you don’t care,” Walli says. “So we can have a lot of healthy debate and opinions. But once we pick a direction, everybody needs to support it.”

Walli’s efforts at inclusion and collaboration have helped keep UnitedHealthcare of the Midwest and its parent company, UnitedHealth Group, at the top of the national rankings of health care plan providers.

“The teamwork is better and this is a better place to work,” Walli says. “The changes that have taken place here have not just been led by people that would be considered senior management. It’s been led by people at all levels of the organization.”

You can never stop promoting the idea that your organization still has room for improvement. It doesn’t mean you don’t appreciate or recognize progress. You just don’t spend too much time resting on your laurels, and you encourage your people to take the same approach.

“Once you stop improving, you start going in the other direction,” Walli says.

How to reach: UnitedHealthcare of the Midwest Inc., (314) 592-7000 or www.uhc.com