Changing demographics must be reflected at leadership levels

There’s been a lot of discussion of late about leadership transition in Greater Akron. Baby boomers are retiring in huge numbers, their successors at the helm of many companies and institutions of importance to Greater Akron unknown. How will we survive?

The retort is that we’ve been through this before and it will turn out just fine. In some ways, it’s tempting to believe that this is the same old story. But for a few reasons, I’d suggest that this time it’s different.

Increasing diversity

An emphasis in the current leadership transition conversation is on how well our community is doing in cultivating diverse leadership across gender, race and age. Whether we see it or not, we are in the midst of a dramatic demographic shift.

A new book by William Frey entitled, “Diversity Explosion: How New Racial Demographics are Remaking America,” shows that today’s youth are much more racially diverse than their predominantly white predecessors. Summit County’s data mirrors the trend. Its residents age 80 and over are 89.9 percent white. Among our youngest citizens (ages infant to 4), however, just 68 percent are white. Working backwards from the oldest age group, each gets increasingly more diverse and less white.

We must recognize that the composition of our citizenry is changing. If I’m a company that seeks to understand and connect with my customer base, diversity in my leadership team enables that deep understanding. If I’m a company that seeks to attract the best and the brightest talent to my workforce, diversity in my leadership team signals to diverse talent that they can aspire to greatness and leadership here. In short, if I’m a company that seeks to remain relevant in a changing world, diversity in my leadership team reflects that world.

GAR Foundation has focused on diversity within our community’s nonprofit sector. Diverse leadership of civic institutions makes sense for the same reasons it makes sense for business. Nonprofits provide a means for citizens to invest in their community. We talk with our grantees about the diversity on their boards because the organization’s decisions can only benefit from diverse perspectives in its boardroom. Further, individuals who engage with their community through nonprofit boards are more likely to “stick” in this community and invest in a variety of ways.

Embracing new leadership

Recent research on the diversity of local nonprofit boards conducted by BVU: The Center for Nonprofit Excellence, shows that we have work to do. The boards of Akron’s nonprofit institutions — especially its largest institutions — are still much whiter, more male and older than the population. But the conversation has started in a big way and nonprofits are working hard to embrace new leaders.

While that is good news, it won’t amount to much unless the goal of diverse leadership is embraced solidly by the private sector as well. Business drives the success of Greater Akron. While the public and nonprofit sectors play important roles, business is what determines our future prosperity.

Christine Amer Mayer is president of GAR Foundation, which awards grants to 501(c)(3) nonprofit organizations in Summit and adjacent counties in the areas of education, arts and arts education, health and social services, and civic and nonprofit enhancement.

To survive tough times, it takes going deep and going long

Are you going through tough times? It may be time for some reflection to refocus toward your goals.

For the prisoners of war in the Vietnam War, facing serious trials became a way of life. In that bleak existence locked up and isolated in a communist prison camp for five, six, seven and even eight years, every day had its challenges. Yet the POWs emerged stronger, becoming successful military leaders, congressmen, teachers, lawyers, doctors, counselors, businessmen and even a U.S. senator and presidential candidate. They learned to treasure the trials of their hardship.

Everyone faces hardships and disappointments, and it isn’t easy to see the treasure in your trials. Here are some tips to help you secure the true gold found in trials.

Go deep — find meaning and make changes

Adversity builds character by forcing us to face our deepest beliefs and values. In the crucibles of life, when all the pretend stuff melts away it’s much easier to clarify what is really important and what is not. We have the opportunity to find meaning in our suffering and meaning is a treasure worth finding.

The transformation that we most need isn’t very inviting in good times, but in difficult times our pain can give us the energy and motivation to change our attitudes and behaviors. Personal growth is the only path to genuine leadership development.

Go long — gain wisdom and experience

Leadership research confirms that the experience of overcoming difficulties is not only transformational; making us stronger, but it also makes us wiser and better suited for the challenges of leadership.

On the other hand, leaders devoid of crucible experiences are likely to be overly confident about their ideas and surprisingly more susceptible to fears. Difficult trials generate strong emotional memories that stay with us longer and are more easily accessed — gold that we don’t have to search so hard to find.

Don’t go it alone

When you are in a battle, you don’t want to be alone — you need supporters in your corner — people who care about you and have your back. They can provide encouragement when your spirit is down and your hope is sagging.

Encouragement can provide vital energy for bouncing back and continuing to persevere. Sometimes a shared idea or a new perspective on a problem can make all the difference. We must stay connected to be resilient and bounce back from trials.

Next steps

More than likely, you have already passed through some tough times in your life. It may be helpful to look back and see the treasure that you gained from those past challenges. What was the meaning you gained through those trials? What did you learn about yourself that may be helpful now? What changes did you make then? Who walked with you?

You have a choice. You can let your trials bury you or you can dig for the treasure in them. If you follow these tips, someday, looking back, you will see enormous value in your trials.

Lee Ellis
Leadership Freedom® LLC

Lee is a nationally recognized consultant, presenter and retired U.S. Air Force colonel. He shares his expertise in the areas of leadership, team building and human performance. His latest award-winning book about his Vietnam prisoner of war experience is entitled “Leading with Honor®: Leadership Lessons from the Hanoi Hilton.”

The secret to leadership — breaking habitual patterns, controlling emotional states come with self-management 

What if you knew the secret of being a great leader and living a happier life? It’s right in front of you and asking if you would invest the time and effort needed to change.

That secret is self-management, and it involves a two-step process:

  • First, you need to cultivate a deep understanding of yourself, including your habitual patterns of feeling, thinking and reacting.
  • Second, you need to develop the skill to manage your emotional states that arise from those patterns so they don’t overwhelm and control you.

Obviously, you can’t change what you don’t acknowledge. There are countless assessments and personality tests that you can use to help you understand yourself. My preferred tool is the Enneagram, which is a deep and dynamic map of the ego. There are other tools available. It’s important for you to find one that resonates with you.

Managing yourself

Learning to manage yourself starts with self-observation, a process of neutrally and compassionately watching yourself. It allows you to recognize when a habitual pattern and consequent reaction is presenting itself in the current moment. With this awareness, you can make a choice. How do I want to behave and feel now? Without this awareness, your emotions will control you, and they can potentially damage your business and personal relationships.

Many of the CEOs and senior executives with whom I work frequently say, “Take the emotions out of it!” Unfortunately, that is exactly the wrong approach. Each attempt to deny and control your own emotions disconnects you from your heart and separates you from others. Relying solely on thinking and (trying to) deny your emotions only intensifies them until they can no longer be contained. An intense reaction to release all of that pent-up emotion becomes inevitable.

Most of our conscious brain is focused outside of ourselves. We make plans for the future, or we try to persuade others to change so that we may feel better. That does not, however, help us manage ourselves. Neuroscience research shows that the only way we can change the way we feel is to become aware of our own inner experience and learn to allow it.

Remember RAIN

Tara Brach, a Buddhist psychologist, describes a process she calls RAIN to manage our emotional states:

  • Recognize what is happening.
  • Allow this situation to be just as it is.
  • Investigate your inner experience with kindness.
  • Non-identification is the result of applying the first three steps; fully living in the present.

Brach states that over time, “RAIN directly deconditions the habitual ways in which you resist your moment-to-moment experience” and helps to make these patterns less compulsive. By responding differently, you can create new neuron connections, emotional patterns and gradually change your problem behavior.

If you truly want to change, then you must relax your current patterns of thinking, feeling and reacting. Self-awareness and self-observation, combined with acknowledging and releasing emotions, are your tools to become an emotionally mature person and, as a result, a better and happier leader.
Cheryl B. McMillan is the chair of Vistage International for Northeast Ohio, a leading international organizations for CEOs, presidents, business owners and senior executives.

Catching more flies with honey: a timeless lesson from our mothers that’s worth repeating

Business executives and managers — young and old, novice or experienced — need to pause periodically and reflect on what their mothers told them when they were young: “You can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.”

This seems obvious, but the real lesson to remember is that a good leader can still act like a leader — projecting confidence, firmness and pragmatism — without taking on the persona of a perpetually cold-hearted curmudgeon when making requests or giving orders.

Much of the problem emanates from bad habits and the false sense that if a leader is empathetic, pleasant and polite, he or she just won’t be taken seriously. The media perpetuates this hard-as-nails image when movers and shakers are bestowed graphic nicknames such as “Neutron Jack” or “Chainsaw Al,” which are mild compared to some even more pugnacious handles.

New managers are often the worst offenders. They tend to try to compensate for their youth and inexperience by dispatching orders and simple requests with staccato inflections and a scowl. The common perception is the fiercer one looks, the more determined they are, and what they’re communicating is tantamount to a matter of life or death.

Another contributing factor is the insecurity of leaders who think that if they appear too human, subordinates will take advantage of them. That is far from the truth and the best antidote is to back up orders with the reasons why they make sense.

Try these techniques and learn for yourself: The next time you have to deliver a directive that will not be well received, do so in a softer tone than the one to which subordinates are accustomed. In doing so, intersperse the word “please” a few times and try smiling, not a big know-it-all-grin or smirk, just a low-key upturn of the mouth. Explain what you want done in a conversational manner and conclude with a “thank you.” Remember, a leader doesn’t need to be a drill sergeant.

Here is another: When something isn’t completed correctly and you’re compelled to intervene, do so without raising your voice or in a smug tone.

I like these methods because, as an ancillary benefit, when used appropriately, they’re contagious. Additionally, the recipient will listen more closely to your rationale, be less defensive and may even empathize with you. Your subordinate won’t feel threatened and will more readily recognize the error of their ways and correct them with greater vigor.

Adopting an even keel style doesn’t mean one must become a spineless wimp. Instead, taking it down a notch typically can accomplish more versus the stereotypical “I’m the boss and don’t you forget it” form of communication.

And when it comes time to make a strong point with a stern delivery, it will be taken very, very seriously because it won’t be you behaving like the old you.

Never forget mother knows best, and honey beats vinegar every time.

By following these leadership steps, you’ll see positive effects in your company

I recently led a leadership development and team-building program for an international food distribution company, and I was reminded yet again of the importance of team camaraderie. Despite their geographic distance as a diverse global team, I was surprised by their cohesion and mutual trust. This experience helped me to assess why the concept of team camaraderie is so important to increasing the bottom line.

The hallmarks of camaraderie
The positive feelings with this client took me back to the days when I had experienced this type of camaraderie in the military. We were diligently competitive and gave each other straightforward feedback in mission debriefs. To an outsider, it might appear that we were hard on each other, but we were actually very close. Our bonds of friendship and trust were strong, and we enjoyed socializing, having fun hanging out and talking about our work and sharing our lives together.
Reflecting back over the years, I’ve noticed that camaraderie is usually present in high-performing teams that endure over a long period of time. What are some of the hallmarks that we can learn from such teams?
• Time — They have taken the time and energy to build understanding, acceptance and respect so that individuals feel connected and secure.
• Results — Because they feel belonging, team members don’t want to let others down. They strive for excellence in accomplishing the mission (getting results).
• Communication — Healthier teams have more frequent and more effective communication. They pick up the phone and call each other to quickly solve problems.
• Team focus — Healthy teams focus on team results and not just individual effort. Team members help each other succeed and hold each other accountable.

Leadership steps
We’ve been talking about the team, but it all starts with the leader. To have this kind of positive energy flowing from human connections, the leader must take the lead:
• Clarify the culture and set the climate. Alignment built around mission, vision and values is crucial, as is your commitment to be both leader and member of the team.
• Create opportunities and expectations for people to build bonds. Social time outside of work is clearly the best way to get to know each other.
• Connect with each person. Regardless of whether the leader is an introvert or an extrovert, he or she has to engage by connecting with each person making them feel important and welcome. This doesn’t mean that the leader has to be the life of the party. Typically I find more leaders that are introverts than extroverts, but the good ones look to the outgoing, social folks to provide the fun and energy that becomes contagious to the group.

As a leader, what are you doing to promote this powerful bond among your people? Building strong team camaraderie will have long-lasting positive effects on your organization.

Lee Ellis is president of Leadership Freedom® LLC. He was a Vietnam War POW in various prisons in the Hanoi area for over five years. As a military officer, his experiences as a POW piqued his interest in leadership performance in difficult situations.

Paying attention to employee needs lends itself to great customer service

Building an excellent customer service-centered brand begins internally with quality leadership, which creates the best opportunities to engage employees who are then able to provide excellent service.

It takes a companywide commitment to provide high quality customer service and to get the buy-in from employees.

“At the same time, executives and managers also have to be committed to providing top-notch service — and not just to customers,” says Steve Brubaker, chief of staff at InfoCision Management Corp. “Paying attention to your employees’ thoughts and needs helps you create a company culture that lends itself to great service.”

Smart Business spoke with Brubaker on how leadership techniques can motivate employees to deliver top customer service.

Where does a company begin when developing employee engagement?

One of the most crucial responsibilities of an executive or business owner is to bring in high-quality talent when employees leave or new positions are created.

Once the company brings new hires on-board, it’s equally critical to integrate them into the company culture and help them reach their ultimate potential.

When hiring and training new talent, a company simply cannot ignore fundamental differences that exist between today’s newest workforce members and past generations. It’s important to recognize that millennials, those born in the 1980s or 1990s, entering the workforce today have a much different view of what a career path might look like than previous generations did.

What should be remembered about the increase of millennials in the workforce?

A company’s attitude toward millennial employees should be similar to its approach to customers. The same way that looking out for customers’ interests builds brand loyalty, valuing young employees’ interests by helping them develop professionally helps them feel connected to the company and want to stay there for years.

The way employees are treated will trickle down to help improve an organization’s quality of customer service. From the young worker’s perspective — if the employee only plans to be with a company for three to five years, that is going to be reflected in the way he or she deals with customers.

But as millennials become more connected to an organization, they also grow closer to customers, which shows up in the quality of service they offer. Of course not every employee is going to become a company lifer, but to become a truly great organization, a company needs to get buy-in from its rising stars to make sure they stick around.

How difficult is it to bridge the generational gap in the workplace?

It is possible, which is why company leaders should invest some time to learn more about the millennial mindset. Read books like “Promote Yourself: The New Rules for Career Success” by Dan Schawbel, and engage with these young people as much as possible around the office with one-on-one meetings, town hall sessions and friendly small talk.

Despite the cultural differences, empowering Generation Y workers to grow professionally benefits everybody. It allows them to turn a job into a career and helps a company increase profitability. In other words, it is the ultimate win-win.

What else may help company leaders build a customer service-centered brand?

Listening more, talking less. Employees generally listen when a member of the C-suite speaks. But that doesn’t mean the leader should always be the one speaking or making decisions. Now is an optimal time to adopt an open door policy if you don’t have one. Executive leadership’s openness and sincerity go a long way toward getting the team behind the company leader.

Present a clear vision. Employees want to know the executive has a firm grasp on what the next 12 months should look like. Rather than speaking in generalities, a leader should make an effort to present specific companywide goals and lay out the path employees should take to reach those objectives.

Encourage professional development. One of the most effective ways to lead is by giving employees the chance to develop new skills and shine brightly.

Insights Teleservices is brought to you by InfoCision


What aren’t you seeing? Gaining new vision for improved leadership

I frequently coach leaders who know that something is awry, but they don’t know what. They see the symptoms — lack of buy-in, frustration, lip service — but they can’t identify the root of the problem. It’s like finding water pooling on the floor and not knowing what’s leaking.

More often than not, the issues stem from ineffective leadership behaviors. Yet leaders often aren’t objective enough to see their own behaviors clearly. To address the problems, leaders need to see themselves with a fresh set of eyes — impartial and unbiased. Only then can they find and fix what isn’t working.

Common pitfalls

There are three common, unhelpful leadership behaviors: minimal engagement, ill tempers and lack of decision-making.

Minimal engagement. Many leaders consistently struggle with creating engagement in meetings. There are a few telltale signs that people aren’t plugged in: always the same (few) people do the talking while others feign agreement, and meetings are formulaic — everyone knows what to expect and nothing ever really changes.

If this sounds familiar, the blueprint needs to change. In fact, there shouldn’t be one blueprint. Vary meeting formats or ask staff to each adopt one new behavior that will lead to more effective meetings.

Short tempers. The most effective leadership happens through trust, not fear. Mercurial leaders create environments where people feel unsafe to offer critical opinions or to take risks for fear of an outburst. If you’re tempted to be sharp-tongued, practice walking away until you can calm down.

Lack of decision-making. Do you avoid giving due dates for decisions, avoid deciding who will make the decision or even how the decision will be made? Do you get bogged down in the details of execution rather than the decision itself? Is there a lack of accountability when decisions are made?

There are various reasons for pushing off decision-making, but they generally boil down to fear. Over time, the inability to make critical decisions creates what I call “whirl” — a vortex where staff gets frustrated and cynical by lack of forward movement.

To address this, leaders must push past fear and set clear, measurable targets for decision-making.

What leads to a cure

If you recognize yourself in any of these, you’re off to a good start. Awareness is half the battle. Rather than fall back on behaviors that are comfortable, force yourself to try something new and different. You can try the suggestions above, or experiment with your own.

If you don’t think these apply to you, what do you have to lose if you practice seeing yourself in a new way? Watch yourself objectively for a few days or a week with a particular eye to these behaviors. If you still aren’t convinced, ask a trusted colleague for an opinion. You may be surprised to learn that others see things differently than you do.

The choice is yours. How will you choose to look at yourself today?

How I ‘C’ real leaders: Nine qualities that make it happen

I think it’s remarkable that Fortune recently ranked Pope Francis No. 1 in an article titled “Fortune Ranks the World’s 50 Greatest Leaders.” Pope Francis sets the example by how he lives and how he treats people with kindness and compassion. Through his actions, he illustrates humility, simplicity and how to be nonjudgmental. He is a true “servant leader.” Thanks to my dear friend, Lorraine Dodero, I had the tremendous opportunity to meet him in Rome last fall with my wife, my oldest son Nick and a number of friends.

Pope Francis exemplifies real leadership. There are millions of articles written by people from all different walks of life regarding real leadership. There’s no shortage of thoughts and ideas. To me, real leadership is having the following “C’s”:


Real leaders demonstrate tremendous integrity and are consistent and truthful. They are intellectually honest and see things the way they really are, not the way they may like to see them. They do the right thing, and they do things right.

Trust is also important. There cannot be good leadership without trust. People will look at leaders’ actions more than their words. People don’t like to be lectured to, so they will look at the examples leaders set. Leaders start with themselves. They never ask someone to do something they wouldn’t do personally, and they keep themselves and others accountable. Leaders are introspective and are able to criticize themselves and others. When they criticize, they do so with the intent to improve because they care. They do not criticize in a demeaning or arrogant way.

In a leadership role, before you figure out what you need to do, you need to figure out who you want to be. And you need to become the best version of you. 


Real leaders have a sense of urgency to get things done. They tend to be assertive and take charge in a collaborative manner. They tend to be tenacious and competitive in many aspects of their lives. Leaders succeed and accomplish. They try to avoid procrastinating because they ultimately know they will be judged by their results. Like the great management guru Peter Drucker says, “Show me a great organization, and I’ll show you a monomaniac on a mission.”

Leaders also have to be passionate and have an ultimate vision of what needs to be done, including goals, steps and action plans. They are willing to accept that there may be consequences to their decisions. Leadership is doing the right things for the right reasons, and many decisions leaders make may not be popular at the time. But the antithesis of successful leadership is trying to make everyone happy. It doesn’t work. Throughout history many great leaders were not popular at the times they were leading. Ultimately, leaders keep their commitments and show respect and loyalty to people.


Real leaders have a tremendous sense of concern and a genuine compassion for those with whom they are working. People have a difficult time following a leader if they do not feel that the leader has a genuine interest and concern for them and their well-being. Leaders tend to be naturally altruistic and empathetic. They must be able to put themselves in other people’s shoes. A great man once said, “No one really cares how much you know until they know how much you care.”

Leaders also tend to have a sense of appreciation. People who are appreciative or have an attitude of gratitude tend to be more humble. There is a direct correlation between appreciation and humility. You have to have some sense of humility in order to be able to thank someone. Leaders need to know three important words: please, thank you and sorry. 


Real leaders have to put people first or who they are serving above being served. It’s about servant leadership. Leaders act and make a difference, understanding it’s about making a contribution, not a comparison. They tend to be more concerned about the greater good than self-interest.

Leaders also understand the transfer of emotions. They understand that you cannot force someone to trust you. Leaders have the ability to inspire, which is a part of the transfer of emotions. People want to follow them.

Real leaders also have wisdom, and they make good choices. It’s not that they don’t make mistakes, but they make more good choices than bad choices. When they do make bad choices, they are willing to admit it, adapt and change direction to make things right in order to move forward. 


Real leaders communicate messages, clarify and over communicate. They really take the time to explain what they are doing so people can understand and become a part of the process. Leaders know how to make people a part of the process, so people aren’t just being told but are having their input and ideas acknowledged.


Real leaders have to be courageous but also willing to show their vulnerability and therefore be authentic. They are very comfortable with who they are. They understand they have strengths and weaknesses, but they play to their strengths. Leaders don’t have to play a role. They are the role models.

Leaders tend to be confident, almost fearless. It’s often about doing ordinary things extraordinarily. But they have to balance confidence with some sense of humility. If they do not balance confidence with humility, they will come across as arrogant and insensitive.

Real leaders also have to balance confidence with not being fearful, such as making decisions that may not be popular at the time. They have to be able to make difficult decisions without showing fear. 


Though having relationships with various constituencies is important, leadership is about the relationships between the leader and the team. Real leaders know how to engage and encourage people. They understand that people need to be motivated. People need to understand why and what is the purpose.

Leaders are able to create an environment where people are willing to work together and pull their strengths together. They create an environment where individuals will apply their abilities. Then, knowing how to use people’s strengths and abilities, leaders will connect skills and strengths.

Furthermore, real leaders know how to collaborate and how to get people to come together for the greater good. They know how to bring people together to pursue a common cause, aligning people together, aligning their missions together, and identifying the common goals and the common good. Leaders also have the ability to persuade and gain confidence in a collaborative environment. They can get people to buy in. But leaders know if they don’t communicate, and if they don’t build relationships, then they ultimately cannot collaborate.

I “C” several important attributes in a real leader.Real leaders have good character, honor commitments, show compassion, make contributions, effectively communicate, demonstrate courage and confidence, and successfully collaborate and connect. Being a real leader is not easy and requires a constant commitment to personal development. By studying the actions of great leaders such as Pope Francis, all of us, in our own way, can make an impactful and lasting contribution.

Josh Harmsen

Josh Harmsen, principal, Solis Capital Partners

Often, business owners frame their own future in stark, binary terms — either I keep the business or I sell it. This binary thinking becomes most pronounced as business owners begin to contemplate retirement or an ownership transition. In reality, there are a variety of options that can span those two outcomes. For many business owners contemplating a retirement or transition event in the next five years, simply keeping or selling are suboptimal outcomes — either tying up critical value that could otherwise be used to diversify or foregoing the potential upside value in their business. In addition, these binary outcomes often overlook other important value drivers for business owners such as legacy, succession, well-being of current employees and the continuity of their current business. When evaluating which options to pursue, it is critical for business owners to first establish clear goals that define what they want to accomplish and when. This includes an honest assessment of their personal and professional desires and other value drivers (including those mentioned above). While these options each present unique opportunities and risks, they offer business owners a more tailored and optimized approach to achieving their future liquidity, retirement or transition objectives. Mezzanine debt recapitalization A mezzanine recapitalization will often allow business owners to seek partial liquidity or growth capital, without significantly diluting their ownership. Business owners can use the proceeds to diversify their holdings, while retaining equity control and the potential upside of the business. However, this option will add incremental, high coupon leverage to the business and could limit operational flexibility in periods of economic or business distress. ESOP — employee stock ownership plan ESOPs allow business owners a tax efficient roadmap toward partial or full liquidity while creating a mechanism for transferring ownership to employees. This allows business owners to maintain short-to-medium-term ownership and helps to preserve business consistency and legacy. It also rewards employees for their hard work and loyalty. However, once the ESOP has been established, it can significantly restrict ownership flexibility. MBO — management buyout MBOs allow business owners to achieve either partial or full liquidity while maintaining operational consistency throughout the organization. The MBO also rewards management’s loyalty and performance with the opportunity to acquire a significant stake in the business. However, MBOs often require management to partner with outside equity or debt providers — which can be time consuming and introduces new partners and influences on the business. Minority investment Minority investments from an outside investor (either institutional or individual) will allow business owners to seek partial liquidity, or growth capital, while maintaining a majority stake in the business going forward. The minority partner can bring valuable outside perspectives and skill sets to supplement your own. However, most minority investors tend to be only passively involved and often require onerous ratcheting provisions that could give them control if the business fails to meet operational objectives. Partnership transaction A partnership transaction will allow business owners to seek significant immediate liquidity while preserving some ownership and elements of control in the business going forward. Business owners can use the proceeds to diversify their assets, while maintaining potential upside in the business. The new partner can bring many valuable strategic and financial resources to bear to strengthen the business and pursue growth and value enhancement initiatives. However, new partners will seek elements of control and often utilize leverage to affect the partnership. Understanding the many options available to business owners will help lead to more tailored and optimal achievement of personal liquidity, retirement and transition objectives. Josh Harmsen is a principal at Solis Capital Partners (, a private equity firm in Newport Beach, Calif. Solis focuses on disciplined investment in lower middle-market companies. Harmsen was previously with Morgan Stanley & Co. and holds an MBA from Harvard Business School.

How Stephen Mooney transformed the back office operations of Tenet Healthcare into Conifer Health Solutions

Cost center managers tend to lay low during times of change, but not Stephen Mooney. The latent entrepreneur in 2008 proposed the idea of splitting off the patient financial services division of Tenet Healthcare into a stand-alone company to take advantage of an opportunity he saw in the marketplace and to capitalize on the strong relationships already in place with Tenet’s network of hospitals.

To understand what Mooney faced getting this idea off the ground, consider Tenet’s situation:  The organization was in the midst of selling more than half of its 110 hospitals when he floated his idea by Tenet’s CEO. That meant significant change, and during a time when organizations typically are hesitant to champion new start-up initiatives.

“My idea didn’t have a lot of fans at first, but it did get our executives thinking about the future instead of our current dilemma,” says Mooney, who serves as president and CEO of Conifer Health Solutions LLC, a subsidiary of Fortune 100 company Tenet Healthcare.

Mooney was convinced that health care organizations would jump at the chance to boost revenue cycle performance and focus on patient care instead of billing and collections. So Mooney sold his vision to everyone he encountered, turning a $200 million cost center into an outsourcing success story, adding some 7,000 employees and 600 clients in just five years. Here’s how he did it.


Build a strong foundation

Providing revenue management to non-Tenet hospitals and health systems would require a hefty investment in technology, a cultural shift as well as the development of a sales and marketing arm. Still, Tenet execs were intrigued by the idea and pledged their support if Mooney could find some way to fund his revolutionary venture.

“My initial forecast had us losing money for the first two years,” he says. “Under the circumstances, the company couldn’t afford to lose a single dime. And since venture funding wasn’t an option, I had to find the cash in our operating budget.”

With the executive team behind him, Mooney set out to achieve buy-in from other constituents. He alleviated any concerns by sharing his vision and offering each group a customized slate of benefits. Servant leadership and creating vested partnerships was his goal.

For example, he grandfathered existing rates during the initial transition period. And, he lowered the cost of processing rudimentary transactions by offshoring selective technology and call center services, using the savings to build a robust technology platform.

“We’re not a tech company, we’re a tech-enabled company,” Mooney says. “I needed to enhance our IT platform so we could drive more volume through our machine and offer our clients greater efficiency and value.”

Next, he approached Tenet’s suppliers and asked them to partner with the company. Could they make near-term concessions by thinking long term?

“I shared my business plan with our suppliers,” he says. “I wanted them to see that they had the opportunity to grow with us if they were willing to reduce their fees. Plus, you need to establish strategic alliances from the outset because you’ll need them to manage growth.”

Tenet’s suppliers recognized the opportunity and jumped on board. But after several years of change, Mooney knew his larger task would be with his own team members.

“Getting this thing off the ground would take a lot of work, so I absolutely needed our employees’ support,” Mooney says. “You need to make sure that everyone’s behind you before you start approaching customers.”

Mooney emphasized the benefits of growth to garner support from workers. Having the opportunity to control their own destiny and career opportunities were his main selling points.

“I had to explain my vision to employees, get them engaged and help them understand that short-term sacrifices would yield long-term gains for them and also add tremendous value to our external clients,” he says.

Mooney credits his team’s enthusiasm and willingness to embrace change with Conifer Health’s early financial success.

“We were supposed to lose money in the first year and to everyone’s surprise, we actually broke even,” he says. “I credit employee engagement for allowing us to achieve a budget-neutral position in our very first year.”


Hit a home run

Convincing a prospect to relinquish operational control of vital functions like billing and patient communications isn’t easy.

Mooney and his sales team made ends meet by selling point solutions while devising a strategy to close their first major end-to-end outsourcing deal.

“We bought time in the first year by hitting a few singles and doubles, but we needed to land a big fish to prove our concept,” Mooney says.

“Our executives were wondering if this was going to work, but health care organizations were wary of turning over their entire business office to an outsider from Mars.”

The sales team set its sights on landing a major deal with a member of a faith-based, not-for-profit system. Mooney knew that signing a member of this prestigious fraternity would encourage others to follow. But he and his team would have to sway a host of skeptical attorneys, consultants and stakeholders to ink their illusive inaugural deal. They emphasized their industry experience, their servant leadership model, and cultural alignment.

The looming impact of the Affordable Care Act finally proved to be the tipping point, as Conifer Health signed a number of major deals including a long-term agreement with Catholic Health Initiatives (CHI) to provide revenue cycle services for 56 hospitals across the nation.

“Even CHI’s consultants agreed that their current model was unsustainable given the changes under health care reform,” Mooney says. “The market was aligning with partners and we finally convinced our prospects that they couldn’t wait to act.

“All I can say is don’t give up,” he says. “Our first deal died more than once, but I remained involved, and we continued to push the benefits that mattered to our prospects like improving the patient experience and the revenue cycle until the timing was right.”


Close service gaps and accelerate growth

Mooney worried that Conifer Health might lose its competitive edge given the massive changes imposed by health care reform. He hired experienced leaders, invested $200 million in the firm’s technical infrastructure and paid another visit to Tenet’s CEO where he presented a plan to leapfrog Conifer Health past its competitors.

“The market was in a state of flux due to health care reform,” he says. “Clients wanted turnkey solutions, and we needed to close a few service gaps to help them transition from a fee-for-service to a fee-for-value environment. The question became, ‘Should we build or buy these capabilities?’”

Mooney proposed a series of strategic acquisitions, and this time he not only garnered support, but funding from Tenet’s executive team and board.

In recent months, Conifer Health has added new services like clinical integration, population health management and financial risk management to its arsenal as well as data modeling and analytics. In the process, the firm has acquired a host of new clients and employees.

While acquisitions can boost revenues and a firm’s capabilities overnight, assimilating an outside organization can be tricky. Depending on whose research you believe, mergers have a failure rate of anywhere between 50 and 85 percent primarily due to a lack of cultural compatibility and the hasty departure of key employees who possess critical institutional knowledge.

Mooney has been successful in assimilating acquisitions by getting Conifer Health’s acquired companies to embrace his unique philosophy and vision for the company.

“We try to retain or find other opportunities within Conifer Health for everyone we acquire,” he says. “If we do lay someone off, we give them severance and outplacement assistance because everyone deserves the right to leave with dignity.”

He’s created new business units within Conifer Health to help him retain key leaders and staff from an acquired firm. He’s also bolstered retention by allowing employees to telecommute as Conifer Health expanded its footprint to more than 40 states.

“The key is empowering people to make decisions so they can serve the client,” Mooney says. “We’ve expanded what we offer our clients, and they’ve embraced them because they add value to their mission and their communities. I keep our staff engaged by relaying our success stories. That’s critical feedback as it validates the work they provide our client every day.”


  • Build a strong foundation before you approach customers.
  • Prove your concept by hitting a home run.
  • Close service gaps and accelerate growth. 


The Mooney File:

NAME: Stephen Mooney
TITLE: President and CEO
COMPANY: Conifer Health Solutions LLC 

Birthplace: Margate, N.J. 

Education: Bachelor’s degree in accounting from Stockton State College in New Jersey and a master’s degree in business administration with an emphasis in accounting from Pepperdine University. 

What was your first job and what did you learn from it? I restocked the ice cream vendor on the boardwalk of the Jersey Shore. I learned that every person is important because the business couldn’t operate without a runner. Plus, it taught me responsibility because I couldn’t take a day off unless I found someone to take my place. 

What’s the best advice you ever received? Put people first because it increases their engagement. In turn, they’ll take care of your customers and the bottom line. For example, we let people go home when an ice storm is approaching and they make up for it the next day. They respond because we trust them to do the right thing. 

Who do you admire most in business and why? Jack Welch, former chairman and CEO of General Electric, because he was incredibly focused and a great developer of people and leaders. 

What is your definition of business success? Your business is successful when it’s turning on all cylinders, and it’s sustainable. In other words, you could walk away, and it would just keep going. We’re not there yet because we’re only a five-year-old company, but I believe that we’re on the path to sustainability.


Conifer Health Solutions Social Media Links:

Twitter: @coniferhealth


How to reach: Conifer Health Solutions LLC (877) 266-4337 or