mike-larson-employee-engagement-finalIt's difficult to create a single definition for a "culture of genius," because much depends on where each company stands in their digital transformation journey. 

Universal Hospital Services (UHS) is a leading, nationwide provider of medical equipment management and service solutions that helps healthcare organizations increase operating efficiencies by optimizing their medical equipment lifecycle. Simply stated, we help healthcare providers access, manage and maintain medical equipment so that their clinical staff can focus their time and attention on what matters most-their patients. 

After nearly 80 years in business, the company recently embarked on a journey of growth and transformation in order to meet the evolving needs of our health care customers and create career opportunities that attract, engage and retain the best and brightest. To become the company we are today, we oriented our leadership focus around a simple model that begins with investing in our people-ensuring they are well informed, well trained, and well equipped with support, resources and recognition to enable success. 

We aligned our company culture around a common belief-or purpose statement-that "every interaction has the power to change a life." And, we committed to a set of strategic aspirations that further define our commitments and our character as a company. At UHS, creating a culture of happy, engaged and empowered employees is about more than words on a page or posters on a wall-it is a strategic imperative. Engaged employees create happy customers; and, happy customers become long-term partners who, in turn, fuel the growth of a business.  Our ~3,000 employees interact with our more than 7,000 customers every day. Their drive to make a difference and fulfill our important purpose in health care is the foundation of our success.   

Building an empowered and engaged workforce

A significant challenge for a company like ours-where most of our ~3,000 employees are dispersed among 85 local market service centers-is educating the entire team on the company's strategy and direction and providing frequent updates along the way. UHS hosts a monthly meeting of all company Directors and above (~3% of the UHS workforce) to share updates from our CEO and top executives that can be cascaded down throughout the organization. The Executive Leadership team maintains a commitment that all key company announcements, strategic or structural changes, will first be shared with this core group of leaders before disseminating to all employees. This empowers leaders to better manage the flow of important messages to their teams and prepare to answer questions from employees when the time comes. We are often reminded by our CEO that "with information, comes responsibility." It is expected that information is appropriately shared throughout the organization. This disciplined approach to cascading information has not only kept the entire organization informed, but it has also helped develop leadership skills across the company. 

I'm a believer in timely, transparent, two-way communication through one-on-one meetings, staff meetings, town halls, governance meetings, etc., but that is not where it stops. Much of the improvement we've seen in engagement is a result of the work of our HR function. The investment in our people to support their career growth and skills development has included structured individual development plans, on-demand learning tools and skills-development resources, and comprehensive training curriculums for individual contributors, managers, and senior leaders. 

I am often asked by those outside our company, "those are great ideas, but how can you afford them? If we had the budget, we would do those things also." It is difficult to invest if you're not growing. In 2015, our new CEO established a vision and strategy for where and how we would grow which enabled us to invest in specific areas of the business that would ultimately drive that growth. Putting our customers' needs-and their patients-at the center of all that we do provides the lens through which we prioritize our effort, time and resources. With that in mind, our employees' training and engagement around our mission to support health care will always be a core area for investment and focus.

An action plan for employee engagement

Over the past three years, our leadership team has taken a renewed approach to driving engagement and culture change. Here are a few pointers that I've picked up along the way.

  1. Listen and respond. Many companies conduct employee engagement surveys and then fail to act on them. Here at UHS, every corporate function and operating unit develops action plans based on learnings from our annual engagement survey. These action plans are monitored and measured month-to-month and reported up to the executive team to ensure that we are moving the needle and actively responding to employee feedback. Generally speaking, we humans tend to feel connected and engaged when our voice is heard and acknowledged-it creates a sense of trust and community. This notion translates just as well within the "walls" of a company.
  2. Engage around a purpose. People tend to rally around missions-and go the extra mile-for organizations that do good for society. At UHS, the patient is at the center of all we do. When a family member or loved one is receiving medical care, you want to be sure it's the best care possible. For our team at UHS, that means ensuring the equipment we provide is of the highest quality, delivered on time and patient ready-clean, tested, and properly maintained to the highest industry standard. This commitment to quality and knowing our work makes a difference, instills a feeling of pride and engages us in a purpose that matters.
  3. Strike a balance of focus and flexibility. One thing we work on each day in the Technology group is to be flexible and responsive to change. With so many day-to-day activities and competing priorities, we must be flexible and responsive to the priorities of the business. Our objective is to approach work every day with "one foot raised" allowing us to quickly pivot to the most important and strategic needs of the business.

Another message I try to convey is don't depend on the technology to reinvent the business. The technology is often a means to an end. If you don't start with the right people and enable them to create momentum, adding the technology just makes bad things go fast. That is not to minimize the disruptive and transformational impact that technologies such as blockchain, IoT, AI, machine learning, Big Data, etc., can have on business, but rather to emphasize the importance of first understanding what you are attempting to solve or accomplish. This is particularly true in the mid-market where R&D budgets tend to be harder to come by.

In 2015, UHS ranked just around "average" in employee engagement, based on industry survey results. Today, our engagement scores are on par with the "extraordinary company" benchmark-a growth curve that aligns with our customer satisfaction ratings and our company financial results. Our team members are confident in our strategy and our direction and they see how their work contributes to our overall success. Today we have ~3,000 people thinking about how we can continue to transform and grow. We're driven by a cohesive, team-based culture versus one that aims to drive individual genius. The more ideas we have-along with a mechanism to collect and analyze those ideas-the better positioned we are to act on those opportunities and reward creativity. 

Mike Larson spoke at HMG Strategy's recent 2018 Minneapolis CIO Executive Leadership Summit on May 17. To learn more about HMG Strategy's upcoming summits in Denver and other locations, click here