We’re all familiar with the old corporate adage: “Our people are our most valuable asset.” Yet companies fall short in their efforts to motivate employees to deliver on corporate strategies. Like medieval alchemists seeking to transform ordinary metals into gold, companies often find their human assets unchanged—notwithstanding their leaders’ best efforts to turn those assets into gold.
This issue is particularly thorny in healthcare: The industry is changing radically, and many leaders recognize the need to change with it, but find themselves unable to effectively bring their employees along. In times of industry transformation, the challenge for leaders is to realize the full potential of their people in a way that is aligned with the new direction.
In short, they need to create a talent-focused organization.
Talent-focused organizations achieve sustainable competitive advantage through the deep connection between their people and the distinct aspects of their business: alignment with vision and strategy provides the rational basis for winning minds; alignment with values and brand provides the emotional basis for winning hearts; and reinforcement of that alignment is executed through effective managers. Healthcare attracts dedicated people who are committed and wired to doing well; organizations that can create a compelling vision and help employees connect their own actions to this vision will find a highly receptive workforce.
This is neither the “soft” side of the organization, nor is it a one-off activity; it requires analysis, understanding, and disciplined action by all the leaders of the organization – from the board, to the team leader.
1. Aligning People with Strategy to Win Minds
Competitive advantage rarely follows unless understanding of the strategy is a day-to-day reality for employees. Recognizing this, leaders and managers in talent-focused organizations invest time translating corporate strategy into unambiguous objectives for their business units and teams, and involve their people in identifying how they can personally contribute toward achieving those defined goals. To take ownership of the organization’s objectives, goals, and strategy, employees must be involved in developing their own individual goals, not in having them assigned by a manager or leader.
A mistake healthcare provider organizations often make when trying to change clinician behavior is to change compensation policies and stop there. While this may provide some incentive to change behavior, it does little to align physicians with the strategy of the organization, and thus frequently fails. Instead, physicians must be involved in the design of the strategy around clinical transformation, and the outcomes arising from that change then need to be incorporated into their day-to-day workflow through adjustments to point-in-care tools, easy-to-digest reports, and other mechanisms. Ultimately, helping clinicians understand why they should care about changing their behavior will be more effective than simply paying them more to care.
2. Aligning People with Values to Win Hearts
Talent-focused organizations make use of the one aspect of their organization that competitors cannot replicate: their culture. Rather than passively depending on luck to propagate an organizational culture, talent-focused organizations actively cultivate that ethos. They precisely define their values and review and develop their practices, policies, and processes to ensure that these reinforce their principles and create a compelling culture. They regularly and systematically review their practices to ensure the desired culture is enabled and maintained. They consider the broader context of structures, governance, decision making, formal and informal policies, processes, and practices, and adapt and enhance the infrastructure that shapes the employee experience and determines whether the culture is a reality or a mirage. Some of the most compelling stories in the healthcare world come from organizations that work with disadvantaged populations. Organizations with well-defined missions focused on making their patients’ lives better tend to have the best outcomes: The clinical and administrative staffs of such organizations are committed to the mission beyond their assigned tasks, and go the extra mile for their patients. Healthcare organizations at the corporate level usually share those same aspirations and calling, yet fail to communicate them and thus do not inspire the same enthusiasm and concrete response in their employees.
3. Reinforcing Alignment through Effective Managers
Talent-focused organizations recognize the pivotal role that managers play in the organization’s strategy and culture. To avoid the unsustainable cycle of talent “joining great companies, but leaving poor managers,” there is a need to ensure management positions are filled by men and women who possess the necessary people skills to perform their roles effectively. Supervising people is not peripheral to the role of a manager; it’s a core capability. It is not simply an administrative duty calling for setting objectives and performance appraisals, but an ongoing responsibility to direct, coach, mentor, support, challenge, and develop the people under their management.
The weak and often toxic relationships that can exist between seniors and juniors within the clinical ranks of a hospital are salient examples of what can happen when management skill is considered peripheral to a job. Many healthcare systems are realizing that training a new generation of doctors and nurses who have both clinical skills and management intelligence is critical to driving effective outcomes in the long run.
Certainly, an easier approach would be to just pay people more and then tell them what to do—an approach and attitude that in theory could work, assuming you could afford to continually outspend your competitors. But that method would seem doomed to failure in the healthcare world where financial reward is an important motivator, but rarely the primary factor. A more sustainable model is one where the people and the organization are aligned at a deeper level. Talent-focused organizations outperform their competitors by 54 percent in retention, by 89 percent in customer satisfaction, and by fourfold in revenue growth. So investing in your people is not just about training and developing them, it is about leaders and managers providing the context for performance and aligning people to win both hearts and minds.
The challenge for corporate leaders is to build and maintain a talent-focused organization that treats employees not just as assets, but as human beings seeking to realize their goals and achieve their full potential. Get it right and significant competitive advantage is unleashed. Get it wrong and your most valuable people become an expensive liability.