Six Steps to Creating an Excellent Culture in Your Healthcare Business

You know a great culture company when you see it. With such a company, the customer service experience is consistent and appropriate for the service being provided. We think of such companies as Southwest Airlines, Whole Foods, DoubleTree Hotels and Jet Blue to name a few. Great culture companies employ people that share the same set of values. That's not to say that every great company is identical, but the people in strong culture companies can each embrace the particular set of values that enlivens the company's mission and describes "how" the people in the organization will generally behave while implementing the company's strategy.

Using lessons learned from Ann Rhoades and Delise Crimmins of People Ink, a company that specializes in helping companies to create great cultures, we brought some of these concepts over to the healthcare field and with the help of CEO Tom Mallon, tried them out at Regent Surgical Health in Westchester, Ill.

There are six things to do that, if done well, will move you far ahead in your quest to create a great culture in your company, as we discover through this experience. These steps will lead to consistent hiring practices and give you the best opportunity to create a great culture, and you will be on your way to becoming one of the best places to work in healthcare.

Step 1: Define your company's values. There are many different exercises you can do to define your company's values. There are, however, three important rules to follow: 1) values must be defined and held by the top people in the organization (i.e., the CEO, the board of directors, etc.); 2) the leadership team, however that is defined (e.g., CEO together with direct reports, top administrative staff, etc.), must buy-in to the values; and 3) the values must be described in terms of the behaviors that demonstrate each of the values.

One of the best ways to develop your company's values statement, if you can arrange to do so logistically, is to have the entire leadership team spend a half or full day together working through a set of exercises that will flesh out the values statement. The key to this session is to capture the behaviors associated with the values, and by doing this step as a team rather than in the CEO's office, organizational buy-in can be assured.

Behaviors and values are inextricably linked. One way to show that your company truly adheres to its stated values is by identifying its actions that support the values — how your company prioritizes its time and resources should line up with the stated values. On the individual level, we recommend that each job duty listed in a job description be linked to one or more of the specific company values. These choices (or behaviors) are clear markers of what we truly value. How the organization promotes and manages these behaviors that support the organization's values is where the "rubber meets the road," or maybe more appropriately, where the "scalpel meets the skin," with respect to creating a great culture.

Because everyone in the corporation needs to be on board, this process will take a significant amount of time — as much as six to nine months before a company is ready to move to the next step. Leadership must take the time to communicate the meaning of the values to the other members of the company's staff so that the values can really become engrained in the fabric of the culture.

Step 2: Hire "A" players. We have experienced hiring someone that has a great resume only to find out, after they are hired, that the person is just not a good fit for the organization in spite of a seemingly perfect background and set of experiences for the job we wanted to fill. This scenario, which has played out thousands of times in good and bad organizations alike, is likely due to a mismatch in values. With a well-defined set of company values, what constitutes an A player can be clearly defined, and we have a much better chance of avoiding the above scenario.

Another important step is to properly teach staff members how to hire A players with respect to the values (and behaviors) now inherent to your company. This entails more than just a standard single-interviewer process; interviewers should try to steer potential team members to provide concrete examples of what they have done in the past to ensure that the values of the potential hire are in line with the entire company. We want candidates to talk about actual past experiences during the interview, rather than discuss platitudes and what they would do in the next position. Past performance is the best indicator of future performance.

Step 3: Exceed the expectations of A players. While hiring A players is critical, what is more critical is to take care of the A players currently in your organization. This does not mean to inappropriately discriminate and show favoritism. What it means is that your A players will, by definition, be the people in your organization who consistently behave in a manner consistent with your company's values. And, of course, we want to reward good behavior!

When we see behavior that is supportive of the values we want to reward and recognize the people that exhibited such outstanding behavior: public rewards and recognition of outstanding behavior will send a clear message to the rest of the organization what is meant in the values statement. This should not be arbitrary or inappropriate or limited to one select group of staff members. Anyone can exhibit behaviors that are observably supportive or in conflict with your company's values and should be rewarded.

Recognition programs should not be too gimmicky and should serve to highlight those who exemplify your company's core values. For example, companies can award pins to team members who have been identified by their peers for performing behaviors that are representative of one of the core values. These achievements can then be recognized at monthly staff meetings.

With the leadership publicly highlighting outstanding examples of supportive behavior, the organization will develop a tribal knowledge of "how things are done here." This is the essence of a great culture.

Step 4: Be excessive about customer service. Great organizations strive for great customer service, high patient satisfaction, and high physician satisfaction. Leaders in the organization must become experts at spotting behaviors that support the organization's values. The values have their greatest real meaning within the context of defining how the organization delivers the products and services promised to its customers. A players, then, will naturally be those that excel at customer service. And great leaders in the organization will be those that find ways to be most supportive of A players' efforts. How the front lines of the organization treat your customers is critically important, and supporting your front line personnel starts by supporting them in their daily routines and then goes deeply into the inner workings of the organization, as it pertains to investment decisions, organizational prioritization, assignment of job duties, etc. The companies with great culture will make great customer service the focal point of their efforts.

Step 5: Create a disciplined culture of excellence. Companies with a great culture practice excellence every day. They continually improve their operations. They rigorously follow their processes and make a habit of completing work and closing up all loose ends.  To be a company that practices excellence does not mean it never makes mistakes, but it does mean that they learn from their mistakes.  One of my favorite sayings, I'll attribute to Tom Mallon CEO of Regent Surgical Health, is that "it's OK to make mistakes; just make sure today’s mistakes are different that yesterday's!" In other words, great companies learn from their mistakes and improve their organizations through these experiences.

Step 6: Repeat steps 1-5. The last step to establishing a great culture is to do all five of the previous steps all of the time. Perhaps you can consider this sixth step part of practicing discipline and excellence, but I prefer to think of it all by itself. This is because it is so important to remember that creating an excellent culture cannot be accomplished by any single one of the other five steps alone. It is an integrative effort of all of the other five steps.

Mr. Jacobs is CEO and co-founder of MedHQ, a professional employer organization (PEO) and business office outsourcing service for healthcare, ASCs, surgical hospitals, imaging centers and other physician-affiliated businesses. Learn more about MedHQ.

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