A couple of weeks ago, I spent an invaluable day at the corporate headquarters of American Express in New York along with key members of my marketing team. The former CEO of American Express, Harvey Golub, sits on our Finance Committee. Harvey was generous enough to facilitate this opportunity so we could learn directly from global leaders more about the practice of consumerism - marketing products and services directly to consumers.
Until recently, health care has been strictly a wholesale business. By this I mean, we dealt only in volume and negotiated our fees directly with insurance companies. As a wholesale business, they were able to leverage access to their clientele for discounted rates. We were also told what we would get paid by CMS, based on the volume of services we provided. As the health care landscape dramatically changes, with consumers taking a more active role in their health care choices and managing their health care spending dollars, we find ourselves entering the retail business which means marketing directly to consumers. Since the retail model is new for the health care industry, we need to reach outside our sector to learn best practices from some of the leading companies in the consumer business.
During my meeting with American Express, not only did I gain some valuable insights on how they market to consumers, but it underscored the knowledge gained by stepping outside my own environment to learn from others. Throughout my career, I have discovered the extraordinary value in learning from leaders of other industries - from manufacturing to hospitality to fast food - and then applying that knowledge to the work I do in health care. These experiences have directly impacted the organizations which I work for and the way in which I lead them.
One of my most profound professional experiences came from three days I spent at the corporate headquarters of Ritz Carlton to learn more about the practice of top-notch customer service. While I learned a great deal about the way we should treat customers (and have applied that to patient relations at the medical centers at which I have worked), the most valuable moment for me came in a session with a hotel operator as he explained that at the Ritz they refuse to focus their energy on difficult employees. Instead, they cut loose team members who do not want to subscribe to their culture and their values so they can focus time and resources on those who either get it right away or the individuals that want to learn and be developed.
I have brought this lesson to every leadership position since then and it has been incredibly illuminating. In fact, it has radically changed the environment and culture of the businesses I lead. I have learned that in order for an organization to be innovative, entrepreneurial, and downright successful, you need to stock your team with the overachievers. Underachievers and overachievers simply do not get along, so you sometimes have to let those underachievers go so the overachievers can thrive. I admit that this practice is not easy. It can be unsettling and it makes some people angry, but it has created a work environment of accountability and a place that demonstrates the care and value it has for its team members.
Finally, I was fortunate to spend time in the last few years with Jack Welch of General Electric. Jack has provided a wealth of insight on a wide-range of subjects but it was his discussion of transparency and candor in the work place that left a lasting impression on me. Jack explained that it is our tendency as managers to tell our team that when a colleague has been let go - for whatever reason - that he/she “has moved on to bigger and better things.” Jack warned against that, saying that offering this sanitized explanation signals to your remaining team members that you do not value them enough to be honest with them. It also denies you the opportunity to reiterate to your team members the core values of your organization and expectations you have of them. I have taken Jack’s advice and put it into practice. Doing this has allowed me to cultivate a more open and honest environment, and signaled to employees that I live and breathe the values of our organization. It also signifies that I expect the same out of each of them.
In closing, I cannot stress enough the value of getting outside your own backyard to discover new practices by those in other fields. While industries outside your own might operate on a different scale than your company and there will certainly be aspects of their business that will not apply to your work, there is still a tremendous amount of knowledge to be gained from them – we can learn from their systems, their culture, their processes and their leadership style. You never know where your next inspiration will come from.