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Posted September 26, 2018

Building an Agile, Change-Ready Culture: Q&A with Studer Group President Debbie Ritchie

By Debbie Ritchie

Studer Group President Debbie Ritchie has long been a proponent of leveraging a strong culture to achieve best-in-class results. As the rate of change in healthcare continues to increase, having an agile workforce is more critical than ever. We sat down with Debbie to ask her advice on building a change-ready culture.

What tips do you have for effectively communicating to engender "buy-in" at all levels?

The most critical element of building a change-ready culture is ensuring your team understands the need and urgency to change. With that comes an important leadership skill – consistent, continuous and transparent communication. As a leader, your job is to make sure your team understands the organization’s current and past performance, as well as where you’re going and why. My personal experience has been that leaders do a pretty good job explaining their organization’s current situation; however, they often don’t as consistently explain or cascade what’s happening outside the organization and how the external environment - industry and government changes, consumerism, costs and financial pressure - will change and disrupt their organization today and in the future.

Transparency is also critical. As a leader who values authenticity, I believe the more information you can proactively share with your team, the better. At Studer Group, we coach to always begin with the “why”. Make your change effort a moral imperative. Your need for change must be compelling enough to motivate stakeholders to act and do things differently. If you get the “why” right and individuals understand the consequences of not changing, their personal values and the “higher purpose” will call them to change their behavior.

Starting with the why also helps to increase buy-in and manage resistance. Conversely, when team members don’t have all the information, it generates anxiety and can lead to assumptions, assertions, rumors and misunderstanding. Reiterate the message multiple times across multiple channels to ensure that all employees hear the information in a way that meets their needs. Forums, videos and departmental huddles are just a few methods of communication I have found valuable. And, personal one-on-one rounding is critically important for validating a consistent message and answering tough questions.

It is the role of executive leadership to ensure that information is accurately and regularly cascaded from the top of the organization to frontline staff. I like to validate this by intentionally checking in with team members to assess their level of understanding. As a senior leader, it helps me know real-time if department leaders have appropriately and accurately shared critical information with their direct reports.

How do you encourage innovation, agility and intelligent risk-taking?

First, I don’t underestimate my team. I let them know I value their ideas and give them the opportunity to contribute. It’s a leader’s job to make sure individuals understand that the organization won’t get where we need to be without ownership and an “all in” attitude. When leaders and employees are challenged with a difficult task, it can motivate them to innovate. Trust plays a role too. Leaders who have established trust will find staff are more willing to accept the change, engage to negotiate the new or ambiguous and innovate to meet the organization’s goals and strategic vision. Trust is built when leaders model the organization’s values by transparently sharing information, listening and encouraging new ideas, and recognizing success and failure along the way.

It’s also important to acknowledge and thank employees who take risks whether they’re successful or not. The more frequently we can reward critical thinkers who are working in the best interest of the organization, the more this type of behavior will be replicated and repeated. As a best practice, be as specific as possible about the action taken and the positive effect it produced. Intentionally celebrating intelligent risk-taking will encourage similar behavior. You’ll soon find more team members trying new things or offering solutions instead of only sharing the challenges or barriers.

How do you foster relationships with frontline staff during periods of change?

True transformation is executed at all levels. This requires systems and processes that support the necessary changes in behavior, along with a robust plan for training and development of new skills.

When experiencing change, I look for team members who are resilient and raising their hands to accept new challenges. It is often during times of uncertainty and disruption that an individual’s values come to light. Employees who seek to understand, adapt and support the initiative are demonstrating high performer behaviors. Look for those who understand the organization’s vision, are willing to do things differently and lend their skills and talents to bridge a gap or meet a need.

As you’re transforming for the future state, you’ll still need to deliver on your current business commitments, so don’t forget the value of your middle performers. They are most likely the ones keeping their heads down to deliver on the current jobs to be done. This can be a good time to give your middle performers the opportunity to surprise you. With the right investment of time, regular communication and professional development, some of these individuals will rise to the challenge and help propel your outcomes. During any change endeavor, you’ll need and rely upon your high and middle (or solid) performers.

Low performers are a drag on organizations at any time but never more so than during periods of transformation. Individuals who consistently and continuously resist change are a risk. Even more concerning are the low performers who are actively working to undermine your change initiatives. Dealing with low performer behaviors is paramount to a healthy culture, and that is particularly true during periods of change. Helping low performers improve to meet their potential is always the first goal, but if the individual is not receptive or unable to rise to the challenge, it’s time for them to leave. It’s unfair to your team and misaligned to your values to let them take advantage of those working hard to grow their skills and help the organization succeed.

What advice would you give organizations looking to select agile, change-ready talent?

Prescriptive, behavioral-based interviewing questions that ask candidates to describe a time when they were agile, innovative or open to change can help the hiring committee determine the right cultural fit for any position. These types of questions help to identify people who share a passion for the organization’s mission, vision and values, and having like-minded team members working toward a common goal can truly be transformative. It is particularly important to recruit individuals who like and value continuous learning.

It’s also important to look for individuals who can check their egos at the door. For example, I once interviewed someone for a senior-level marketing position. At that time, we were “all hands on deck”. I knew we would need a leader willing to lead by example, so I probed to determine his willingness to roll up his sleeves to deliver for the organization. I asked the candidate to describe a time when the job required action outside of the scope of his job description. The response gave me a chance to learn that he wasn’t interested in performing tasks typically assigned to frontline staff. So, I probed further. “What if you personally had to help your team write a press release, for example?” When I heard the candidate express lack of interest because that work was “beneath” his current level of experience, I knew he wasn’t going to be the right cultural fit.

During interviews, listen for cues or examples that provide insight into what someone has done, not just what they would do. Just as education and experience are important, an individual’s willingness to adapt and their overall cultural fit will also be essential during times of change. 

Example Behavioral-Based Interview Questions to Assess Agility
  • Describe a time when you had to present a difficult change or new idea to a person or group that was not anticipated to be well-received. How did you deliver that message? What was the outcome?
  • When was the last time you “broke the rules”? What was the situation, and what did you do?
  • Give an example of a time when the scope or structure of a project changed. How did you modify your plans? What was the outcome?
  • Describe a time when you had to adjust quickly to changes over which you had no control. How did the change impact you?
  • Tell me about a time when you identified a new, unusual or different approach for addressing a problem or task.

What role does leadership development play in a change-ready culture?

Those in leadership positions likely got there because they were good at their job and demonstrated consistency in behaviors. They may not have come into the position with strong leadership skills or because they were innovative risk-takers. Today’s leaders must be nimble and productive through change. They must learn to seek out solutions to the challenges and demands of a changing industry. Development of these change management skills is absolutely critical.

Tenure can bring institutional knowledge, intellectual capital and leadership maturity, which can be helpful. You may, however, need to add leadership competency for innovation, or find a way to bring in a fresh perspective to spur the entire organization to adapt and thrive in a new environment. For example, given the disruption and constant change in healthcare today, more healthcare executive teams are bringing in leaders from outside the industry. Learning from others who have experienced change with a willingness to embrace the new and different can help propel a change initiative forward.

But also remember, it’s a mistake to ask people to do things differently without investing in their development. By supplying team members with adequate opportunities to enhance their skills, we are setting them up for future success.

What is the most common mistake leaders make during times of change? How can they sidestep it?

The most common mistake I’ve seen leaders make is not acting with enough urgency. When we pull the trigger on a change initiative, we want our team to trust and have confidence in what we’re doing. We expect them to lean in and get on board. So, when things don’t go exactly as planned, leaders often start making excuses or they hide the facts. It’s hard to admit a loss because we don’t want to lose the trust of our team that we’ve worked so hard to earn.

My advice is to recognize these behaviors and push past them quickly. When you’re innovating, expect that some things won’t work. If you fail, fail fast and learn from it. You aren’t doing your team any favors by hiding these missteps. Own it, learn from it and move on. By sweeping poor results under the rug, you lose valuable time that could have been spent resetting expectations, gaining input from key stakeholders about why the initiative failed and adjusting your strategy. We learn from our failures just as we learn from our wins. Always seize a crisis to drive the urgency your organization needs to change.

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