“Leadership requires acknowledging the sacredness of every individual, not from a place of fear, but from a place of love.”
An engaged workforce produces better results. Whether you manage a team of finance professionals, a department of insurance underwriters, or a practice group of lawyers, you’re always looking for ways to keep your people engaged. As the Executive Vice President and Chief Administrative Officer of Providence St. Joseph Health, Debra Canales stays acutely aware of the level of engagement for 120,000 employees across a $26 billion enterprise. She recently shared how she promotes employee engagement across a health care system providing life-saving care to literally millions of patients across seven states.
Jay Sullivan: Why is engagement so important?
Debra Canales: When people are engaged, they transcend the immediate and focus on the core values. At Providence those core values include respect, integrity and, most importantly, compassion.
Sullivan: How do you get people to focus on those values?
Canales: You talk about them all the time, and you adopt language about each person’s role that emphasizes those value. For instance, all of our employees are “caregivers.” In a very personal way, we tend to the patients we serve. When you think of yourself in terms of the care you provide someone else – whether you are a nurse bathing a patient in pain, or the checkout clerk in the cafeteria making sure someone’s hurried lunch is as pleasant as possible – it changes your attitude toward your role and toward those with whom you interact.
Sullivan: You can’t achieve that level of commitment just by a name change.
Canales: No, you can’t. You have to start the conversation early and reinforce it along the way. Providence has a unique history, founded by two religious orders. The Sisters of Providence and the Sisters of St. Joseph were small and resourceful groups of women dedicated to tending to the sick. Employees hear about our history from the moment they are hired, through the on-boarding process, and throughout their work lives.
Every employee knows the story of our humble beginnings, the challenges the sisters faced, and the creativity they employed to overcome obstacles. Every organization struggles along the way with growing pains and external pressures that require new ideas and approaches to continue to live their mission. The sisters had to adapt and evolve in order serve their communities.
Sullivan: So for the sisters, you could say, “Necessity is the Mother Superior of Invention.”
Canales: You could say that.
Sullivan: How do you keep that message and spirit alive?
Canales: You prove to your people that you’re dedicated to taking care of them. Last year we modernized our EAP program to include training around compassion. For six months, we closed every clinic for ninety minutes every other week, a total of 18 hours of discussion around compassion, mindfulness and team-building. Honestly, I don’t think it felt like “training” for our teams; it felt like care-giving to our own people. We discussed how to weave our mission of compassion throughout everything we do. Seeing the suffering of the sick, and working hard to ameliorate it, can cause fatigue. Talking about our role in alleviating that suffering helps our own staff heal, and helps prevent burnout.
The discussions and exercises helped our people bring their best selves to work. They feel called to something bigger and more meaningful than themselves.
Sullivan: It sounds like the language you use in these settings sets the tone.
Canales: That’s right. Throughout our facilities, and throughout the way we help develop our people, you’ll see the phrase, “Know me. Care for me. Ease my way.” It’s simple language focused on how we impact and treat all of those around us, and it’s written from the perspective of the individual in front of us at any one moment.
Sullivan: What’s your role in this as the leader of leaders?
Canales: Formal leadership formation here takes three years. We ground our leaders in a sense of purpose and vocation, and they live in their values. People are always watching their leaders to see how they are living the values of the organization. We call it “the Shadow of Leadership.”
We also take risks on our people. We celebrate and learn from our mistakes. You encourage greater creativity if you acknowledge mistakes publicly.
Leadership is a full-body experience, not just from the neck up. It involves the mind, the body and the soul. All of our senior leaders are all-in on our commitment to creating an environment where we help people recognize their full potential that they otherwise wouldn’t see. That also results in building a more diverse workforce. Men and women are represented equally in our senior leadership ranks.
Sullivan: You seem to view leadership as a mission in and of itself.
Canales: Our commitment to something bigger than ourselves is a huge factor in the attraction to working here. We recently recruited a top finance professional from the tech industry who was attracted to the added dimension of our mission. You feel the mission at Providence. I believe that leadership requires acknowledging the sacredness of every individual, not from a place of fear, but from a place of love.
Sullivan: Powerful stuff. In sum, for leaders to create an engaged workforce, you have to constantly emphasize your mission, give people the space and avenues to explore their own growth in that mission, put serious attention toward developing your leaders in that vein and then use language that brings all of that together. Those are lessons for all business leaders. Thanks for your time.
Originally published on Forbes.com.