In a tedious, unglamorous business, Paula Lawlor has found the secret to bringing out the best in the people who work for her
When she was six, Paula LaSala (now Lawlor) mortified the nuns at her Catholic school by pilfering funeral flowers from the garbage cans outside the chapel and selling them to her friends for a nickel each. When confronted by the priest, she remained incredulous. "I didn't get it," she recalls. "They were just throwing them away." Even then, the enterprising youngster had what today's trendy therapists refer to as "bad boundaries." Now, on any given day, Lawlor might sweep into the office wearing track pants and Nikes, announcing that everyone must exercise. She's likely to regale you with a sidesplitting account of a recent conversation with her dead grandmother. And she's been known to freely discuss the miracles of Prozac, the agony of alcoholism, and the benefits of therapy. "There are companies that don't want people to talk about their personal lives," she says. "But I say, 'Bring it on.' If people can get something off their chests for an hour, then I've got them for the next 10."
All that, of course, is in addition to her obsession with her company, MediHealth Outsourcing (#87 on the 1999 Inc. 500 list). "My goal is grow, grow, grow, and no is not in the vocabulary," she declares. "At work I'm at the outer limits of my personality." Her sisters, both in the business, describe her as a tornado. "She can't stand to see anything calm for too long," says Carole Gammarino, five years Lawlor's junior. "She has to stir things up." Mary LaSala, the soft-spoken middle sibling, notes that "Paula pushes people. She pushes them out the door or up the corporate ladder. And there are days when you hate her and days when you love her."
"We give senior management the financial information for the entire company ... and say, 'Go ahead and define your budget.' It's a mini business plan for them."
Her other employees seem to feel the same way. There is, they say, no one quite as charming or as demanding as Lawlor, whose booming voice and flashing smile give definition to a physically nondescript company in a low-glam industry. MediHealth is a medical-records-outsourcing company, which is to say that it helps hospitals and other health-care facilities sort through reams of patient records, organize their accreditation processes, and abstract documents for inclusion in national databases. Only 12 of her 175 employees are based at her headquarters, in King of Prussia, Pa. Silicon Valley it isn't. Competitive and fast growing it is. On average, MediHealth might add 50 to 75 long- and short-term accounts to its client roster each year. Which is why Lawlor has to work so hard to hire, motivate, and retain employees by creating an environment that's a magnet for talented, hardworking people. Managers run their divisions with maximum autonomy, hourly workers have the opportunity to become salaried consultants, and all employees have the freedom to move around the company until they find their niche, often racking up training costs that some company owners might find excessive. Lawlor also goes to great lengths to accommodate her employees' personal lives. One of her top managers works out of her home in Cleveland, employees are allowed to bring their kids to work and to arrange their schedules around their families' needs, and anyone at all can take a three-month leave of absence without risking job security. As if to prove a point, Lawlor took off much of last summer to spend time with her family at the New Jersey shore. Bad boundaries? No boundaries is more like it.
Curiously, though, that is exactly the reason that Lawlor and her partner and husband, Ron Lawlor, have been able to grow their company to $7.5 million in revenues in just seven years. MediHealth looks chaotic, and Lawlor seems more like your crazy Aunt Paula than the president of a fast-growth company, but behind the mayhem is a system of accountability that serves as the most effective kind of insurance policy. Lawlor doesn't really care how or when her employees get their work done, but if they don't meet their goals and their deadlines, they've got some explaining to do. She doesn't tell them how to manage their work or their lives; instead she gives them the freedom to manage both on their own. And she seems to understand intuitively that creativity and innovation are as easily stifled by rigidity as by anarchy. The trick is to maintain balance. It's not as easy as Lawlor makes it look.
"Paula coached our swim team when we were little. I'd say, 'Don't make me race that girl. I can't win.' She'd say, 'Yes, you can.' And I did. She's magical that way."
DONNA FENN is the author of Upstarts! How Gen-Y Entrepreneurs Are Rocking the World of Business and 8 Ways You Can Profit From Their Success, an exploration of the ways Gen Y is changing the entrepreneurial landscape.
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