You've heard it hundreds of times: It's the people who make a company successful. Your employees are the ones who interact with customers, and whatever rules you lay down for them, they won't make customers feel happy and engaged unless they're happy and engaged themselves. And yet, too few bosses put the needed time and energy into building strong relationships with their employees.

That viewpoint comes from Chris Van Gorder, CEO of Scripps Health, former police officer, and author of The Front-Line Leader: Building a High-Performance Organization from the Ground Up. "It's all about building the relationships that create trust. It's not rocket science but most managers don't do it. They don't take the time to do it."

That's a shame, he says, because building taking the time to build those relationships would in turn make managers' jobs much easier. "Any time you trust your employees and they trust you your business will be easier to run," he says.

Here's Van Gorder's prescription for creating relationships of mutual trust:

1. Don't act superior.

As the head of your company, or the manager in your department, you're already in a position of authority. There's no need to underline that fact by treating the people who work for you as though they are somehow inferior.

Van Gorder made this vow to himself when he spotted the CEO of a hospital where he was working walking through the facility and attempted to introduce himself. The CEO walked right by as though he wasn't there. At the time, Van Gorder's job was as a security guard, which meant the hospital expected him to put his own safety on the line in if a threat arose. "I was at the point of the spear, I was the one dealing with customers," he says. "Those are the people you have to take care of."

2. Dress like a person.

Of course, appropriate dress will vary according to the industry you're in, and if you're, say, making a presentation to a bank in the hopes of getting a loan, you may need to dress for the occasion. But in general, Van Gorder recommends wearing whatever your employees wear. "I don't wear a suit or tie," he says. "Wearing a suit and tie starts to build a barrier. It shows status. I tell people I am not my title. I've held every position there is."

3. Do their jobs.

Once a year, Van Gorder leaves his office and takes a position as an emergency technician in one of Scripps' hospitals. "I show up in a set of scrubs, make beds, deal with bed pans," he says. "Over the course of the day, I get to see how the flow works. The nurses enjoy bossing me around in the morning but by afternoon we're having nice discussions about health care and how to improve things."

4. Answer every email.

At least every email from an employee. People are surprised that Van Gorder does this, but he says it's worthwhile. "Answering their questions, quelling rumors, and communicating what we need go are all essential," he says. The key to his email philosophy? "Don't fall behind!" he says.

5. Go to the gemba.

Gemba (or genba) is Japanese for "the real place." It's used by Toyota and other companies to refer to the factory floor and/or anywhere employees do the real work of the company. Van Gorder thinks going to the gemba is so important that he actually clears his schedule every Friday and spends the day walking around Scripps hospitals and having dialogue with employees.

That's 20 percent of his work week. How does he find the time? "You make the time," he says. "I realized I was not getting any face time with my people, so I made the decision that that was how I and other members of senior leadership would spend that day."

6. Have no secrets.

"There are only three things we don't tell employees: confidential patient information; confidential personnel information; and business deals that come with confidentiality rules." As for everything else, he says, "We don't keep secrets from employees. We talk with people about our business challenges and why we're making the decisions we are. It's building trust."

Most leaders, he says, choose to hold back at least some information that they could legally share. "We want people to know we're not going to hold back on them."

7. Support employees every way you can.

When an employee faces a personal crisis, Scripps will do everything possible to support that employee and lend assistance when needed. This is something large companies typically do more often than small ones, Van Gorder says. But small companies should lend similar levels of support. "Every company has resources and can rally around so that employees know their employer will do everything it can for them during their time of need."

8. Swear off layoffs.

"We have a no-layoff philosophy," Van Gorder says. "If you do your job properly, you will not be laid off." That might seem like a scary commitment to make but, Van Gorder says, "If we hit our targets, we shouldn't need layoffs."

9. Give clear responsibilities and let employees know they're accountable.

How does Scripps make sure to hit those targets? "We hold people accountable to the goals of the organization," Van Gorder says. "We talk about a three-legged stool: responsibility, authority, and accountability. We teach every manager in our organization, 'We're going to hold you responsible for meeting your targets. You can miss them once, but you won't be around to miss them twice.'"

It seems to be working. "So far, I've never had to terminate anyone for that reason," Van Gorder says. "And we haven't missed our targets in 13 years."

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3 Questions That Motivate Any Employee
Published on: Dec 1, 2014