Like our values? Then sign them

Jeff Thompson, 64, served as CEO of Gundersen Health System for 14 years. He oversaw the Wisconsin-based nonprofit healthcare network—and its 7,000 employees—as it garnered national honors for patient care. Author of Lead True, Thompson is a pediatrician.

Executive Leadership: You asked new hires to read a one-page compact and agree to the organization’s values. Why?

Thompson: As a leader, you have to define your values in a strong, clear way. Ours focused on respect for individuals, excellence, compassion, innovation, integrity. It’s important that everyone from the people in the billing department to senior executives is clear about the values-based principles that unite us.

Did new hires ever balk at having to agree to the compact?  

Most new hires were really positive about it. They liked the clarity. Once in a while, a doctor would say, “This is nice. It’s geared for front-line people, right?” I’d reply, “No. It applies to doctors, too.” A few bowed out at that point.

It’s probably for the best that they bowed out.

It’s not good when we hire a doctor and it doesn’t work out. In the book, I write about a very skilled young neurosurgeon we hired. They’re hard to find! One morning, he tells me he yelled at our security guy for ticketing his car in the parking lot. The “ticket” didn’t cost anything; it’s just a warning for staff not to park in the fire lane. He told me he told the security guy, “I make more money in a week than you make in a couple months, so get out of my face.”

How did you respond?

He knew about our compact. So I told him to apologize to the guy, write an apology letter to the guy’s supervisor and commit to treating people with respect. He resisted, saying he brought in millions of dollars and he could quit and return to his home state.

He refused to apologize?

He left us. In the short term, our neurosurgery department took a big hit. It meant more work for them. But in the long run, it’s far more efficient to have that clarity in dealing with marginal behavior.

Were you tempted to let his behavior slide?

You can’t build a great organization if you allow a privileged few to behave inconsistently with your values.

How did you reinforce the values on an ongoing basis?

There’s no one thing you can rely on. If you’re CEO and you send emails and you think everybody’s reading them, you’re kidding yourself. Some people like one-on-one conversations. Some will watch videos. Some will read emails. So you do all that and more.

What’s the most important communication skill for a leader?

If you can’t listen, it’s hard to demonstrate that you care about what’s most important to others. When hosting a Q&A session with 150 employees, I expected them to ask about all the big issues we were dealing with like raising our quality and controlling costs. But the first question was someone complaining about parking—that staff had to walk a long way and they should be able to park closer in areas reserved for patients. I felt like saying, “I park 300 yards away. So can you.” But I listened respectfully while drawling a line based on our values—at no time will staff park closer than patients.