How to Make Money and Do Good at the Same Time

By: On September 6, 2016

When is the last time you changed the world and made a profit at the same time?

Chelsey is a new friend of mine who helps lead Medicare Operations at one of the biggest health insurance companies in the US. I know health insurance companies are about as popular as airlines, cable operators, or the IRS. I’ve had my own choice words for them in the past when I endured seemingly endless runarounds to get what I believed was reasonable treatment for myself or my family.

But Chelsey’s story illustrates beautifully how a switched-on leader can find opportunities to serve the common good and the bottom line at the same time, even in an industry many assume is only driven by profit. Her division has roughly 8000 call center agents mostly serving Medicare Advantage members. If insurance companies understand one thing, it’s numbers. For years, the numbers told them that they could save a lot of money if their members would get routine and early screenings for common diseases such as colon cancer and breast cancer that often afflict these populations. Early intervention is generally more effective and much less costly than dealing with a late stage diagnosis.

While these numbers were well known, the company was frustrated with their progress in getting members to get these screenings. Like most of us, senior citizens tends to ignore written pleas. The best chance to influence them is to have personal contact with them, especially with someone who has insight into their medical condition.

That’s where the call center agents came in. Since they field hundreds of thousands of calls a month, why not have these call center agents encourage screenings while on the phone with members?

Not so fast. The insurer tried many ways to get call center agents to have these conversations. They gave agents talking points to pitch with members focused on the Star rating system Medicare uses to evaluate program quality. They emphasized the value to the company of getting members to be screened. They even put incentives in place for employees. No dice. Despite all of management’s efforts, the call centers were only generating 450 screenings per month.

Then Chelsey’s team had an idea. They knew from talking to doctors and actuaries that the numbers were straightforward. For every 100 colonoscopy screenings her team could get members to complete, a life would be saved. For every 556 breast cancer screenings performed, a woman’s life would be saved.

Would you like a colonoscopy with that?

“Would you like a colonoscopy with that?”

The team thought about what motivated – or could motivate – a call center agent to have a personal, slightly invasive conversation on a topic that most of their members would rather not have. After all, “Would you like a colonoscopy today?” is a little different than offering someone fries with their burger. That motivation was probably not the company making a lot more money. Most call center agents feel galaxies away from the corporate suites where financial returns matter.

But maybe, just maybe, focusing agents on saving lives would grab their attention more than saving a buck.

That’s how the Save a Life campaign started. Over the next few months, the leadership team clearly communicated the facts to the call center staff. In small groups around the company, senior leaders shared the potential impact a call center agent could make in the lives of members by scheduling preventive care appointments. The leaders themselves connected emotionally to this effort – and dared to show that gut level passion to their people.

This changed everything for the employees. They started to see their job not as just any old call center rep, a role most people don’t aspire to as they grow up. They began to view themselves as advocates who were saving lives of their members. Agents talked to Chelsey and her team through tears as they began to understand the power of their role.

The numbers were impressive. Over the course of the campaign, the call center operation went from generating 450 to up to 38,000 screenings per month. Yes, this will save the company a boatload of cash. That’s good for the company and its shareholders – and not too shabby for the broader healthcare system. But if the actuaries’ numbers are correct, they’ve already saved hundreds of lives this year that would have been unnecessarily lost to these diseases. Members have written numerous notes – some even the old-fashioned hand-written ones – expressing thanks for how the company has helped keep them healthy.

As icing on the cake, there was an unanticipated benefit. The employee engagement scores for the call center team rose by a staggering ten points on a 100-point scale. Anyone who operates a call center will tell you that keeping agents engaged in what can sometimes be repetitive and thankless work is super challenging and incredibly valuable since engagement is one way to reduce costly turnover. They’ll also tell you that bumping your scores by ten points in one year is beyond remarkable.

Working for the good of others and making a profit don’t have to be mutually exclusive. Doing both requires switched-on leaders who reject the notion that organizations are machines and that people are purely coin-operated. That leader could be you.

Noonday Sun

Be Bright.

Why Purpose Kicks Greed’s Butt Every Time

By: On May 12, 2016
Sports Car

15-year old fantasies: Fast Cars and Fast Gaming

Recently, my almost-15-year-old son was assigned a project for his computer science class at school. The task was to profile a technological innovation. Several of his friends chose self-driving cars. He considered studying a technology that enables faster online gaming because let’s face it, games are way too slow these days.

Then over breakfast one day, we chatted about one of my clients, Medtronic’s Neuromodulation division. This company creates technology that truly changes people’s lives. Among other things, it helps those incapacitated by movement disorders like Parkinson’s disease return to a much more normal life by implanting a neurostimulator deep inside those people’s brains.

We watched a video that showed the nearly miraculous transformation produced by these devices in the life of an elderly farmer. (Trust me, it’s worth the 2.5 minutes to watch this video – see 1:15 for the patient’s story and 2:00 for dramatic footage of what happens with and without his device activated.)

My son was captivated. Here was a technology that integrated hardware, software, and the leading edge of neuroscience to help a farmer continue his life. Quite literally, this device rescued this man from shame that had prevented him from going out in public and allowed him to return to the farm work that made him feel worthwhile again. With no disrespect to fast gaming, maybe this was a different level of cool.

Yes, Medtronic has to make money. They’re a publicly traded global company with all of the complexities that that brings. Yes, Medtronic employees sometimes forget that they have a larger purpose and squabble over the usual things: pay, status, and budgets. I’ve been at the scene of some of those fights.

But there is a bedrock purpose to the company. While that purpose may be forgotten for a while, it cannot disappear. When unearthed – usually when they see the impact of their products on real people whose lives are restored to health – it snaps those same employees right back to center. It answers why. It puts them in service of others. It calls them away from the self-destructive and self-defeating paths of selfishness and greed.

Your people may be very sophisticated, but deep down they’re asking the same question 2-year-olds ask about everything: Why? It’s a purpose question. The question is simple, even if it’s asked in a variety of ways:

  • Why are we doing this anyway?
  • Why do we get up early and stay late?
  • What difference is our work going to make?
  • Why stay in this organization instead of going somewhere else?
  • Why give the next days, weeks, months, and years of my only life to this effort?

While everyone needs to make a living, please make the answers to your organization’s  purpose questions better than “bags of money.” When you build a culture on greed, people will engage mostly when it’s in their own self-interest. You wind up with a collection of individuals loosely held together by a comp plan. No higher purpose animates team members in those times when no one is watching and it’s hard and there’s no clear path to a material reward. That’s a lot of the time if we’re honest with ourselves. And yes, you could substitute fear for purpose as the foundation of your culture. Perversely, it will work for a while. But fear is a short-term motivator.

How much better to have a noble purpose that calls people beyond their baser selves? When you have that in place and people really get it, you start to see things happen:

  • "You guys suck!" Hmm - can you be more constructive with your feedback?

    “You guys suck!”
    Hmm – can you be more constructive with your feedback?

    You attract leaders who inspire others, like the hospital CEO I met who has his personal email address on the hospital’s homepage. He gets every complaint and comment delivered to his inbox and responds to each. Recently, a patient submitted feedback simply saying, “You guys suck!” He shocked her by calling her himself. He listened. He told her that his purpose is to serve patients for life. She was convinced. That’s purpose in action.

  • Your people desperately want to be at the scene where you live out your purpose. They seek out opportunities to have front row seats for those moments when your organization’s strengths are most in service of others. This is why my friends at Medtronic love hosting patients whose lives have been changed by a device. Seeing someone return to health provides more juice than any motivational speech ever could. That’s purpose in action.
  • Stories circulate about how your organization is living up to its best purposes. Better yet, those stories aren’t drummed up by a marketing team trying to hype the brand. The accounts are organic and often sourced from real customers or partners. I saw this once when a retail store associate was recognized for walking a customer out to her car in the middle of a driving rainstorm. He didn’t have to grab that umbrella and brave the elements. But this organization said that they had the customer’s back and wanted to deliver the world’s best retail experience. Better yet, they lived it at the local level. That’s purpose in action.

This is why purpose matters. Margins enable the organization to continue another day. But purpose? Purpose sustains the organization. It holds a group together when the pressures of the real world push on it. It gives them something beyond self to invest in. It instills nobility to work.

Noonday Sun

Be bright.

Smart vs. Good

By: On June 25, 2014
Smart, Good, or Both?

Smart, Good, or Both?

Jim Collins starts his classic, Good to Great, by saying “Good is the enemy of Great.”  I love Collins’ books but I’d like to suggest a 2014 corollary to his comments. Today, Smart is often seen as the enemy of Good, as in Goodness. And personally I’d love to see a resurgence of Goodness.

In my work, I get to observe CEOs, founders, GMs, and key functional leaders up close and personal. As I work on strategy and organizational effectiveness, I see the inner workings of organizations. People come to trust me and tell me what really happens on the inside.

One thing I’ve noticed in the past few years is that we’ve become very enamored of smarts. Listen to how people describe someone they admire intellectually. “She’s super-smart.”  “He’s a rock star.”

When this cult of smarts gets extended to its logical conclusion, you end up with someone like Colin. Colin graduated from an Ivy League school and landed as an associate at a blue chip strategy consulting firm. He did fine in the firm but grew impatient. Since he was a little kid, he had been told that he was exceptional. Now he had a few accomplishments to back it up. So he jumped ship and began a tech startup with a few friends from the firm and from B-school. They’ve successfully raised money and are in the process of scaling the business. Colin is active in the press, promoting their new service and talking up the business, often with dazzling effect.  No doubt he’s smart.

Behind closed doors, while it’s clear that he’s sharp-minded, he’s also very sharp-tongued. He dresses down colleagues, especially the junior associates they’ve recruited to their rapidly growing startup. When he interviews potential employees, he focuses on their raw intelligence – often as indicated by their scores on standardized tests, the schools they attended, and the companies they’ve worked for. He’s dismissive of anyone without his version of pedigree.

Colin is a perfectionist with staff, using them up like Kleenex. He breeds fear and competition in the organization. He’s smart, ambitious, and ruthless. His leadership platform is based on fear and on making everyone want to please him. It works to an extent. People jump. It’s just that sometimes they jump right off the cliff into all sorts of strange behavior as they respond to Colin’s pressure. They push customers, shift blame to colleagues, use and abuse vendors.

Flip over to Jim. Jim’s no dummy. He has several advanced degrees. But what’s most striking about him isn’t his “presence” or his hyped-up oratory. While he’s articulate, what’s most notable is how people talk about Jim when he’s not there. Yes, he has his detractors. He himself will tell you that with self-deprecating humor. But the general vibe about Jim focuses less on his smarts, and more on his character.

“He’s a good man,” someone will say. “People all around our community look up to him,” another will say. “He’s obviously intelligent, but he’s not about looking like the smartest guy in the room,” another will comment. They may not always agree him, but they believe that Jim is about doing what’s best for the institution.

Behind closed doors, you’ll hear a real person when you talk with Jim. He’s not above frustration or impatience or fatigue or even withdrawal in the rough and tumble of leading an organization. But what’s striking is that Jim comes back to center quickly. He listens. He’s open to influence. He owns his part of any challenges facing his organization and his relationships with colleagues. In other words, he’s human in the best sense of the word.

Colin may get more dramatic results in the short term. But you will see a trail of wreckage behind him as a result of his approach. Jim’s results may take a bit longer or be a little more understated. But given time, he’ll be able to attract high-character, highly talented people to his cause because of who he is and the thriving environment he creates.

Both will stamp their character on their respective organizations. One will be a force of nature, almost violent as it sweeps through the marketplace. The other will be a quiet, steady breeze urging the organization forward. It will be gentle, which a mentor of mine once beautifully defined as “strength under control.”

Smarts are useful. But the character and heart of an organization will have a lot more to say about its long-term impact than its collective IQ. Character drives the organization’s deepest beliefs and persistent behaviors. It’s what teaches salespeople how to interact with customers in ways that promote rather than tarnish the brand. It’s what teaches team members how to interact with colleagues when they get sideways with each other so that they can create more together than they would on their own. It’s what teaches leaders how to productively handle adversity or mistakes or embarrassing foul-ups.

Smart isn’t really the enemy of good. It’s only seen that way because we expect too little from those blessed with a high IQ or impressive pedigrees. So next time you’re faced with a decision – especially about who to select or reward or discipline – don’t only ask about the smart move. Ask about the good move.

Noonday Sun

Be bright.

Lessons From A Redemptive Entrepreneur

By: On December 3, 2013

“Now that’s a big idea!”

It was high praise from the former senior partner of a highly respected strategy consulting firm, a guy who deals in big ideas every day. I had just shared the concept behind one of my client’s new ventures over lunch. While still in its early days, this company aims to change how $200 trillion gets managed every year. Yes, that’s trillion with a T. Can you say b-i-g i-d-e-a?

What waits off the beaten path?

What waits off the beaten path?

But I heard a piece on NPR this summer about a group of Harvard MBA’s who may have an even bigger one. They decided to swap a typical summer internship for a road trip to help entrepreneurs. Maybe it says something about us as a society that we’re surprised that four bright, young people would break from the herd charging up the well-trodden path toward the top of the world to spend time working with ordinary people in middle America who are trying to make their business dreams a reality. Let’s face it, the world those students live in solves for money, power, and status. Helping entrepreneurs figure out how to launch sustainable and socially responsible businesses isn’t the most direct path to the top.

But as impressive as those MBA students’ choice was, I’m even more intrigued by the people they chose to help: an inner city hair salon, a designer of rugged women’s work clothes, and a micro-brewery.

Take Sebastien Jackson, a young African American man in Detroit. His vision is to use a for-profit business – in this case, a hair salon – to drive cross-racial understanding in one of our toughest and most segregated cities. Now that’s a big idea. Instead of fleeing his city, Jackson is choosing to put his efforts into transforming it. In his case, he used what was close to his hands and his background to get started. He had worked at a salon prior to starting The Social Club Grooming Company. Now he wanted to use it to crack the code on racial reconciliation.

That’s what redemptive entrepreneurs do:

  • They see a bigger issue that needs to be changed. Jackson saw his city falling apart and knew that one major barrier to its rebuilding was the underlying racial tension. No one wants to move their families and businesses to a place that seems like it’s on the verge of a riot.

  • They see a solution – or at least part of a solution. Jackson believes that people don’t get along when they don’t understand each other. He decided to try to create a place where people could casually learn about each other – to rub shoulders in ways that promote understanding without being forced. I’m guessing you already know that men get to know each other better when they’re interacting casually instead of facing each other across tables eye to eye (ladies, you can send me your checks for that free relationship advice anytime). Sitting in a barber chair and shooting the breeze is a perfect environment for guys to start to get to know each other.

  • They use what they know to do what they can. Sure, Jackson could have gone out and gotten a social work degree. Maybe he could have become a politician – and maybe he will in the future. But here’s the fact: the guy knew hair. So he combined his vision for change with a solution that was natural for him.

  • They build organizations that will be viable for the long term. A noble idea without a sustainable model is unfortunately not much use. This is where the Harvard MBA’s came in – using what they know (business, economics, finance) to do what they can (helping redemptive entrepreneurs create sustainable business models).

Maybe the example of the Harvard MBA’s points out another mark of the redemptive entrepreneur. A redemptive entrepreneur sees herself as one piece of a tapestry of like-minded people who are determined to use their skills for the common good. She doesn’t have to do it all. She just has to do her part and find others who are also doing their part. Put together, they create something useful, meaningful and even beautiful.

Be bright.Noonday Sun

Getting The Math Right

By: On November 25, 2013

Hand working on equationToo many of us hate our jobs and live in fear. Even the super-successful. And it’s our own doing.

I had lunch with a super-talented guy recently. He has a resume to die for – blue chip schools, top tier firms, big titles. Amid his success he had been bounced out of companies a couple of times, as people do when they play at senior levels. Even though he has been incredibly successful, I sensed a deep worry about whether he had ruined his career, about how many opportunities he had missed. The smell of fear mixed with the aroma of the pasta.  I walked away feeling badly for him but also frustrated. This happens to so many of us. Why do we strive and achieve and yet still get chased around by the barking dogs in our heads?

Maybe it’s because a lot of us work for goofy reasons. Oh, I know that most of us have to work. We weren’t born into a fortune. We like to eat and eating costs money. But most of us aren’t driven by the need to eat. Not if you’re reading this on a screen somewhere. If you were really fleeing starvation, you wouldn’t have time for this kind of rumination.

As smart as we are, a lot of us have gotten the math all wrong about our work. We think that if we’re super successful and we don’t totally lose our souls in the process, we’ll be happy. The equation goes something like this:

Success + Being a Decent Person = Contentment

Only, that equation doesn’t really work. If it did, I’d have a parade of lunches with people who had silly, contented smiles on their faces because I regularly mix with really accomplished, decent people. Instead, too many smart, high-achieving people are secretly lost. In fact, their happiness is too often inversely proportional to their visible success.

The problem isn’t that they aren’t successful enough, whatever that means. The problem isn’t that they aren’t decent enough, though we could all amp up our decency without hurting anyone’s feelings. The problem is that the equation they’re living by is just flat wrong.

What would happen if my friend lived with this equation in mind?

Being who you’re created to be + Contentment = Success

Simple, I know. But in a culture that actually glorifies dissatisfaction as a noble trait, think of the implications of switching your emphasis:

  • Instead of letting achievement, acquisition, and the quest for clout control my happiness, I’m clear that wealth, notoriety, and influence don’t define my life. My character and my impact on those closest to me does.

  • Instead of being under the grinding pressure to “win” no matter what hand I was dealt, I do the best I can with the hand I’m dealt. I shun the cheap happiness of comparison in favor of joy.

  • Instead of always looking over my shoulder at what might happen or what might have happened if only…, I look at what’s right in front of me and enjoy it for what it is.

  • Instead of seeing today’s work as a stepping stone to something really good, I see today’s work as really good in itself because it just might draw the best out of me. It might even make me better. It might be a class I have to pass to become more of who I was created to be.

Don’t think for a minute that conventional wisdom will make sense of this. Our world trades in fear, insecurity, and scarcity. It knows that you can motivate people to buy and sell anything – even their very happiness and souls – when motivated by those barking dogs. The purveyors of dissatisfcation equate contentment with resignation. But they’re wrong. Resignation says that things aren’t that good and they’re not likely to get better. Contentment celebrates that things are actually quite good, and that – in the grand scheme of things – all is well.

So this Thanksgiving, think about your life and work.

  • Are you doing something – at least a decent chunk of your day – that flows out of who you’re created to be? If so, give thanks. If not, ask yourself: Where can you make a slight shift in thinking or action that would change the game and play to your sweet spot? Or can you shift your attitude from thinking your work isn’t good enough for you to thinking it’s a gift just waiting to be unwrapped?

  • Does your work give you the opportunity – and by “opportunity” I really mean “difficulty” – to grow your character or to make a positive impact on someone else? If so, give thanks.

  • Is there some limitation you face that forces you to be creative, to overcome, to be abnormally resilient? If so, give thanks.

  • Have you had a good laugh or better yet that moment of joy in your work where you’re engaged, switched on, or even righteously angry? If so, give thanks.  (If not, this might help.)

  • Does your work provide you with an opportunity to provide for and care for those you love even if it’s not your rock and roll fantasy? If so, give thanks.

Maybe you just realized that you had the math wrong and you’ve decided to work from a new equation. That’s worth giving thanks for too. Because it all starts with getting the math right.

Being who you’re created to be + Contentment = Success

Be bright.Noonday Sun

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