5 reasons St. Jude is a ‘Best Company to Work For’

Every organization has a unique mission. St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital uses its mission to help land a spot on Fortune’s list of 100 Best Companies to Work For.

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When comedian and actor Danny Thomas was inspired to found St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, he decided the hospital would focus on children with cancer.

At the time, cancer was considered a death sentence, says Kimberly Ovitt, senior vice president of communications at the Memphis hospital.

St. Jude and its cutting-edge medicine and research helped change that. Nowadays the survival rate at St. Jude for the most common form of childhood leukemia is 94 percent.

Boosting understanding of an organization’s mission can help make it a great place to work, Ovitt says in a talk about how St. Jude joined giants such as Google on Fortune’s list of 100 Best Companies to Work For.

“For each organization, there is something defining, something that is better and different that is really at the heart of why they become a great place to work,” Ovitt says.

Easy for you to say, some might reply. A hospital devoted to saving children’s lives has a mission anyone could explain.

But scientific advances can be difficult to comprehend, and St. Jude, too, must actively educate its employees. The effort is worth it, resulting in higher employee satisfaction and advocacy.

Here are some tips from St. Jude:

1. Encourage leaders and specialists to talk to your stakeholders—not to each other.

It’s not enough for staff to explain that they work in a hospital. St. Jude wants its employees to be able to say, “Let me tell you about all the cool research that’s going on.”

In a video for staff who solicit donations, Dr. James Downing, scientific director and executive vice president, talked about the hospital’s genome project in terms anyone can understand. When St. Jude first started, he said, only one cancer genome had been sequenced. St. Jude alone has sequenced 400 pediatric cancers, more than all other hospitals and institutions combined, including the federal government.

Leaders like Downing excel at explaining because they often talk to outsiders who tour the hospital, Ovitt says. They get practice. Do your leaders?

Give the bigwigs—and specialists—opportunities to speak about what’s going on so they become better at it.

2. Let staffers create joint projects across departments.

St. Jude pulled together 25 people from across the organization to draw up a project, allowing them to learn about self-governance and managing resources. Project management of this sort also acts as a form of hands-on leadership training. Best of all, those who participate end up with a better understand what it takes to direct and manage a project.

One year they came up with the idea of a “shadowing project,” in which staffers could follow anyone from a doctor to a safety officer. Another year they made a series of short videos on stumbling blocks in corporate etiquette and communications.

One video demonstrated how jargon and clichés deter understanding. (The staffers lampooned “think outside the box,” “low-hanging fruit,” “piggyback those deliverables” and other offenses.)

3. Explain yourself to the masses, not just specialists.

Every morning St. Jude sends out an email blast on what’s going on that day. Events tend to be seminars on specialized aspects of medicine that got researchers’ pulses racing. Nonspecialists, however, were less thrilled by the topics.

So the hospital put together a series of inspirational lectures by speakers such as Chris Gardner, a former medical device salesman whose experience as a homeless father inspired the movie “The Pursuit of Happyness.” Others included wounded Army veteran and motivational speaker JR Martinez, and a woman who had led an expedition on Mount Everest.

Such lectures “bring together employees in a more common bond,” Ovitt says.

4. Align staffers not just with the mission, but with other departments, too.

Many organizations work hard to get departments to align their work with the strategic plan. But there’s less understanding across departments.

St. Jude wrote copy and shot photos to explain the “Journey Through a Transplant,” breaking it into 15 steps for a donor publication.

The presentation in an employee publication drew many positive comments. It also used infographics, such as one on “Childhood Cancer Survivorship.”

5. Create a central meeting place.

The physical layout of your facilities can contribute to a sense of unity. St. Jude (which also happened to be the first integrated hospital in the South) was designed with a single dining rooms for all, rather than separate facilities for doctors, nurses, staff, and families. The cafeteria is located where several major hallways converge.

“Having a gathering place which is the place to go to hang out and talk to people is extraordinarily powerful,” Ovitt says.

People often walk up to a colleague and say, “Oh, I’m glad I caught you. Let me ask you this question,” Ovitt notes.



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