How to get employees to think like CEOs (and love their jobs)

To inspire constant improvement, a Pittsburgh children’s hospital urged its employees to act like they ‘own the zone.’ Then it made sure to act on their ideas.

UPMC comms lessons

Editor’s note: This story is taken from Ragan Communications’ distance-learning portal Ragan Training. The site contains hundreds of hours of case studies, video presentations and interactive courses.

The president of UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh likes to tell his employees how he dropped by a dry cleaner one day two minutes after closing.

A teenage employee saw this late-arriving customer through the window—and ran the other way, relates Josh Madore, internal communications manager the renowned health care facility, which is part of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.

But an older gentleman emerged from the back. “Sorry about that,” he said. “I’m the owner. Come on in.”

Owners behave differently, Madore says in his Ragan Training video, “Get employees to love their jobs: Make them the CEOs.” They take greater responsibility. They care more deeply about the success of the organization.

Which brings up the question: “If you were the CEO, how would you do your job differently?” Madore asks.

Act like the top dog.

That’s the idea behind a successful internal campaign that has boosted engagement and surfaced new ideas from the hospital’s 5,000-strong workforce. No matter what job people hold, each one is urged to act like a CEO.

Even a successful organization looks for ways to grow. Though employee engagement and retention were above average, there was room for improvement, Madore says.

Some employees felt that their ideas and feedback were not important, he adds. There was a misperception that only those in the executive suites had a pulse on what employees wanted and needed.

Hence the “I’m the CEO program,” which asks associates to take ownership as if they were the top boss.

Flip the pyramid.

Most organizations function as a pyramid with the CEO on the top, then leaders beneath, followed by front-line staff, and finally customers. By inverting that pyramid, UPMC Children’s put the emphasis on front-line staff who can see what needs to be done and have the power to make change.

“Most of the good ideas come from people close to the action,” says Children’s president Christopher A. Gessner in a video played by Madore during his presentation.

That’s what happened when an employee in environmental services had a bright idea: He came to the leadership to ask, “Wouldn’t it be cool if the people washing the windows were wearing superhero outfits?” One employee’s idea cheered sick kids and drew news media coverage as well.

“He was not the CEO,” Madore adds. “But he acted like it in that idea.”

The campaign used a variety of vehicles to spread the word. Among them:

  • Employees received “I’m the CEO” badge reels to which they could attach their IDs.
  • The communication team created pocket cards printed with the hospital’s 12 guiding principles. These include points such as “We see the world through a child’s eyes,” and, “We believe zero harm is possible.”
  • The hospital printed up “I’m the CEO” thank-you cards for managers, which also included the list of the 12 principles. A manager can jot a quick note, marking which of the principles the staffer accomplished.
  • Communications produces monthly videos covering various ownership topics. These educate the workforce about areas of the hospital such as nursing, facilities or environmental services.
  • Infographics were posted in common areas and kiosks. Digital messages, screensavers, newsletters and a “CEO of the month” award program amplified the message, and there is a suggestion box on the intranet.
  • The hospital integrates the campaign with orientation for new employees.

“It’s easier to mold their thinking and to shape the way they see the organization,” Madore says, “and to get them right from the ground level.”

Four key behaviors.

In the next phase, UPMC has identified four key behaviors:

  • “Escort, don’t direct.” Guide patients to their destination in the sprawling complex. If patients have a half-mile walk from point A to point B, they’re likely to get lost. If employees have the time, they are urged to walk patients to where they are going.
  • “The 10-five rule.” When one is 10 feet from somebody walking down the hallway, make eye contact. At five feet, greet the person, whether it’s a “hello” or a friendly wave.
  • “Own your zone.” If employees see a piece of garbage, they are asked to pick it up. If a door is open that should be closed, close it. If a sign is crooked, fix it or call facilities.
  • “Start with a win.” Every meeting starts by acknowledging a win. This could be a small personal victory or something bigger, such as a promotion.

Measurement showed the success of the program. Before the launch of the campaign, a survey in 2016 drew 67 percent participation, with 77 percent holding favorable views of their workplace.

In 2018, favorability rose by 3 percentage points to 80 percent, with a participation rate of 85 percent.

“To see the movement has been very encouraging,” Madore says.

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