Managing on the Run

  1. Managing on the Run
    Ignite passion in your employees through team problem solving.
    By James M. Collins, PT


    One day, a teacher told his class that a professor from a nearby university would be joining them to discuss writing strategies. The students stared with glazed eyes while doodling and daydreaming about after-school activities.

    Suddenly, the classroom door opened, and a man dressed in shorts and hiking boots entered. He pulled up a chair and asked if anyone wanted to help him learn more about nature. The class roared with excitement and the entire group headed outside to a nearby cluster of trees.

    As they walked, the students were eager to provide insight about their surroundings, and the professor was quickly overwhelmed with information. He passed out pieces of paper and asked the students to write down what they were telling him so he could retain the lessons. Students wrote frantically in an effort to share their knowledge. The teacher was amazed. The professor smiled and said, "The key to unlocking people's potential is to discover their passion."

    Many years had passed and one of those students eventually became a facility manager. He remembered that story as he was tightening his sneakers for a morning run and the professor's words still rang true.

    When he stepped outside, the manager's thoughts turned toward his present situation. Employee morale had been waning for months, and it was beginning to negatively affect the quality of their work.

    Various solutions to the problem drifted through his mind as jogged out of the neighborhood and onto country roads. A sports franchise can simply cut unproductive members of the team and acquire new, motivated players. He decided that a firm hand and a quick trigger finger could be the qualities of effective leadership. Employees who don't produce can easily be replaced. When new employees lose motivation, then they'll also be replaced. He bowed his head to push harder and saw a disposable razor wrapper blowing in the wind. "Yes," he thought, "the disposable razor approach. When one loses its edge, you buy a new one."

    He ran faster, and his thoughts became clearer. In the sports world, though, it's the manager, not the team, who's often replaced first. The team's productivity is seen as a direct reflection of leadership and motivation from management. Could it be that leadership, not employees, was to blame for the decline in morale and motivation?

    The manager reached the turnaround point of his run and now had the wind at his back. He had met therapists who often told stories of an inspiring event or person who got them interested in therapy. A common theme was the therapist's propensity for problem solving and the desire to be challenged. In school, professors and classmates made problem solving fun, and as a graduate it became rewarding to help patients recover. At what point had the passion for problem solving turned into repetitive, routine solutions?

    Then it clicked. It was management's responsibility to keep challenges fun and rewarding. His therapists should enjoy, not dread, work. Effective leaders have the ability to create an environment in which people can pursue their passion while contributing to the goals of the organization. Employees need to feel that they're contributing to their personal achievement and the company's growth. Both of those goals can be accomplished by emphasizing problem solving as an approach to therapy. How, though, could he accomplish such a feat with a combination of different personalities?

    The manager smiled as he reflected back on the professor's comments, then chuckled as he recalled his own thoughts of imagining his disposable razor approach. He bowed his head to climb the final peak, having solved his own dilemma.

    Traditional leadership mentality is a top-down approach. Employees providing the service are made to fit into a mold designed by executives in a boardroom many miles away. These executives don't know individual strengths or professional goals of employees, and the employees are often unaware of the facility goals established by the executives. Morale, motivation and productivity are all compromised as the excitement and rewards of active problem solving are overwhelmed by the disconnection between leadership and service providers.

    The manager was reminded that by Kenneth Blanchard and Spencer Johnson had estimated that companies spend 50-70 percent of their money on salaries and less than 1 percent of their budget on staff training and education. Employees are perceptive, and this discrepancy further disconnects management and employees. Reconnecting leadership and employees was the key. By learning about his employees and including them in problem solving, the manager could restore their passion for work.

    A first step should be to improve the cohesiveness among employees by including them in problem solving. Teamwork, he thought, is perhaps the most overused phrase among leaders. It's an overused phrase, yet an underutilized concept. Teamwork isn't established at meetings or strengthened through lectures. Traditional team building activities, such as celebration lunches, after-work parties and positive reinforcement, provide a solid beginning.

    Unfortunately, many organizations stop there and fail to realize that teamwork is the result of trust and a desire to achieve meaningful, work-related goals. Empowering employees to help solve problems within the facility is essential to develop teamwork. Employees should help identify problems, then contribute solutions. The phrase, "That won't work," should be replaced with the question, "How can we make it work?"

    The manager decided to establish a clear business plan that identifies short- and long- term attainable goals for the facility. And he decided to share the business plan with each employee. Rather then fitting his employees into a mold, the employees would help design a plan built around their strengths. He would encourage comments and questions in an effort to develop a sense of ownership among his staff.

    Amendments and adjustments to the plan based on staff suggestions would demonstrate his respect for their problem solving skills and his commitment to teamwork. The ability of the staff to contribute to the business plan would insure a mutual understanding of the facility goals between staff and leadership. In this context, the business plan would serve as a guide for the simultaneous growth of the clinic and employees.

    The manager rounded the final corner and instinctively sped up. He decided to shift his attention to his run and was able to finish strong, knowing that both his body and facility were going to be healthier.

    James M. Collins, PT, is clinical coordinator of outpatient rehabilitation services at DePaul Medical Center in Norfolk, VA.
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Managing on the Run