More Than Words . . .

Hiring is an act of protecting your corporate culture. Here’s how some big employers do it.

By Dennis Boone

Maybe the time is right, and you want to hire at your business. Maybe it’s past time, and now you need to hire at your business.

“What we tell (new hires) is that the equation is simple: if there are no patients in our beds or in our clinics, none of us have a job.” — Bob Page, CEO, University of Kansas Hospital

Before you post anything on those Internet job boards, ask yourself this: How much have you thought about the corporate culture that you want to bring new staffers into? How will those new hires alter your workplace dynamic? What steps are you taking to ensure that they don’t?

We’ve heard ad nauseam for five years that 10,000 Baby Boomers are reaching retirement age every day. What we don’t factor into the mix is that even more Millennials are turning 18 every day, and if they’re not already moving into the work force, they will be, providing a level of workplace churn the nation hasn’t seen since the first Boomers started punching clocks full-time in the mid-1960s.

Compounding the demographic challenge for employers is a technological one: Job-seekers are able to broadcast their availability to thousands of employers with the click of a mouse, inundating HR offices with digital “paperwork.”

Managing all of that, and reaching the workplace outcome you really want, can be a huge challenge. And the smaller your company, the more you’ll feel the effects of the wrong hire. But you don’t have to discover fire here: Some of Kansas City’s biggest companies, with enormous experience in hiring and company-culture development, can offer guidance that can benefit even the smallest of start-ups.

Consider the experience of Julie Wilson. She’s the chief people officer at Cerner Corp., the undisputed king of hiring in Kansas City for more than a decade. The global healthcare IT giant  had fewer than 500 employees when she first signed on, but today it’s the largest private employer in the region, 24,000 employees worldwide, and plans for thousands more here by 2025, when the Cerner Innovation Campus is built out in south Kansas City.

In February 2015, Cerner closed on its acquisition of Siemens Health Services, creating an enormous strategic challenge to blend more than 5,300 new employees into a culture that had been carefully crafted for nearly 30 years.

“It was the largest hiring day in Cerner’s history, that’s how I put it,” Wilson says. “But as we think about the kinds of people and talents they bring to Cerner, that corporate culture continues to evolve.”

Understanding that your culture down the road must change is key, she said, if you’re to ensure vibrancy across your growth arc. It will change whether you want to or not. “Our business has evolved, the needs of clients have changed, and the environment we work in is very dynamic,” she says. Tech companies and healthcare overall are evolving rapidly, she noted, so those at the intersection of the two are doubly challenged.

A company’s culture, experts say, is important because it’s the pathway to better employee engagement—a key driver of organizational success.

In 2013, the marketing research and advisory firm Demand Metrics studied the impact of employee engagement levels by sorting companies into two groups: Those with more than half of their work force saying they felt engaged on their jobs, and those with under 50 percent of the staff feeling that way. Companies in the highly engaged group demonstrated better performance—by at least 15 percent, in each case—in revenue growth, customer retention and profit margin, among other factors. “The intellectual argument in favor of improving employee engagement is irrefutable,” the report concluded.

The biggest current culture-acclimation project soon to take place in this region—regulators willing, of course—will be Great Plains Energy’s absorption of Topeka-based Westar Energy. It is not a Big Fish/Small Fish task: Great Plains, at 3,000 employees, is not much larger than Westar, with its 2,400—a dynamic that workplace professionals say can add to the potential for friction, if not outright cultural clash.

Citing regulatory concerns, Great Plains asked to defer commenting on specifics of how it will handle that on-boarding task. But at a recent Central Exchange event, CEO Terry Bassham acknowledged the scope of the challenge in broad terms, pointing out that the acquisition represented one of the nation’s biggest current mergers.

“We’re good with merging the technology and getting the work done,” he said. “But we’ve got to bring a bunch of people together who aren’t all hanging around the coffee shop together, and it’s going to be a lot of hard work. But that’s also the most exciting part.”

In meeting with Westar employees for the first time, he said, he sees not just an opportunity to encounter new people, but to understand effects of the merger from their perspectives. Fortunately, the company has been down a similar path.

“When we merged with Aquila, the company had some trouble, and there were issues there to deal with,” Bassham said. “But Westar is as strong as we are. We’ve got two strong companies with great cash flow, so we don’t have trouble within the business to overcome.”

Other mass-hiring organizations in recent years hail from the provider side of healthcare: The University of Kansas Hospital has been hiring in chunks of hundreds in recent years, a frenzy complicated by shortages of some healthcare professionals and skill sets nationwide.

For a hospital that has grown from 2,200 employees in 1998, when it became a public health authority, to nearly 7,000 today, organizational success is grounded in quality service and successful health outcomes, said Bob Page, CEO. Getting there, though, didn’t come from simply tripling the print order for employee-orientation booklets.

Page and his chief operating officer, Tammy Peterman, attend every large gathering for hospital orientations, deliver key metrics about the organization, and then tag-team a critical message. Page hammers home the point that no one has a job without patients first, that employees can’t afford to have bad days in front of patients, and that patient service is paramount. Peterman stresses the vital need for effective teamwork, the importance of safety, and the role played by taking pride in working for the hospital, yet never being completely satisfied. “We can always do better,” is her message to them.

A few years ago, Saint Luke’s Health System, another big-time hiring entity, took a look at how its on-boarding was interfacing with the culture, and decided to refine its approach, says Dawn Murphy, director of human resources.

“We made a change so that all across our system, you’d go through a system orientation on the first day, and the focus is very much on culture,” she said. “We talk about Saint Luke’s mission, vision and values, about key policies, and walk them through the culture and its rich heritage.” By doing so, she said, a system with a dozen operating sites is able to instill a sense of cohesion from the onset—orientation at the hiring entity follows from that.

“That way, they understand that it’s not about infection control or biohazards or those rudimentary things,” Murphy said. “It’s about our culture, tradition and values.” Supplementing that has been a tweak of the on-boading process by revisiting employees in 90-day intervals for their first year, to ensure success.

At Intouch Solutions, the hiring has been rapid, though at a smaller scale for a company that has grown from fewer than 80 employees five years ago to nearly 600 today, and is on the threshold of becoming a large company. For a company that provides digital marketing services to companies in the pharmaceutical sector, promoting a culture starts with a client-first approach, said Kristi Veitch, senior vice president for human resources.

“That can mean external clients, doing business as needed,” she said, “but from an HR standpoint, every single Intoucher is a client. We ask them to keep that first and foremost.” Managers are trained in interviewing skills, and given tools to assess strengths of potential hires, but there’s still and element of what Veitch calls “the Spidey sense” involved—you can’t distill hiring down to a series of boxes to check off during the interview. While it’s vital that most employees have the digital and tech skills needed in that sector, there’s more to what the company is looking for.

“There are certain tangibles you can put in place, but they don’t apply to all positions,” she said. “Even in a digital environment, you have to go back to the people. We tell everybody ‘the culture begins and ends with you.’ We’re all responsible for making sure the culture grows the way we want it to. We pride ourselves in being a fun, friendly work hard/play hard culture, but if I say I want to be friendly but walk by people with my head down, or don’t talk to people, what kind of tone am I setting? Everybody owns that.”

Spring Venture Group has experienced a rapid hiring burst in recent years, but starting from a smaller base presented particular challenges, said CEO Chris Giuliani. “In our early years, the challenge was sourcing great candidates in high volumes through traditional channels,” he said. “We did not have any name recognition in Kansas City nor many referrals due to a smaller employee base.”

Today, with more than 500 employees, “we receive a great many referrals from our internal employees, the best source for bringing on great talent. Our people sell the company to others while also preserving our culture—they know a cultural fit when they see it.”

Getting the right fit with each hire means consistency is paramount. “Codifying our company values and mission is extremely important,” Giuliani said. “Each team member that plays a part in the interview process must speak from the same consistent voice so that candidates hear the same message regardless of whom they speak with.”

And as the growth continues, he said, “we stress to each member of the company the importance of the role they play, as well as the responsibility they have in being stewards of our culture.” With a management team that, in effect, grew up with the company from its start-up phase, “they have a mission to cultivate their team’s culture around the same values that have led to our success,” he said. “It is also important to keep company communication strong throughout the organization during growth to make sure each team member has a voice.”

Therein lies one of the biggest challenges facing companies growing from their earliest stages to high-functioning organizations that might have multiple locations, or even multiple states served, said Ann Hackett, a professor of organizational development at UMKC.

“If you think about culture, often people define key elements as open communication, innovative, customer focused—and they are all elements,” Hackett said. “But if you’re a small startup that values its open-door policy, that’s an element that becomes much more difficult to maintain as you grow quickly.”

At that point, it’s incumbent on the leadership to find new methods of maintaining key practices. “Maybe you’re still going to have a first-Fridays session with the staff,” she says, “but now, it’s via Skype instead of face-to face.”

The key, she said, was to stop and do the hard work of thinking about how growth will affect a culture.

“When you look at smaller companies and startups, often, they have a great strategy and great vision, but they don’t necessarily think intelligently about their culture,” she said. “As they grow, demographics may come into play, you add Millennials, you have to expand or turn to new technology—with any of those, an evolving culture becomes important. And typically, that means preserving the good things and avoiding some of the unintentional bad things that happen with growth.”

Bottom line, she said: “It’s important to recognize that, as you grow and these dynamics change, your culture is going to change. You’re not going to be the small startup where you’re standing over someone’s cube talking to them—now you’re in five states, and you have to figure out how manage that.”

Page said a bedrock value at his hospital through the years has been an executive-team trait: “We do not expect any employee to do anything we haven’t done,” he said. “Every employee gets eight hours of customer-service training before they start, but every executive did 16 hours of that training, and we have trained more than 20,000 people in customer service. It’s led out of the executive office first.”

No matter how big you get, said Cerner’s Wilson, defense of a hard-earned company culture requires that kind of commitment from the top.

“The challenge,” she said, “and something we’re absolutely committed to doing, is not becoming big and bureaucratic and lacking agility and losing our nimbleness, seeing our innovative spirit and entrepreneurial approach diminished. That’s not Cerner.” 

CORRECTION: The print version of this story incorrectly spelled Chris Giuliani’s name.