Invisible Weapon

Connie Clerici's cost-effective secret to retaining employees and building a dynamic company culture

Written by Jennifer Myers

Connie Clerici valued the work she did in a nursing home as a teenager, but her employer certainly didn’t. She wasn’t told that outright, but the message was clear. During lunch or coffee breaks, registered nurses sat together at the best tables, where the sun streamed in through the windows, while nursing assistants and cleaning staff huddled in the dark back corners. The groups didn’t mingle; the RNs were deemed superior and the doctors were that much higher. “It was one of the most demoralizing experiences of my life,” says Clerici. “I swore I would never in my career as a nurse—never mind as an entrepreneur—treat anybody like that.”

Clerici has stayed true to her word. Since launching her home health-care company Closing the Gap Healthcare Group in 1980, Clerici has worked hard to nurture a corporate culture based on the values she holds dear: respect, integrity, trust, teamwork and quality care. To Clerici, that means treating everyone equally, regardless of title or education; empowering employees; doing what’s morally right, even if it’s not the best business decision; and always leading by example. “At a very basic level, it’s all about valuing people,” says Clerici. “All of us have a role in the organization, and when you put the whole thing together, we all become successful.”

Such principles, believes Clerici, have played a key role in growing Mississauga, Ont.-based Closing the Gap, which provides health services such as nursing, physiotherapy, speech-language pathology dietary councelling in clients’ homes, to six offices, 500 employees and annual revenue of $25 million.

Whether it is actively managed or not, every company has a corporate culture—the collective consciousness that’s infused in your organization and employees, including values, beliefs, processes and encouraged behaviours. If that sounds like a touchy-feely issue you can put on the back burner while you deal with more concrete concerns, think again. Your company’s culture plays an important role in attracting and keeping top talent, boosting morale, active learning and higher productivity and performance. According to a 2006 study of Fortune 500 firms by Palo Alto, Calif.-based consultancy Crawford Leadership Corp. and HR.com, companies with strong leadership and adaptive corporate cultures—those that engage staff and help them respond quickly to changing markets and environments—financially outperform those that do not. The good news is, there are management practices that can help you shape and maintain the culture you want in your business.

Money wasn’t Clerici’s motivation. From the get-go, she was inspired by a simple premise: to treat people the way she wanted to be treated. Over the years, that mantra has evolved and merged with concepts to form the four core values that Cleric says her company embodies: quality care, ethical behaviour, teamwork and innovation. “This is at the heart of who we really are,” says Clerici.

But there’s a big difference between saying and being. So, Closing the Gap gives employees the policies and tools they need to live those values. For starters, its professional health-care workers—including nurses, physical and occupational therapists, speech pathologists and dieticians—have autonomy to set their own schedules, from when to visit patients to how long to stay. “We don’t micromanage,” says Clerici. “We trust our workforce to decide what’s best for clients.” Over the years, a few employees have broken that trust, admits Clerici, but by and large, staff do not abuse their power. For that reason, Clerici refuses to set policies “aimed at the lowest denominator.” Instead, she handles incidents as they come up.

With the majority of Closing the Gap’s employees working remotely, many in rural areas, the firm built a comprehensive employee-only section on its website to provide staff with the clinical tools, education materials and best-practice guidelines to enable staff to make the most appropriate decisions inline with best clinical practices. Such tools provide the benchmarks and current standards of quality care that make Closing the Gap unique in its industry, says Clerici, and means employees are never left to guess when it comes to making the best decisions regarding patient care during home visits.

While many competitors take a haphazard approach to training, Clerici deliberately promotes a learning culture that compels staff to be the best they can be. To help employees stay current in their fields, the firm facilitates ongoing development, from attending conferences and workshops, to regularly bringing professionals in-house to review practices and teach new theories. And there are performance-measurement processes in place to ensure that staff stay appropriately qualified and service-oriented. Investing in resources and staff development beefs up employees’ skill sets. It also signals a commitment to giving them the tools they need to deliver top-notch care, as well as promoting an environment in which employees want to excel.

That translates into a workforce that routinely delivers outstanding patient care, says Clerici, citing a case where a physical therapist faced a high-risk situation in a post-operative client, and not only accompanied the patient to the local emergency department but stayed with him until he was seen by a doctor.

Other points of differentiation: Closing the Gap has developed its own comprehensive ethics framework, including ethics training for all staff. And its privacy officer ensures the firm adheres to privacy legislation, and always reports breaches. “While it may be uncomfortable to report a weakness, it’s the right thing to do,” says Clerici. “When we say we’re a company of integrity, we mean that.”

One of Closing the Gap’s biggest challenges is keeping its mobile employees connected to both their co-workers and the company. To help them stay plugged in to the firm’s goals and strategies, the company produces a quarterly newsletter and an annual report—a rarity for a private company. Its website includes both a “What’s New” page strictly for employees, plus a “Talk to the CEO” component, which encourages staff to e-mail Clerici with questions or concerns. (She receives about 50 per month.) She also makes a point of occasionally accompanying staff on home visits to ensure she stays in touch with the needs and challenges of front-line workers.

At the local level, Clerci developed a system for employees to stay in touch with the office via daily phone calls and weekly meetings with their immediate supervisor; there are also monthly meetings, teleconferences, training sessions and social gatherings. Such get-togethers promote a team environment in which staff feel comfortable calling on each other for advice or support, be it to collaborate with joint patient visits or meeting in the field for lunch to compare notes. That’s important because with so many of her employees on the road, says Clerici, “It’s not like they can walk down the hall and ask for help.”

Despite operating in an industry famous for chewing up and spitting out burned-out workers, Closing the Gap is in the enviable position whereby employees instinctively perform above job expectations. Take, for example, the occupational therapist who voluntarily moved a roomful of heavy furniture, including dismantling a bed that was too high, to accommodate an elderly patient who had just returned home from hip-replacement surgery.

The proof of its employee engagement is in the numbers: Closing the Gap boasts an employee turnover rate of just 2%, significantly lower than the industry average of about 10%, says Clerici.

Surprisingly, Clerici says another big challenge is staying true to her values. “There are so many outside forces coming in,” she says, “whether it’s regulatory bodies, customers, external legal counsel or accountants—they’re all giving you advice that could pull you away from your value system.” Clerici says she relies on her management team to help her consistently stay true to her values. But Kathy Underwood, Closing the Gap’s COO, says in fact it’s Clerici herself who is the company’s role model—and that’s a good thing, because it’s crucial for the CEO to walk the talk. “She sets the bar high,” says Unerwood. “And while I’ve worked at a number of health organizations before, this is the first one where I can say everyone is really committed to trying to live out values.” Underwood says Clerici encourages her staff to ask questions, voice their opinions and continuously ask if the decisions the company makes are in line with “what we say we do.”

For Clerici, the litmus test is always. “Can I go home and sleep at night? It’s not like we pull our mission, vision and values off the shelf once a year,” she says. “We’re not that kind of company. We embrace it every day.”

Originally appeared on PROFITguide.com