Chris Van Gorder, president and CEO of Scripps Health in San Diego, still recalls with startling clarity the treatment he received more than 30 years ago at the hands of a powerful corporate leader.
Van Gorder was then a blue-collar hospital security guard just starting out. He was working the night shift in the basement of the hospital when suddenly he saw the CEO coming toward him.
He had no idea why the boss was walking the halls, but it didn’t matter. Van Gorder had never met the CEO before. He thought this was his chance to make a connection. He straightened his uniform and prepared to shake the man’s hand — and at least say hello.
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He never got the chance. “The CEO walked right by me like I didn’t exist,” Van Gorder recalls. “He turned the corner and was gone, without making eye contact or even acknowledging my presence in that empty hallway.”
The episode was so demoralizing Van Gorder vowed if he ever took on a C-suite role, he would do the opposite of it. He would not only engage with employees who worked for his firm — he would listen to their concerns, bond with them as much as possible and keep their needs in mind when making corporate decisions both big and small.
He seems to have made good on that pledge. For the past 15 years Van Gorder has been running the Scripps health system, which has over 14,000 employees. The CEO has been lauded for saving his company from bankruptcy and putting it in a dominant market position. Scripps hospitals have regularly appeared in the U.S. News & World Report ranking of America’s best hospitals, and the health care provider has made Fortune’s “100 Best Companies to Work For” list for seven consecutive years. Scripps Health hasn’t laid anyone off since Van Gorder joined the company in 2000.
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“As a leader, I’m not a distant CEO but an ordinary guy who ‘gets it,’” he says in a new book, The Front-Line Leader: Building a High-Performance Organization from the Ground Up, adding, “Psychological distance is extremely dangerous for leaders.”
Being the kind of hands-on leader he describes may seem a tall order in a 24/7 global economy. It’s certainly not for everyone and it’s not for every industry. It’s also risky: If you’re spending time talking to those in the lower ranks, then you’ve lost time to interact with your management team or with the others helping you run the business. But Van Gorder, a former police officer, insists that the payoffs can be huge.
“Organizations could become far more successful if executives understood authentically leading from the ground up,” he notes. “Paying attention to workers isn’t only helpful — it’s essential. Engaging emotionally, intellectually and financially produces incredible loyalty, which in turn improves the metrics important to any business: retention, employee satisfaction, productivity, quality.” He adds that the hardest thing about what he's advocating is consistency and the time required.
More than a few blunt and blustery leaders in American business have of course carved out entire reputations by treating underlings horribly (The Devil Wears Prada, anyone?). Bad bosses can also cross the line into bullying, with damaging consequences.
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But the best leaders know how to make a connection with those who work for their firms through regular feedback sessions, meetings or conferences. Van Gorder started a Scripps Leadership Academy, among other initiatives. He meets with the group monthly.
Roselinde Torres, a leadership expert at The Boston Consulting Group, also says a key characteristic of today’s best leaders is the capacity to empathize. She calls the ability to connect through a “softer” influence — rather than a top-down hierarchy — the best way to exert influence.
That means going outside the C-suite comfort zone. It’s about relating to those who are very different in order to gain their trust to achieve shared goals, Torres noted in a recent TED talk. Those differences can be functional, cultural or socioeconomic.
Van Gorder explains in his book that connecting with employees isn’t about trying to be popular. It’s not about paying lip service to good leadership — and it’s definitely not about a one-and-done interaction. It’s about genuinely and regularly connecting and communicating with workers to get better performance, keep their satisfaction rates high and keep them around — all of which makes for a financially healthier organization.
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