Healing the System

As part of a companywide senior council, Jon Cecil played a key role in putting the Lee Memorial Hospital System back on track.

Saturday, October 16, 2004
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In an era when the average person may have as many as a dozen different employers in his or her lifetime, it may be somewhat surprising to learn that Jon C. Cecil has been employed at Lee Memorial Health System, based in Cape Coral, Fla., for more than three decades.

His efforts there, especially an extraordinary turnaround effort that took place in the last four years, has earned him a place on Human Resource Executive's HR Honor Roll this year.

Cecil, who turns 58 this month, began with the company in 1972, right out of college, in the food-services department as a management trainee.

Says Cecil: "The CEO at the time said to me: 'If you can manage in the food department, you can manage anywhere in this company.' " It proved to be an insightful comment. Over time, Cecil's responsibilities grew until he was a vice president in charge of several divisions, including what was then called "Personnel."

In 1999, Cecil was given a new role by incoming CEO Jim Nathan.

"Jim took a look at the organizational chart and saw that there were about a dozen senior positions that were directly reporting to him," Cecil recalls. "He felt that was too many, so he got rid of the COO position and created a 'senior leadership council' made up of five chief officers. He asked me to be chief human resources officer."

The position allowed Cecil to shake free of some administrative functions he had overseen, and made him responsible for the human resource function for more than 6,000 employees, the second largest employer in Southwest Florida. (The system oversees three acute-care hospitals, Children's Hospital of Southwest Florida, a rehabilitation hospital, a skilled nursing facility and many physician practices.)

"The only thing I had to focus on was human resources," he says, explaining why he took the job.

Financial Losses

Before Cecil, his HR team and the larger SLC lay a huge challenge. The intense competition in the health-care sector during the mid- and late-1990s had dealt a huge blow to Lee Memorial. It had suffered a one-year loss of about $12 million, and previous management responded with layoffs and budget cuts.

"Morale was simply gone," Cecil says. "Almost anything you did positively was seen as a plus," he says.

The council saw one of its first jobs was to change the culture of the hospital and then get the message out about the change. "One of our catch phrases at that time was 'Culture ate strategy for lunch,' " he says.

In concrete terms, that meant focusing more attention on employee satisfaction and strengthening leadership, and battling the mind-set that saw layoffs as the only way out of the financial crisis. "We told managers again and again: 'We are not going to cut our way to prosperity,' " he says.

Finding and eliminating waste, wherever it lurked, became an obsession at Lee Memorial. Within his own department, Cecil recognized that too many man-hours were being wasted handling simple transactional functions. He responded by setting up a call center "to take those transactional activities off our plates and let the highly talented individuals we had on our team focus on what they really do best."

Cecil dispatched his HR team members to each of the company's divisions, with the goal of partnering with each service line leader. The result, he says, was not only a turnaround in terms of productivity and service to patients, but also a turnaround in the attitude toward his department. The SLC found that supervisors were not acting like they were part of the management team for good reason -- they weren't being compensated like the management team. The SLC put supervisors on the same incentive basis as managers and directors.

Seven Drivers

The SLC found Lee was conducting employee-satisfaction surveys, but not using the results. The SLC instituted more frequent surveys, mailed to workers' homes, with questions that focused on seven "drivers" deemed vital to success, including "My supervisor listens to me," "My supervisor respects me" and "My supervisor sets realistic goals."

The SLC discovered that, as budgets were slashed, the hospital had "simply stopped providing the tools employees needed to get their jobs done," Cecil says. "Everyday items like wheelchairs and equipment. The staff was spending more time running around trying to acquire this stuff, and less time attending to patients." As the inefficiencies were eliminated and revenues improved, the council made sure they were reinvested in the equipment and materials employees needed. "There was a tremendous response in morale and satisfaction," Cecil says.

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The SLC knew that communicating the direction the system's leadership was taking was crucial to its success. For that project, the SLC borrowed the popular "discovery chart" concept, in which a metaphorical visual representation of the past, present and future of the company is created. In sessions all over the system, managers and supervisors presented the chart to employees, and reportedly ignited the turnaround throughout the organization.

That sort of innovative approach is typical of Cecil, says Steven R. Marmurek, senior director of VHA Southeast, a division of VHA Inc., a private, for-profit cooperative that serves not-for-profit health-care organizations nationwide. "Jon is a great communicator. He lets the employees know the 'why' behind decisions and policies."

The result has been a significant increase in employee satisfaction, a marked drop in employee turnover rates (from more than 14 percent in 2001 to slightly over 5 percent last year) and a drop in one of the health-care industry's most crucial statistics: the job-vacancy rate (it was 3.5 percent last summer, compared to typical industry figures of 15 percent to 20 percent).

"At Lee Memorial, Jon has done an exceptional job in creating a healthy culture," says Thomas G. Olivo, president of Success Profiles Inc., and lead faculty member and consultant to a national health-care collaborative called Tomorrow's Work Force. In fact, the turnaround has been so successful that Lee Memorial has been able to create a new line of business -- advising other enterprises how to emulate its success at what it calls its "People Institute."

"Other hospitals throughout our alliance of 2,200-plus health-care organizations travel to [Lee Memorial] to see, firsthand, what a benchmark human resource structure looks like ... , " says Lillee Gelinas, vice president and chief nursing officer at VHA Inc. "There is no greater accolade than acknowledgement of one's peers." Despite such praise, Cecil is quick to share it with his HR team and the SLC as a whole. "I can't take credit for all this," he says. "It was a team effort. We all had parts to play."

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