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Max St John

Living your values through freedom and democracy at scale

Last week, I was lucky enough to attend the WorldBlu live conference in Denver – to talk about how we run our business, and to learn about how other companies do democracy and freedom in the workplace. I’m back with a head full of ideas and (more) plans to change the world that I’d like to share.

These first thoughts are about how democracy and purpose-driven working functions at scale, from a talk by Kent Thirry, CEO of DaVita – a large private healthcare company based in Denver but with staff and offices all over the world.

Kent Thirry, CEO of DaVita

DaVita is really interesting because it is a Fortune 500 company with around $11billion in turnover and 53,000 employees, that practices democracy and freedom at work, and brings its values into everything that it does.

Starting from scratch

The story of why they chose to do things this way is really interesting – in 1999 they had gone down to 9,000 employees and in the words of Kent Thirry, the current CEO, the company was at the time ‘technically bankrupt’.

DaVita was being sued by shareholders and half of the execs had quit or been fired – they had no COO, CFO, CIO or VP of HR. They had a high turnover and the workforce was angry and scared. In short, the company had become “not the happiest of places” and its future was looking equally gloomy.

Fast forward 14 years and everything is heading in the right direction, DaVita’s financial performance is good and the life-saving services it delivers have higher than industry average for outcomes like mortality.

So, how did the company turn itself around?

Putting the meaning back into work

When things were looking their most bleak, CEO Kent Thirry decided that what they had to do was create a meaningful place to work – a pretty visionary reaction to the situation the company was in.

About a third of his staff thought he’d lost it, a third liked the idea but didn’t think it was possible, and the rest said that it was what they had always wanted. Either way, Kent went about making it happen – by having 700 employees create the mission and values, then aligning the business with these. The belief was that they had to create something larger than themselves in order to be successful.

These values now permeate much of what DaVita does. For instance – employees are hired based on their fit against the values, employees are score against them, the CEO scores the most senior people, and they score him.

Once the whole company has been reviewed, key people across the company are sent facilitator kits so that they can explore the highs and lows in scores with their colleagues – Kent Thirry says it’s most important to concentrate on the bottom 20% and support them to improve.

He told us that success hinges on creating a movement around this, not a programme of work that is leader-lead. He says that core values must be lived, and practiced. It’s not simply a case of checking no one is contravening them.

DaVita also awards ‘outstanding behaviour that touches people’s lives’, through an annual awards ceremony in front of thousands of staff,  and personal letters with financial rewards to those who are in disparate locations.

Encouraging and reinforcing behaviours

There are a set of behaviours that Kent Thirry described as key to reinforcing their values and culture:

  • Empathy and compassion: when people are underperforming, it’s important to help them understand how others are experiencing them – to help them see beyond their own perspective – and then to understand how to support them to change.
  • Honesty and accountability: the leadership must be honest and open when they have breached a value because accountability is what makes the values most real.
  • Reflection: at team meetings, people are asked to fill in a scorecard, based on how they think they are doing against the company’s values. They are then asked to sit and reflect on this, because healthy cultures encourage reflection, and use it to create meaningful action.

Creating business that means something

The message from the CEO was that DaVita believes business can be an amazing force for doing good while still meeting capitalist responsibilities and objectives. Being purposeful and benefiting society doesn’t have to be in place of being financially sustainable or making a profit.

While they hold profit and market value important, what they reward are values-driven behaviours and helping others out. They reinforce this with inclusive language through how they talk about themselves. They describe DaVita as ’a community first and a company second’, they  call their employees team mates and their head office is known by everyone as the ‘DaVita Village’.

Despite the clear business benefit they have gained from putting values and purpose at the core of what they do, they’ve actively refused to put an ROI on their cultural work, claiming it’s how they live, not a programme of investment.

Learning some lessons

I found Kent’s talk and how DaVita run their business really inspiring. While I knew from the textbooks that creating more freedom and democracy at scale is possible, their story is of how it’s literally turned them and people’s lives around.

I tried to pick out a few insights that I found useful:

  • Co-create your values, don’t try and tell people what the values that they should live by are. It can make the difference between people acting on them and them being meaningless words on the company website.
  • Hire and review on your values, not just skills, experience and achievements. Most often, when people get fired it’s because they’ve breached your values, so don’t leave it until then to check in.
  • Work on everyone’s ability to empathise, be compassionate, honest and accountable, to make your values real. Otherwise, when it’s not going well it will be very difficult to have the conversations you need to.
  • Make regular time to reflect, personally and collectively, to really check you’re living and working in line with your values. Reflection is so often overlooked in the busy-ness of day-to-day work but key to creating a values-lead business.
  • If you want people to act on your values, reward and celebrate it when they do it exceptionally, don’t (just) celebrate people meeting hard performance objectives.
  • Create movements, not programmes of work. Give the work over to the whole company, don’t just drive it through leaders and HR. Having some guiding principles or a container to work in helps, but create the conditions for people to take it on.

Watch this space for some more ideas and thoughts from WorldBlu 2013.

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