Roughly 25 years ago, I teamed up with Dr. Larry Patterson to found Eye Centers of Tennessee (ECOTN). When we launched the business, you could count the number of people who believed in our venture on one hand, and probably have a digit or two left over. That didn’t deter us, and we jumped into the project headfirst.
Today, the practice has grown immensely. As I type this, there are nine ECOTN locations — including a state-of-the-art surgery center — across the Upper Cumberland (a massive geographical expanse stretching from Tennessee into Kentucky) with a physician roster made up of 15 optometrists and ophthalmologists, and a support staff of more than 125 professionals. Suffice it to say, much has changed since we first opened our doors as a team of 10 — except the foundational elements of our business culture and our commitment to providing the greatest patient care possible.
No matter the type of business you run, whether it’s in health care or the technology sector or fast food, a well-functioning culture typically yields happy customers. And happy customers are usually repeat customers, which you need to have to grow your business.
At ECOTN, here are the five primary culture principles we’ve built our business on over the past quarter century. They enable us to maintain an incredible team of professionals who create a patient experience that keeps our neighbors across the Upper Cumberland coming back from one generation to the next.
Clarity is key
There is an old saying that “to be clear is to be kind.” That’s true, but clarity is also a requisite component to a well-functioning culture, and that clarity needs to start even before an employee’s first day on the job. It is imperative that management teams be strategic when hiring employees. Leaders at young businesses often throw bodies at needs, but hiring people indiscriminately because work demands are piling up is a surefire way to fail. Instead, managers need to clearly create job descriptions that address specific needs, and then hire accordingly.
It’s also imperative that during the hiring process, management be crystal clear about both the work deliverables a potential employee will have, as well as the tempo of that position. Workers need to know what’s expected of them and have an understanding of the work environment they’ll be required to work in. Fewer things lead to an unhappy employee than out-of-line expectations. If they walk in to work on their first day and they are greeted by a world completely different from what they were expecting, chances are strong they’ll be looking for a new job that weekend.
Walk the walk
A healthy work culture is set from the top, but for that culture to really thrive and be something that customers love, there has to be buy-in from everyone at your business. And if you want to have a healthy culture from the C-suite to the front desk, then your leadership team has to truly walk the culture walk. I believe that one of the most harmful things you can do, culture-wise, at your business is to say your business operates from a lofty set of culture principles, yet no one actually adheres to them. Empty words, in this regard, are actually very powerful. Just not in the way you’d want them to be.
On the contrary, if your full staff sees your leadership team respecting each other and everyone who reports to them, it will encourage the entire organization to mirror those actions. It is easy to forget that every move a leader makes is watched, and what people see is cataloged and rarely forgotten. An effective leader will model healthy, respectful behaviors, and those actions will set the tone for the rest of your team. Monkey see, monkey do. If you want to have a company culture that is manifested through the people you hire, it all starts with you. Your team will see your commitment to a positive culture, and your customers will experience it through your employees.
Don’t set it and forget it
At ECOTN, all office staff begin their tenures on a 90-day probationary period. It’s common for people to consider a probationary period as a time when a new employee is subject to constant evaluation, but we see it as a two-way street. We’re evaluating the new worker and, in turn, they are evaluating us. During this three-month window, we consistently check in with a new hire to see how they’re adjusting to the rigors of their new role and the spirit of the workplace. If we’ve done it right, by the time an employee hits Day 90, we know and they know if it’s a good match. No surprises.
Of course, it doesn’t stop there. I’m a former Marine officer, and one of the Marine Corps’ guiding principles is to “know your men.” The belief here is that you can’t help alleviate problems if you (a) don’t know about them, and (b) don’t know how your (wo)men are experiencing those difficulties. At ECOTN, our “officers” are our managers, and they spend their days in the “trenches” with their teams at the front desk, sizing new frames, preparing for surgery, or any other number of daily requirements. We want our managers to know what our employees are going through and how their workloads are impacting the business. That attention leads to workers who feel valued, and an employee who feels valued is more likely to show a customer they’re valued, too.
Meet adversity head-on
No matter how intentional you are at safeguarding a positive work environment, adversity will arise. It’s not an if, it’s a when. And when a tough situation does crop up, you have to meet it head-on. Another of my favorite Marine sayings is “Bad news never gets better with time.” Bad scenarios, left alone, do not resolve themselves. They get worse because problems are cancerous. They spread, they morph and they infect others. Just like you can’t wish away a physical ailment, you can’t wish away a work problem that threatens your business culture.
I actually believe that such problems, if approached appropriately, present opportunities to strengthen your organization. If an issue is approached with a spirit of “let’s fix this for the greater good,” as opposed to “you’re in trouble,” when it is resolved there will be an elevated sense of trust and goodwill among the parties involved.
Promote a sense of safety
People operate at their highest caliber when they feel safe. Your team has to feel safe in making suggestions, raising their hands to discuss their wants and needs, and in trying new things. As ECOTN has grown, many of the new ideas that have made us better have come from empowered employees who want to try out something new. If those concepts are a home run immediately, great. If they’re not, that’s OK.
There is magic in mistakes and you cannot be successful in business if you’re always goose stepping around trying to avoid errors. Sometimes you have to take a manageable gamble, and your team needs to feel safe when advocating for something that could pay dividends across the board. Our staff is emboldened to do better — and when we do better as a business, the beneficiaries more often than not include our patients.
A good culture leads to happy customers
As you grow your business, you’re going to have to have two things: employees and customers. Naturally, you want both to be happy, and you’ll soon realize that if one is not content, neither will the other. A key to creating a happy and satisfied customer-base is proactively making sure the culture your employees work in is healthy. The ways you approach certain aspects of your culture will change as your business ages and grows, but your commitment to the pillars of that culture should begin the day you open your doors for the first time through the entirety of your business’ life cycle.