Jodi’s Journal: Leadership in little ways leads to big results

By Jodi Schwan

I thought I’d wait until closer to he retired to write this about Dr. Dave Kapaska, but a series of events last week told me now is the time for the message.

If you haven’t heard, Dr. K, as he is known to thousands of Avera employees, retires at the end of June.

When I heard the news, an image of the CEO of Avera McKennan Hospital & University Health Center flashed through my mind.

It was Dr. K walking down a hospital hallway, greeting employees by name as he grinned.

I’ve seen him do it many times. And if I remember it, I guarantee they do.

I am fortunate in the course of my daily work to interact with many presidents and CEOs. I see a wide range of personalities, and if I’m being honest, some of them would inwardly cringe at the picture I just painted of Dr. K.

Because not all are naturally outgoing. The kind of interaction I described feels awkward. Maybe you’re just not good at remembering names or faces. And you’ve got a lot of issues in your head and on your proverbial plate as you walk down that hall at work.

But here’s the thing, if you’re a leader:

That shouldn’t be an acceptable excuse for not engaging with your employees.

Earlier this week, in the course of a morning, I had two experiences that confirmed my thinking on the topic.

First, I caught up with Tom Walsh Sr., CEO of GreatLIFE Golf & Fitness. I was there to talk about his growth strategy, improvements to the golf courses and other operational changes.

But we wound up also talking about how he believes in treating employees.

“Our goal as support staff — that’s how he described himself — is to empower people on the front line, give them the resources and encouragement they need to succeed,” he told me. “Catch people doing things right. And recognize them, especially in front of their team or our members. It just builds them up.”

When he introduces his staff members to people, he does it while including “a sincere compliment,” he continued.

“Think about what that does for our relationship and what it says to the person you’re introducing them to,” he said. “A lot of things don’t cost anything financially but motivationally have a huge impact on the morale and the attitude of the team.”

That’s what leaders sometimes can overlook. As an employee, when the CEO walks by or interacts with you, it represents a significant moment in the workday. It’s up to the leader to use that moment for good. Even if it doesn’t feel natural to smile and say something by way of a greeting. Do it anyway. Do it often enough, and it doesn’t feel awkward. The interaction creates an impression with the employee and a ripple effect that could be wider than you think.

“People want to be treated with respect and appreciation, and your actions build trust,” Walsh added. “And without trust, people won’t follow you.”

Doug Lipp speaks at the Convention & Visitors Bureau annual luncheon.

After I talked to Walsh, I headed to the annual Sioux Falls Convention & Visitors Bureau luncheon, where Doug Lipp from the Disney Institute was the featured speaker.

He started with this quote from his mentor, Van France, who worked with the legendary Walt Disney and founded the training center Disney University:

“What happens ‘backstage’ will end up ‘on stage.’ If we aren’t friendly with each other … smiling and saying ‘good morning,’ then we’ll have a similar attitude toward our guests.”

So when you visit Disney theme parks and encounter the seemingly never-ending cheerfulness of its employees, “it’s not a fake smile and a lot of pixie dust,” Lipp said.

“It’s how these hourly employees are treated in the back of the house.”

Any leader who says he or she is unable to connect with hourly staff, “in my opinion, it is sheer laziness,” he said. “Because you haven’t stepped into their environment, their universe.”

Think about that in the context of health care, in the case of Kapaska’s organization. What happens backstage will end up on stage. The way employees feel they are treated can’t help but reflect in how they treat patients. Think about it in the context of Walsh’s membership-based business. The way employees feel they are treated can’t help but reflect in how they treat members.

It’s probably not surprising that when I asked Kapaska what he was most proud of in his career at Avera, he said:

“The thing I’m most proud of are our people.”

Then he choked up a little. That can happen when you talk about something that’s important to you.

“It gets me every time I talk about it,” he said. “My mantra on leadership is your job is to create an environment where everyone else can be successful. I hope I’ve done that. If I have — and I know I have in some situations — but if I have as across the board as one can reach, I feel very successful.”

Looking back on a career, it seems a fitting way to measure success.

At any other stage of a career, it’s a goal worth remembering every time we walk down the hall.

Jodi’s Journal: Leadership in little ways leads to big results

As an employee, when the CEO walks by or interacts with you, it represents a significant moment in the workday. It’s up to the leader to use that moment for good.

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