Janet Elkin, on Not Letting the Process Defeat the Purpose

This interview with Janet Elkin, chief executive of Supplemental Health Care, a health care staffing firm, was conducted and condensed by Adam Bryant.
Q. Were you in leadership roles or doing entrepreneurial things when you were younger?
A. I was a magician when I was 12, and my parents were my assistants.
How did that come about?
My dad loved magic. He was a court reporter, and he would do tricks to calm down kids if they had to be witnesses. I must have said once to him when he was doing tricks at home,
“I like that one,” and the next day he comes home with all these tricks for me.
I started doing shows, and it was a great bonding experience with my parents, and a great way to earn extra money. It teaches you to have presence. I would do mainly birthday parties, but I also did larger events with hundreds of people.
What was your first management role after college?
I started a jewelry business in Texas, doing fund-raisers at hospitals. That grew to about $2 million in annual sales. But then I went through a divorce and basically lost everything. I had to stop traveling to take care of my kids. I had to do something to support myself, so I started working as a headhunter in the health care field. I built up a niche within the firm.
That’s a big transition from jewelry sales.
Yes, but I’m pretty good at getting people to tell me about themselves, and what they really want, as opposed to what they think they want, in a job. I had to connect with people over the telephone, and you can do it. You have to give something of yourself. It makes a difference if you talk a little bit about your own life.
What were some early leadership lessons for you?
I don’t think I was ever a micromanager, but sometimes you can get too involved. It’s about balance. I’m still working on it, but it’s about being able to ask enough questions to really know what’s going on. You develop that intuition. It’s not perfect, but you just get a feeling. Things could be going well, but you can see that train coming with some problem. The hard thing is guiding other people to see what you’re seeing. And you’re not always right.
You jumped from vice president to C.E.O. at your current company. Did the board tell you why it chose you?
When I got the call, I was surprised. They picked an insider during a really difficult time in the recession. They said the reason was that we had lost the spirit in the company, and we lost the focus. One of my favorite expressions — and people are sick of hearing it in the company — is “Don’t let the process overtake the purpose.” We generate thousands of reports, and we were in the middle of a recession when I took over in 2010. So it was about making people feel excited. On my leadership calls with the whole company, we’d talk about the results, which were really bad at the time, but we’d talk about them for only 20 seconds. Then I’d say: “Let’s talk about how we’re going to get better. Let’s get started.”
Lessons you’ve learned from mentors?
A former boss of mine would remind me: “Don’t take the credit. It’s easy to take the credit, but you don’t have to. Give it to somebody else. It will come back to you.” Even when things were your idea, nobody has to know that. People feel good about it, and then you give them a chance to feel that they can take the next step.
How do you hire?
The first thing I always ask is “Let’s start out with the questions you have for me. You’ve talked to a lot of people, but is there anything about the mission of the company, our board, my background, that you want to ask me about?” Believe it or not, seven out of 10 people say, “I’ve already gotten what I need.” Maybe they’re nervous, but I’m thinking: “You’re talking to the C.E.O. You don’t want to know what makes me tick?”
The other deal killer can come at the end. I always give them my business card and say, “Please contact me with any questions.” And then I wait to see if they send me a thank-you email.
What percentage send you that email?
About 60 percent.
What other questions do you ask?
I like to know about things that have gone wrong. I’ll usually set that up by talking about mistakes I’ve made at the company. I’ve made a lot of them, and they kept promoting me. But the difference is that you learn from your mistakes, and then you go on because you want people to be willing to take chances on you.
I do that first so they’ll feel comfortable, and then I’ll say: “Tell me about something, and it can be from any job you’ve had, where you look back and think: ‘I should have handled it differently. I wish it would have happened like this instead, but I’ve learned from it.’ ” How they answer that speaks to how open they’ll be. If they tell me they’ve never made any kind of mistake, then they’re out of there.>>>


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