Monday, October 1, 2007

Leadership Is in the Eyes of the Led, Says Thiry

STANFORD GRADUATE SCHOOL OF BUSINESS — Becoming a great manager means mastering specific business skills, but it goes beyond knowing the nitty-gritty of running a company, Kent Thiry, chairman and CEO of DaVita Inc., told Stanford Graduate School of Business students.

Great leadership means becoming a better human being, he said. “Leadership is a human skill. It is a function of cumulative learning and practice. … You can have a very well-run company that is not well led.”

Thiry’s insights were based on his own experiences as the chief executive of the dialysis services company, a firm that was struggling to stay afloat when he joined in 1999. He quickly realized that, to survive, the company had to develop a vibrant culture in which employees saw themselves as a community with a vision

“We were a community first; a company second,” he said

He helped rally his employees around a vision, changing the company’s name from Total Renal Care to DaVita, which means “one who gives life” in Italian, and introducing a company culture focused on commitment, communication, and accountability. Thiry’s talk was part of the student-run View from the Top series, which features leaders from business, government, and the social sector. Organized through the School’s Center for Leadership Development and Research, speakers reflect on their views of leadership, including career and life choices.

Thiry, who earned his bachelor’s degree at Stanford University, presided over what DaVita called “State of the Village” sessions, which he and other top executives began by telling the assembled employees where they, as the company’s leaders, had underperformed for a specific period.

“Accountability is one of the biggest differentiators,” he said.

The town hall-style meetings, he added, are meant not just to give employees an opportunity to find out how the firm is doing. It also gives them a chance to see how their leaders respond to questions and complaints from the rank and file.

“Just as beauty is in the eyes of the beholder,” Thiry said, “leadership is in the eyes of the led.”

The best leaders set good examples, he said, adding: “Organizations behave a lot like their leaders do in the end.”

In fact, Thiry has been known to don a Three Musketeers outfit as a way of rallying his troops to the battle cry from the Alexander Dumas novel: “All for one, and one for all!”

This focus on team building has paid off for DaVita, which is now the largest provider of dialysis services in the United States. The company serves more than 100,000 patients, has more than 29,000 employees, and more than $5 billion in annual revenue.

The company has more than 1,300 outpatient dialysis facilities and acute units in more than 800 hospitals located in 42 states and the District of Columbia.

Thiry stressed the importance of passion in one’s work, urging the Stanford students to “figure out where your music is.”

“Once you’re near, just jump into it with all your heart and soul,” he said.