From Innovation to Biorhythms: The Making of a ‘Great Place to Work’

Abbott Facilities in Ireland map

Innovation, communication, commitment and even biorhythms are all part of the leadership mix that has seen Abbott Ireland remain as one of Ireland’s best places to work for seven years in a row.

The annual surveys are conducted by the Great Places to Work (GPTW) Institute. Previous posts from the lecture series can be found here, here, and here.

Speaking at DIT’s Leadership Forum Series, Abbott Ireland’s General Manager of Pharmaceutical, Sales and Marketing Operations, Craig Skelton, spoke of the challenge of managing the company’s 4,000-strong workforce in 14 locations in Ireland. (The other speaker on the day was John Kennedy of Diageo. His talk can be found here.)

Based in Chicago, Abbott’s employs around 90,000 worldwide and had revenues of almost $31 billion in 2009. Meanwhile, Skelton is a transplanted New Zealander who sees many parallels between the Irish and Kiwi health systems.

Although Skelton mentioned economic challenges, layoffs did not figure in his talk. Instead, he spoke of the challenges faced by the company as it sought to re-organize. One of the isses Abbott discovered a few years ago was that it needed a strategy on talent management. The company found it hard to hold on to operations staff and they were hard to replace in the more remoteWestern facilities.

Meanwhile, there was a very large sales force that dealt with GPs, Gen X and Gen Y workers. They bring different attitudes and motivations to their work, and they also expect to be a part of decision making, Skelton said. The company’s review also found that a number of functional experts in areas such as government affairs were needed.

Abbott itself was organized around silos and was shifting to a matrix-based system. “We needed to change our organization because the environment was going to change,” Skelton said.

Abbott Best Places to Work

From Left: Craig Skelton, Sean McEwen, John Frels and Liam Curley. Picture by Colm Mahady / Fennells.

With change in the air, Skelton said it was important to communicate. Some was done personally and some via company intranets. “What we try to do is open up communication channels all over the place,” he said. To measure the effectiveness of their efforts, Abbott relied on the GPTW surveys.

Communications became evident in the promotions process, Skelton said. Although the company had a process in place for developing and rewarding talent, it was unknown to most employees who thought “you touched someone on the shoulder and they were mysteriously annointed.”

This is important information in a company that likes to promote from within. Now the it’s criteria of 70% experience, 20% assessment and feedback, and 10% education are known to workers interested in climbing the corporate ladded.

On innovation, Skelton saw the Irish operation moving faster and being more nimble than the American HQ. He encourages people to think differently. Some people fear if “they step out of their comfort zone they might get whacked,” Skelton said. He wants them to overcome that fear.

Innovation is required to be competitive and happens in many areas across the company, Skelton said. With a motto of “See, Feel, Live the Customer,” he said Abbott has developed some new approaches. Examples include:

  • The Rediscover Life Waste Collection initiative. Patients with syringes found they were unable to return them to the pharmacy or hospital for disposal. Abbott give them a box and picks the used equipment up every six months.
  • Talking to the Gardaí and traffic experts to see how they manage traffic flow. Abbott has “appointment angels” that optimize everyone’s use of time while patients are moving through the health system.
  • Changing injections of Synagis, a drug for premature babies, to be done at home. Previously, up to 30 infants and parents would be scheduled for dosage. This wasted a lot of time since the fathers often took work off to help bring the child to hospital. And it increased the risk of the healthy babies picking up infection if one of the others was sick.

Under Abbott’s “Life Navigation” program, employees were told about time management and other personal tools to help them improve their work/life balance, Skelton said. This one has been such a success that the company’s GPTW scores in that category went from 55% in 2008 to 92% in 2010, he said. Asked in the Q&A session what else it had done, Skelton said people are more productive — the initiative had paid off for both company and worker.

Fitting in to that is a recognition that people function differently at different times of the day, Skelton said. Some like to be on to go at 7 am. Others are horrified at the thought. An early riser himself, Skelton said he plans his day so that, knowing he will flag after lunch, he has meetings at that time. However, there is a conscious effort across the company to match the rhythm of the person with the rhythm of the organization.

Summing up, Skelton said he tries to lead by personal example. He wants people to be innovative so Abbott will have a competitive advantage, and he promotes a common vision and strategy across the organization.

The photograph and map are the sole property and copyright of Abbott Ireland and are reused per the company’s terms of use. They cannot be shared under this site’s Creative Commons license.

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