An Interview with Scott Anderson, Co-founder of Medical Solutions, LLC., 2014 BBB Integrity award winner and Business Ethics Alliance Trustee
By Sergio Gutierrez and Paul Lime, Creighton University MBA students
Scott Anderson was raised in Jacksonville, Florida, and went to school at the University of North Florida where he obtained his BBA in Finance. He began his career in banking, working for Bank of America in Florida and Wachovia in North Carolina before making his way to Omaha where he established the corporate services division for Ameritrade. After many years of experience in the business world, he decided to start his own business. His business ownership career began with buying 50-percent of a financially distressed IT staffing company and returning it to profitability in the course of one year. He then seized an opportunity to diversify the company by expanding into healthcare staffing, a relatively new market within staffing and would require building it from the ground up.
Today, that startup is known as Medical Solutions. Currently, the third largest healthcare staffing firm in the country with numerous awards and recognition including making it on the Inc. 500/5000 list for the past six years, Best Places to work lists, in Omaha and nationally, five of the last six years, and most recently the 2014 winner of the BBB Integrity Award. Scott, who’s title is Chief Servant, believes employees are the most integral part of the company. For this reason, he believes it is management’s responsibility to serve the staff. Ethics are an integral part of the company and exemplified in the workplace under the idea that the key to success is long-term, productive, happy employees, which you will not have without a conducive ethical environment that focuses on always doing the right thing despite the cost.
What would you say is your favorite part about your work and your least favorite part?
“My absolute favorite part is the creation. The birth of the company, the development of the people, the creation of opportunities, jobs and the development of careers. One of my objectives is to enable an employee to have an entire career at the company, from the beginning to retirement. Being able to create that from nothing and build it into something pretty special is definitely the best part. The least favorite part was the insane hours it took to create, build, and grow the company to what it is today. I talk a lot about the work-life balance, but I haven’t been a very good example of that over the years.”
How would you define ethics and what it means to you?
“Ethics to me really boils down to doing the right thing for the right reason regardless of the profitability associated with the action. More often than not, when you do the right thing, it comes back to you. I believe it comes back to you tenfold. When doing the right the thing, especially when doing that right thing is really tough to do, it can make a huge difference in your business, in your life, and in the lives of others. This principle is very important and the company was built on this sound belief structure that no matter what, we would always do the right things.”
Is there a formal ethics program at your firm?
“There is. In 2008, we took our lead HR person and created a job, called the Chief People Officer. Her job is to protect the culture and to promote ethics in our company. I like to refer to her as the one who has the power of veto. No matter how big we get, no matter what we’re doing, or how we’re doing it, if it’s counter to our ethics, vision, and values, she has the ability to say “no”. When you have a lot of people, a lot of opportunity, and outside interests, such as a P/E firm saying I need you to get this kind of ratio and this kind of metric, it’s easy to get caught up in the numbers and spend less time on your people. I believe this is where most companies get off the rails. The numbers matter, of course, but the source of being able to obtain those numbers starts with your employees and that’s where most of your time should be spent.”
“The Chief People Officer, she has power of the veto. If anything we do, any strategy, any thought, or any action, goes against our ethics, vision, or value, she can step up and stop it. Fortunately, she hasn’t actually had to use her “power of veto” in the most extreme way. She’s part of our executive team, so she’s already involved in our strategic development, and we collectively work through any potential conflicts of interest. Again it is too easy to go astray when executives get three, four, or five levels removed from the people that are really doing the work. It’s easy to forget how tough some of those jobs are, how much time it requires, what it takes, how every little decision may affect them, and her job is to make sure that we don’t ever forget to consider the staff first. It’s been very, very effective and the program has been in place since 2008.”
Can you describe an ethical situation in business you have faced, and how you approached it?
“The one story that I refer to most often was a defining moment for our company. We had a young lady who was our top sales person. She was generating over 25% of our entire book of business by herself, obviously an extremely important individual. As it turns out, she was doing some things that were definitely unethical. Specifically, she had figured out a way, with all the rules and boundaries we had in place, to wiggle into other sales staff accounts and to get credit for it. Long story short, she was fired on the spot. That was tough. At the time we were a fairly small company and she was bringing in 25-percent of this business. Did I just cut off 25-percent of my company? Instead that one act memorialized all the things we were doing and it exemplified what our company was all about. From that point on, this company took off; I can’t even describe the levels of employee commitment, satisfaction, and consequently the insane growth that followed this act.”
Would you say that the ethical situation you described before was an easy or hard ethical situation to deal with?
“That was incredibly hard. The risk was real. It immediately, potentially, eliminated a quarter of my business. It was hard. But easy in the way that I didn’t hesitate. Even the hesitation would have created distrust and questions from the other staff. One of the lessons there was is that it isn’t just about doing the “right thing”, it’s the timing as well. You’d better act swiftly. The moment you try and calculate around something unethical in your business is the moment you create a string of disaster. You’ve heard the old saying, “you can’t be a little pregnant”. Well, it’s the same for a company’s ethics. You can’t be a little ethical.”
The Ethical Omaha Project of the Business Ethics Alliance has identified the Omaha business core values to be the following: Accountability, Community Responsibility, Financial Vitality, Integrity and Moral Courage. Can you elaborate how these fit in your organization and what do they mean to you?
“We have a pamphlet that describes each of these core values and explains how they fit in our organization. Our core values are built around and on how we behave with ourselves, with our clients, and with the community. We do all of these things, all the time, but most important, with our staff. I tell people all the time that our staff is more important than our clients. We don’t deviate from our business plan, we stick with what we say we’re going to do and we do it. If we make a mistake with the client, we own up to it. It doesn’t matter if we end up losing money. Same thing with our nurses and our staff. There are always “gray areas” you’re faced with and our philosophy for those decisions is to land on the side of the employee. Those decisions almost always look very expensive, but profitability has a direct correlation to employee satisfaction. There is a reason, by design, why Medical Solutions is the most profitable company in the industry.”
Are there unethical behaviors that give other companies and or business people a competitive advantage, and how are you affected by this?
“It can appear to our sales staff where other company’s unethical actions give them an advantage, but it’s only short-term at best. Ultimately, the traveler or client will come back to us when they figure out they didn’t get what they were sold by some of our competitors. For example, some of our competitors’ placements can be considerably faster because they may opt to do significantly less background, licensure, and drug testing on the nurses. That may work once or twice, but the moment an issue arises that competitor will lose that client indefinitely. Same for the nurses, some competitors may opt to provide a compensation structure that seems lucrative compared to ours, but when the legality of the tax structure comes into question, those nurses always return to our company. We don’t cut corners with our clients, travelers, or employees which can at a glance seem less competitive, but is always much better for all in the long-term.”
Have you had any ethical mentors? Someone who has been there teaching you from personal experience how ethics is important for the business?
“No, I haven’t had any, not one. What I did have were examples of unethical leaders early in my career. That taught me what not to do, what to avoid, and allowed me to always remember how little I respected some of the leadership early in my career. That helped me understand why I wouldn’t operate my business that way.”
How do your upbringing and family values play into your ethical development? Do you see a connection between your upbringing and how you handle ethical situations at work?
“In my case, I grew up in the deep South where most people in my small community had little to no advantages. People only really had other people, not things and not a lot of opportunity. I think as my career progressed and as my business grew, I’ve never gone a day without feeling grateful and sincerely appreciative to anyone that has worked for me. I think that enabled me to always operate without an ego, openly expressing a lot of appreciation and to identify with every single person at every level of the company.”
So you won the BBB integrity award and you are a business ethics alliance trustee, what did this mean to you personally, and what does it mean for your employees?
“Personally it is a pinnacle because we have sought after this award. Not because we wanted to vainly display the award in the trophy case, but because it was very meaningful. Christy Johnston, our CPO, Chief People Officer, who I respect to the fullest extent possible, is so dedicated to this process, so completely committed to promoting the ethics and the moral application of our business, our company has benefited greatly as a result. She was the one who effectively organized and implemented accountabilities in our company that has enable us to win this coveted award. Our executive team challenges themselves every year on what else we can do for our employees and culture. We do all we can to listen attentively. We’ve made mistakes and then we reverse course and try again, but the pursuit towards this, to constantly take their feedback and apply it to our business, is what has also helped us achieve this award. It is an important award.”
What are the biggest ethical challenges that you think face the youngest business professionals today? And do you have any tips for dealing with them?
“A lot of what I hear and see from the younger generations is kill or be killed, eat or be eaten, do whatever at all costs kind of mentality or perceptions of what they believe the “real world” is all about. While you do have to be aggressive, fearless, and work really hard toward accomplishing your goals, you can’t sacrifice morals and ethics while doing it and expect to see a long-term benefit. It’s easy to be successful and appear ethical when your business and the economy are growing. But it’s a very different view when times are tough. I believe you have to put others first and truly care about, invest in, protect, be patient with, and continuously show appreciation for your employees from the very beginning. That creates mutual trust and respect. The kinds of things you need when the going gets tough.”