I’ve had a newspaper clipping on my desk for several months that continues to resonate with me. In that article, in the business section of the Atlanta Journal Constitution (19 May 2013), Henry Unger reported an interview he had with a local banker, Joe Evans. It was unusual because most of such interviews are vapid vanilla regurgitated from some business book, but this one impressed me.
Evans grew up on a dairy farm in rural Georgia and his parents saw to it that he got a good education. His specialty became acquiring a group of failing small banks and turning them around. He has been very successful and sold two groups of banks at a premium, and is currently in the process of developing a third group.
His father had 50 cows and decided to build the herd up to 400. But after a time his father soon calculated that he could make more profit with less work with a herd of 200, so he scaled back the herd. The lesson was that it is not the top line (total revenue) that counts, but the bottom line (profit in the pocket). He said the same was true in banking. Past a certain point in growth, one needs a different, more complex management structure to effectively deal with the larger size, but the growth and income must be able to justify that step. They had a saying on his farm, “You don’t name your cows” -- meaning don’t become wedded to an idea or direction, and be willing to admit a mistake.
This lesson is applicable in many organizations. Leaders of hospitals and academic medical centers also make what turn out to be bad, and often expensive, decisions. Some behave like Evans’s father, but others keep pumping money and time into a program that just isn’t profitable financially or because of a lost opportunity. Growth beyond the point of financial and administrative efficiency is not rare in the health care world. No one bats 1,000 in baseball or health care administration. But good players and administrators learn from the unfortunate decisions and move on.
Evans also taught me something about recruiting: “In job interviews,” he said, “I typically ask people to share with me something that they really botched. It’s not what people tell me, but the ease with which people tell me, that makes an impression on me. You want self-reflection, but you don’t want someone saying it with a cavalier attitude. I look for somebody who can comfortably learn from their experiences and grow from them.”
I get the sense that Mr. Evans is a rock-solid individual with high standards and values. It is clear he has learned many lessons along the way, taken them to heart, and I am delighted he was willing to share them.