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Kyle DeFur started off in healthcare administration when it was going through the first wave of digital transformation. Now he runs TrueU, an organization that helps leaders get the best out of their people.
The level of internal digitization has changed a lot, but Kyle has found that many of the principles of great leadership have stayed the same.
Becoming a better leader in a digital world
TrueU’s mission is to create a community of leaders who can learn from each other. As more and more organizations move to a digital workplace, there’s a lot of information that needs to be shared.
Kyle says, “Highest performing cultures focus on personal development as well as professional development.” Digital workplaces need to not leave the human behind. We are all deeply connected physically, mentally, and spiritually, and effective digital leaders see that and know how to get everyone moving in the right direction.
Moving towards transparency
Kyle gets to interact with a lot of leaders, and the ones that are succeeding during this time are those who are focusing on how to build trust and transparency. Kyle notes that while digital tools might seem to inhibit transparency, they can actually make things much more open. He talked about Perq and how they have shifted to full disclosure for all of their employees when it comes to revenue and other decisions.
Kyle saud this is the time when you can do “the hard right thing, or the easy wrong thing.”
Modeling an attitude of openness
Among all the leaders Kyle interacts with, he’s found that those who are doing well in their personal lives are probably doing well professionally too. They model the ability to adapt and change to a digital workplace.
Kyle is a big proponent of living authentically and building deep relationships with team members. If engagement is build on trust, you need to model in your personal and professional life that you are someone who does what they say they will do.
Creating a culture where people fit, and don’t
As he looks at Level 5 digital workplaces, Kyle points out that they have such a strong culture that people should immediately know if they fit or not. If everyone is on a growth journey, you should feel awkward and uncomfortable if you are content to stay where you are.
Other key characteristics are assumed transparency, and a results-oriented mindset.
Today, our guest is Kyle DeFur. He’s the president of TrueU. How are you doing today, Kyle?
Great, Neil. Thanks for the opportunity to be with you today.
We’re so excited to have you on. You do a lot of work with companies and you have a lot of rich experience yourself. Today we’re going to be talking about leadership. We’re talking about culture. We’re talking about how to shape that up. But what I want you to do first is just give us a little bit of your background personally and then tell us about TrueU.
Happy to. I was in healthcare for many years. In fact, I was for 25 years I was in hospital administration. And about six years ago I made the transition into what I’m doing now with TrueU. But I was president of St. Vincent Indianapolis hospital for seven years prior to coming to TrueU but had been at the St. Vincent’s Ascension system for 20 years prior to that, and then had worked in private investor owned hospitals for eight years prior to that, and so had a long history and experience in hospital administration and love the work. But I had, I refer to it as a restlessness of having done that for 25 plus years and said, if I wasn’t doing this, what would I do? And that was really a journey for me of really tapping into where my passions are and what I felt like I was good at but also that I thought if I could spend all my time doing these two or three things, what would those two or three things be? And so for me that was around mentoring young leaders, it was around building healthy cultures in organizations and connecting purpose to work. And so after identifying those three things, I was able to connect with this new organization that was just starting up. It was called TrueU and some of the business leaders here in Indianapolis had a vision for creating an organization like TrueU and I happened to be at the right place at the right time. And so I made the decision to transition from my healthcare career to this organization of TrueU.
TrueU does a lot of great work and you’re very well connected, a lot of good things going on. Let’s insert into the conversation the aspect of digital. In your experience as a leader in the healthcare field, obviously healthcare has been digital for a long time, that presence has been there, but when it comes to actually shaping the culture, as a president, as a leader of an organization like that, what was your experience in creating a culture as digital tools started to become more mainstream?
I think in healthcare, our focus is on fulfilling our mission, serving all persons, special attention to the poor and the underserved in Catholic healthcare providing top quality care, a great place for employees to work in safe care were really top priorities for us. And so we thought about a digital workplace. The first question that we always ask ourselves, is this going to enhance care for patients? Is it going to make the environment safer for our staff? Is it going to make it safer for our patients? And if it does, how should we embrace it and when should we move forward with it? I had the privilege or the curse, however you want to talk about it, being on the front end during my career of implementing electronic health records and computerized physician or injury, those kinds of things, which were huge changes, huge evolutions in the practice patterns and the behaviors of people as they engage with that technology. And it was difficult. I’ve got to be real honest with you. It was really difficult work, because in many ways, slows staff down and technology can be wonderful, but it can actually be more challenging on the front end until you acclimate to it. But we always kept the vision in mind, the end state of this, we get through this turbulent time of implementation of this technology that will be safer for patients, nurses will no longer have to be trained to interpret what a physician’s handwriting is, at two in the morning, is that a 5 or is that a 0.5 in terms of the dosage of that medication? And knowing that by using the technology, you can eliminate those kinds of issues that make care much safer for patients.
Yeah, and I think you’ve demonstrated well, that the first push towards digital was really customer focused. It was about how do we offer a better service or product to the people that are coming to us. I think throughout the 90s and early 2000s. That was pretty much the focus of things. Now your experience has shifted to where you’re mentoring leaders, but they’re in a different era. Now the customer experience is almost fully digitized, but now that employee experience is also becoming fully digitized as it goes through. So what are the differences you see and the different challenges that leaders of today are facing that you didn’t necessarily have to experience?
I think today a lot of, I think the pandemic has really accelerated, in many ways, the digital workplace, which is a good thing. It’s accelerated the use of virtual tools, platforms for virtual video conferencing, those kinds of things that people have realized I can work from home and it works, we don’t have to be in the same physical environment. My own personal experience is I’ve found great leverage and benefit in being able to have uninterrupted time to do what I refer to as deep thinking kinds of work. And that adds, I think, the most value to our organization when I’m involved in that kind of work is just an uninterrupted kind of work. And so I think that by necessity, people have been pushed into this environment, and there’s pros and cons to it, especially if you have small children and so on, that can create unique challenges in that process, but I think that learning that really you can leverage technology to be more efficient and you can schedule your day and your time better and I think do uninterrupted work until you’re in that deep flow of work, which is rich work typically.
Definitely, I think that’s a great advantage to talk about as leaders come into this. So let’s shift a little bit. As you’re experiencing, you’re getting feedback from people that are in this right now, what do leaders of digital companies have to do differently when they’re shaping their cultures? If somebody’s coming up to this new, they’re saying, hey, I want to create a great culture. They have all these digital tools that are out there, and maybe they have distributed teams that are in different places. What are some of the trends that you see right now and advice that you would like to give to those leaders?
Interestingly, I think that the highest performing cultures today, they focus on a couple things that are not necessarily intuitive. In fact, some people push back on them but I think that they’re critically important and I see the highest performing digital companies focusing on personal development as well as professional development. And oftentimes in the workplace, it’s just focused on I want you to have the skills and we’ll provide the tools and resources for you to be able to do the professional aspect, the technical aspects of your job and your role. But the highest performing companies understand that we’re more than just the professional work that we do. And providing resources and tools to help people to do personally, as well as professionally is critically important. There’s this integration of discipline and behaviors. It’s about integration, not segmentation, who I am as a person, and I live that out in the work that I do in that, actually, I bring my whole self to work. I’m not trying to segment myself or bring my whole self to work. That actually adds for richer workplace and higher quality work as well. The way I think of it is, if there’s one aspect, we have all different facets of our lives, right. There’s the work that we do, the job that we have, there’s the feeling relationships we have. There’s our physical health, there’s our spiritual health, there’s our financial health, all those different areas. And if any one of those areas is upside down or moving decisively in the wrong direction, it affects all the others. We’re all interconnected. And so I think the healthiest cultures, the digital companies that are creating these really high performing cultures understand that. And they’re committed to providing some resources and tools to help people to grow and to develop in all facets and areas of their life, not just the professional. They’re finding that they created this culture that is high performing because they have people who are able to focus because all facets of their lives at least are moving in the right direction.
As work becomes more digital and the workplace becomes more digital, I’m hearing from other leaders that really what their goal is, is to find ways for the people that work for them to become more human. They need them to be able to interact with each other better, communication to be higher, to make sure that empathy level is high, that they’re practicing good, solid nonviolent communication as other people like to call it. I think those are really big skills that we need to invest in and to make sure to recognize, as people are growing, it’s not just about the work life, it’s also about them as a person.
Absolutely. And I think that, to your question, the leaders of these digital companies, how they have to behave differently is they really have to acknowledge the importance of trust and building trust in those relationships and the importance also of transparency, which is also related to trust. And so they have to model that as a leader. And they’re very focused on that. Because when suddenly you’re working remotely, maybe you’re not in the same geographic space, you have to be very intentional about the communication, about the building of the trust and being transparent in a more remote environment than maybe you would in a physical environment, because there’s not as many interactions that you may have with individuals. And so these digital leaders that are highly effective are very intentional about being transparent and being trusted, engendering trust in their relationships, as well.
I’m so fascinated by this, that when you take work, and you take out the physical part, and you introduce all these digital tools and automation and other things out of there, actually is boiling down to what are those essential human interactions we need to have? And that’s why trust is so important. That’s why clarity is so important. That’s why being able to communicate well is so important. So that’s great insight you’re giving us. Why don’t you share a few stories of companies that you’ve been working with or you’ve seen that are really doing a great job, just to give us an idea about what does that high level digital culture look like?
Within TrueU, TrueU is an organization where companies join and so we have 73+ companies that are part of TrueU and they’re all focused on growing their people to grow their business. And so there’s some great cultures and I’m always fascinated by learning the stories of how different leaders and different companies are focusing on creating high performance in the relationships within their companies and in the relationships that they formed. So we’ve got a lot of examples of some great companies, to your point in terms of what are the things that we’re seeing. I know one of our newer members, a company called PERQ here in Indianapolis, Andy Medley. He’s the president there, CEO there and co founder. And they are incredibly transparent. Every month, full financials are shared. Everybody sees the full financials within their organization. There’s no secret. There’s nothing hidden. Everybody understands exactly what happened to the revenue, what happened to the expense, how the metrics are correlated with the revenue and the expense metrics, they see what the bottom line is. And they’ve got this big board in their workplace and they are putting that stuff up, and they’re having their team meetings and saying, here it is. Any questions? Here’s what our observations are. And so that transparency creates just wonderful levels of trust within their organization that they have, and they make it available digitally as well. So people can access that information to be at the meeting room in the workplace. Wurster Construction, Al Wurster, I had a conversation with him recently and he was talking about the importance of having the commitment to doing the hard right versus the easy wrong. As we go through this pandemic period of time, organizations facing some unique stresses within their organizations from a business perspective, it’s easy to fall into patterns of maybe just slow paying vendors without them knowing, all of a sudden you stop paying or you slow down your paying. You need to do the hard right. If you can’t make the payment, you need to call him and tell him, I’m going to slow down the payments. It’s that sense of trust and treating people like you want to be treated, things really important in terms of creating that culture. That’s key. GadellNet is another company, Nick Smarelli. I think just a lot of transparency in focusing on growth, and Nick models that.
Yeah, we had Nick on the show just a little bit ago.
Yeah, Nick’s a great guy and he’s on his own personal growth journey. He’s climbing mountains, doing ultra marathons and physically always challenging himself and you just can’t understate the importance of modeling what you want to see in your organization as a CEO. And so, modeling that transparency, modeling that personal growth journey that you’re on is critically important. GadellNet, they’re in the digital space as an organization, and there’s a lot of authenticity, I think within their organization of how they lead, how they grow, how they communicate, and how they share with one another as well. The other example I would share is the Morales Group. And so Seth Morales is present there. They have a highly diverse workforce. They have locations all over the country and they really see diversity as their strength. Their mission within Morales Group is improving lives one story at a time. They’re a staffing company, but nowhere in their mission is to talk about being a staffing company. They’re all about improving lives one story at a time. And their employees resonate with that. We want to make lives better for other people. By providing them jobs is one of the ways they do that. But they also involved in all kinds of service to all kinds of organizations that take teams to third world countries and build homes for people. It’s just really interesting looking at how these companies come along and they’re establishing a really positive culture within the organization. And they’re also from a digital perspective, they’re certainly focused on leveraging those tools, of communication, of connection, of creating an environment where people have the freedom and there’s trust that’s established there. You don’t have to worry about here’s the objective that we have for you. Here’s the project, take it and run with it. You set the parameters around. And we will make sure we answer your questions that you have. But we trust you. And we want to make sure that you have the skills you need to be successful in it. But we’re not going to micromanage you. We’re going to support you and trust that you’re going to be able to access the systems and the information that you need to be able to do this job and get this project done.
I want to pick up on a point you made earlier when you’re talking about the importance of the leader themselves as they’re going through these transitions. Especially let’s just say, we’re right here. We’re in 2020, in the heat of the summer. We’ve got the coronavirus, we’ve got a lot of racial tensions that have come up. I think individuals can make a response to these things in many different ways, can just hunker down and say okay, I’ll outlast this and see when it all blows over. And in both cases, both from the racial issues as well as the pandemic, you can lean into it and say okay, how can I actually use this time to advance, to better myself, to educate myself on what’s going on, to dig deeper into these issues that maybe I wasn’t aware of, whether that be from a digital side of things or how a virus affects different people or how race is perceived in our country. So in your experience, what has been that role of that personality of the leader? They’re out there, they’re trying to establish a culture, they’d love to have a culture of diversity, let’s say, they’d love to have a more inclusive culture to see more people of color and different backgrounds in their leadership roles. What are the things that the leader needs to do on a personal level in order to get there on a company level?
Organizations, high performing organizations are focused, they understand what their mission is, and they understand what their values are, and they connect their behaviors to those. They’re very intentional about this. Really important that the CEO and the president are acutely aware of that on a daily basis in what they do. And hopefully, your core value is going to reflect the value of your people in wanting to help them to set them up to be successful. I know a high performing digital culture is one where you’re committed to a culture and an environment that is stress free, that’s supportive of people, that work is life giving instead of life sucking. There’s an intentionality around that. And when an issue like the racial tension issue, which has come to light, I think it’s been around a long time, and it’s come to light more over a series of events over the last number of months. And I think a leader is going to look at their mission and look at the core values, and I can just speak from our own experience, our own situation. We looked at our mission. Our mission is to help people fulfill their potential from a personal and professional development perspective. That’s what we do at TrueU. We help people fill their personal and professional potential. And so that’s the mission of who we are, but our values, our values state that count on me, others first, relationships matter, do hard things. Those are our four values. And so when this issue of the racial tension came up and the protests and so on, we took a step back as a team and said, what action, if any, is appropriate for us, given this dynamic that’s going on in our world right now. So we looked at those things and said, you know what? We believe that all people have to have the opportunity to fulfill their potential, our mission, personally and professionally, and we’re going to do hard things. We’re going to do the right thing. We’re going to do hard things. We believe relationships matter. Others first, you can count on me, we’re going to be an ally, people that are trustworthy, that count on me piece. So we decided to step into that and to provide a forum for people to come together and to learn about this issue. So we started a special podcast series on invitations to listen is what it’s called. We’re interviewing leaders, people of color, and we can listen to what they’re experience is. And then, we’re also doing a leadership series that had 418 people sign up for it. It was a webinar, and it was on let’s talk about race, we had three people of color that were a panel. They shared their experiences and what can be done, to be a part of the solution to create a greater sense of justice and equality in our world today. So I think that to your question, it’s understanding, who are we and what are our values? And are we living authentically? Are we living consistently with who we say we are and what we are? And to the degree that you can do that, I think people within your organization will say, you know what? This is the real deal. I really believe we are who we say we are, who we want to be. And I see that and my level of engagement is going to go up. There’s a lot of talk today, Neil, about engagement. What’s my level of engagement within the organization? That’s an important attribute to culture. Engagement really is about trust. And if I don’t trust you, I’m not going to get engaged. I give the example of being engaged to be married. We all understand what that is when someone says, will you marry me? Get down on your knee and say, will you marry me? And the answer to that question, the first question that’s going to come up in the mind of the person who’s been proposed to, most often is, can I trust this person? Am I willing to commit my life to be in relationship with this person at the exclusion of all others? And the number one attribute if you ask people that question, you’re going to say, can I trust them? Do I trust them? It also applies, I think that same principle applies in the workplace, when people say, if I’m going to be all in for this organization, if I’m going to bring my whole self and I’m going to go above and beyond, I want to know that I can trust the leadership. This is an authentic organization, they’re going to do what they say they’re going to do. There’s an intentionality to live consistent with their mission and their core values. No one’s perfect. Nobody expects you to be perfect. They do expect you to be earnest and honest in your attempts to live consistently with that. And I think the high performing digital company understands that and embraces that. And we look at an issue like the racial tension issue in the context of who we say that we are, who we want to be. And therefore that’s going to guide what kind of actions we take or don’t take in regards to whatever the issue is that comes up.
Yeah, for sure. Kyle, let’s end with this one. I want you to look out into the future. Let’s say we’ve been trying this for a while, we’ve got lots of good companies, like the ones you mentioned, that are pushing the boundaries of what it means to have a good digital culture. When we talk about a level five digital workplace or a level five digital culture, it’s always like that one step beyond from what we can see right now. So where do you think we’re going to start pushing those boundaries? Where are the most farthest reaching companies going to be in two or three years from now? What are the issues they’re going to be facing?
I think that the highest performing organizations are going to embrace the attributes about them. You’re going to feel, when you go to that organization, you’re going to feel a culture. We have one person within TrueU, John Loftus, NJ insurance and he’s made the statement before. We want it to be uncomfortable to work here, if you’re not on growth journey. I think these digital level five companies, level five digital culture companies are going to be an environment where everyone there is on a growth journey. They’re all talking about what they’re reading, they’re all talking about what they’re learning about themselves, about others. And it’s uncomfortable to work there if you’re not because that’s what everybody’s talking about. And you’re getting asked questions. What are you reading, Neil? Well, I’m not reading anything. Well, you’re going to feel uncomfortable to work in that environment if you’re not trying to learn, how do we leverage technology? How do we create an environment where you create the highest performance within our organization? How do we support each other in doing that? I think there’s this granting of permission to hold each other accountable as well. I think a level five digital culture is one where I can come to you and say, Hey, I’m working on this, I’m struggling with this, I want you to ask me in two weeks how I’m doing on this. And you’re not my supervisor, you’re just a colleague. But we give people permission to hold us accountable on things that we’re working on. I think transparency is assumed in those level five organizations. Data is readily available. Technology is leveraged to provide that data in real time, so that I have what I need to make good decisions and to do good project work. That’s made available to me. I think there’s clarity of expectations and celebration of achievements and learning from these goals. So a level five company is going to be innovative, they’re going to push the boundaries. And you can’t be an innovative company if people are scared to fail. So you have to have this environment where there’s clear expectations, there’s celebration of achievement. But when people fail, there’s learning to come from it. And that’s how it’s looked at. What do we learn from this? And we’re a learning organization, that’s important to us, that people aren’t punished, but we learn from what their experiences are. I think it’s not about physical proximity. It’s about relationships and winning together. It doesn’t matter where you’re working. Let’s be in relationships, be intentional around the communication. I think level five companies are apolitical and they’re results oriented. I think when there’s low levels of trust in an organization, it becomes a political organization. People are always covering their backside. They’re thinking politically. Very counterproductive to be a high performing organization. So level five companies are apolitical because there’s high levels of trust, there’s high levels of transparency, that data is readily available. And then the last thing I would say, Neil, to that point, I think that focus equals growth. So you create an environment where people are given the opportunity to really focus and everybody knows what it is that we’re working on, what’s the most important to the organization, what’s expected of me, and then I do that both personally as well as professionally. And as people grow, what we believe is businesses don’t grow, people do. And so as you focus on growing people, both personally and professionally, watch their business take off. And that’s a cultural attribute that you create within an organization where you focus on personal and professional growth of your people and the business growth will be a consequence of that.
Now, I’m excited to think about what office cultures will be like in the future. Because I think, like you’re saying, all these things are true. And we need to bring in a sense of belonging, like you belong here, because you care about the same things we do. We approach life in a similar way. And I think that’s just an important thing to see. And at the same time, even with our earlier question, recognizing that and we all need to push ourselves to be more inclusive of other people that maybe have a different mindset, maybe have a slightly different opinion to it. It’s almost like family. You don’t get to choose who’s there and sometimes they push you in different ways, and you get to choose when you can be there, which that’s a whole issue in itself. Like does a high functioning culture, a business, does that function as a family or not? I have my own thoughts on that. I’m sure you do, too. We’ll save that for another episode.
Yeah, I think that’s right. And one of the things that I learned in healthcare around diversity is to the degree that you can structure your organization in a way that reflects those that you serve, you’re going to serve them better. You’re going to understand the cultural nuances that people have. You’re going to be able to better anticipate what needs are and folks in a way that’s going to best meet their needs. And so diversity really is about being a better organization, about providing better service and better care to those that you serve.
And I think that’s the tension, too, because as you focus on culture, you may become more insular and you may become more like, no, I like these people because they think like me, and they act like me, and I’m very comfortable around them. So there has to be this constant tension of like, yes, that’s true. And we should double down on that. And we should also double down on bringing in diverse voices that we haven’t heard before.
That’s a great point, Neil. And I think that’s an unconscious pitfall of culture oftentimes, is you’re trying to find people who are like minded. You’re trying to find people who are going to fit in this culture. Well, the downside of that is you may do that at the expense of diversity. And all of a sudden, it’s actually become a drain on your business and your ability to see and anticipate really bright people bring in people who think differently than they do and challenge them because they know that you’re going to arrive at the best outcomes and decisions when you’re intentional about doing that. It’s counterintuitive, though. It doesn’t come naturally. You have to be intentional about it.
We’ll call you, set us up for a good part two coming up later. We’ll get into these issues more. But we’ll close this one out for now. It’s been great to speak with you and to talk about these topics. Thanks for the work you’re doing in your community and elsewhere. And we look forward to interacting with you more.
Wonderful, Neil. Thank you so much. And I’m so excited about the work you’re doing in the Digital Workplace. Fantastic work and I’m looking forward to continue these conversations as we move forward. Real excited about that so thank you so much.
Kyle came to trueU with a desire to work with companies who genuinely wanted create great cultures and help their employees become better people. Work can be life giving and energizing if you can connect your work with purpose and work in an environment where people care about one another. Kyle is inspired by trueU’s Member Companies and is excited about the relationships that are being formed and the personal and business growth that is resulting.
Kyle’s role at trueU is to provide vision, make connections, lead the trueU Team and ensure member companies are contributing and receiving value from the trueU Community.
Kyle served 25 years as a healthcare executive, most recently serving as President of St.Vincent Indianapolis Hospital for 7 years. In this role, Kyle oversaw operational responsibility for St. Vincent Indianapolis Hospital, Peyton Manning Chiildren’s Hospital and St. Vincent Women’s Hospital, consisting of over 950 inpatient beds and $1.2 billion in revenue.
When not working, Kyle enjoys spending time with his wife of over 30 years, Dana. He also serves as a mentor to a number of young leaders in their 20s and 30s. He enjoys golf, reading and serving at his church. He is on the board of EDGE Mentoring and Anderson University. He and Dana have 2 sons, Cameron and Clayton.