We recently celebrated the end of our 29th year with an employee party at our main office, which included food trucks, ice cream, Rho-branded hoodies, and profit-sharing bonus checks. Co-CEOs Laura Helms Reece and Russ Helms shared some thoughts about important events of the past year and about our future. What follows is a summary of their remarks, minus some confidential information.
I get to to share some of the amazing stories of the last year. I want to start with the Ernst and Young Entrepreneur of the Year Awards. This year, Rho nominated Russ and me for the Ernst and Young Entrepreneur of the Year. Rho nominates us for awards from time to time and usually nothing comes of it. So, I wasn’t expecting much from this time either. Still, Brook White wrote a beautiful nomination and Russ and I dressed up for the local interview.
It was actually a really fun interview. We got to talk about the things at Rho that make us the most proud. We talked about what happens when smart, talented people care about the important work they do. We talked about getting the culture right. We talked about keeping the culture right. We talked about our cultural fit interviews, new hire lunches with the CEOs, and Breakfast with the Board. We talked about our flexible workplace that allows all of us to balance our jobs and our other responsibilities. We talked about project-centered teams producing amazing results for our clients and giving people opportunities to try to master new things. We talked about Rho24 and Innovation Showcases [Rho24 is a day we set aside twice a year for the entire company to focus on innovation]. We talked about our theme for this year, “Know your project”.
At one point, one of the interviewers asked how we manage all the maternity leaves. I laughed at that one. You have no idea how much management time is spent on coordinating maternity leave around here. I explained about people pulling together and stepping up to the plate. Then he asked, “What percentage of women come back to work?” I must have looked stunned. We’ve never thought to measure that. After all, we’re not exactly managing to it. I thought about it and said, truthfully, “We’ve never really spent time on that metric. Maybe one woman a year doesn’t come back. Maybe it’s one woman every two years.” The panel looked stunned and scribbled notes as fast as they could.
Much to Russ’ and my surprise, we made the next round. We were finalists! Of course, based on our previous experience, I assumed everyone was a finalist. None the less, we put our suits back on and headed to Charlotte. And yes, Russ wore dress shoes. Tara [Gladwell] made me promise I’d check.
The Charlotte interview was tougher. My first hint of that came at lunch. First of all, there were only 2 female finalists in Charlotte. At Rho, that’s not my day-to-day experience. But the real give away came when we discussed the awards gala. You see, Ernst and Young throws a very fancy awards gala for all the finalists. Originally, Russ and I had a deal: I’d handle the gala. Unfortunately for Russ, the gala was the same night as Elle’s [Laura’s oldest child] preschool graduation. So, Russ had to represent us at the gala. Come on! My girl learned songs. There was a cap and a gown. There was a cute diploma. I wasn’t going to miss that!
This was a shock to the folks in Charlotte. Couldn’t my husband attend the graduation? This was my first serious clue that this was not my tribe.
After lunch, we did the interviews. These interviewers were more assertive and used more business jargon. Since Russ and I took over as CEOs, our revenues had increased dramatically and costs hadn’t. What did we do? So Russ and I talked about what we always talk about: smart, talented people who care about the work they do. We talked about mastery. We talked about work that matters. We talked about a supportive environment. We talked about a flat organizational structure that shrunk our overhead costs. We talked about moving a project rock star into a sales leadership position. Honestly, I think we shared every last secret.
Finally, one of the interviewers interrupted us: “We’ve heard enough about your great people. What processes and systems did you change?” He wanted a secret sauce. Our employees are our secret sauce. That’s what we’ve got.
It turned out that less than 5% of the applicants became finalists. And the list of finalists was humbling for me. We didn’t win. Our secret sauce did pretty well though.
At the start of the fiscal year, we had 328 employees. We now have 340. In case you were wondering, we’ve had 26 babies this year. That’s 1 baby for every 13 employees. And while that’s a management challenge, it’s a wonderful challenge to have. We’re fortunate to have those challenges. (By the way, 2014 is shaping up to be a baby-filled year, too.) We jump in and help out and work around employee needs. I’m thrilled for every new baby. I’m sad with every sick parent. But with all the human stuff we struggle with, we struggle together. And I am so proud to be part of this team.
So other than babies, how did we do? We’ve done some really cool work this year. From NDAs for drugs that fulfill an unmet medical need to trials on biologics with the potential to save lives, the work we do matters. It saves lives and changes lives for the better. We can all be proud of the work we do.
This has been a pretty good year. Looking forward, we think next year is likely to be a bit better, but the promise is not without risk or without challenges. Right now, because of an improving economy in our industry and some great work by our commercial business development professionals, we have extremely strong commercial sales. That’s led to the strongest commercial backlog we’ve ever had (backlog means work we’ve sold but haven’t done yet).
One of our challenges is that there’s a lot of work to be done. As you’ve probably noticed, that growth in sales has led to some growth in headcount. There are a number of new faces at Rho, and we’re not done expanding. Maintaining our excellence, maintaining a customer experience of unrivalled quality, and maintaining our culture of caring are all challenges in the face of growth.
As part of our stability strategy, we like to keep our work in the federal and commercial markets balanced, so one of our challenges is increasing federal wins to keep pace. We’re going to do that despite a challenging funding environment, which means taking away work from competitors. Our competitors are pretty good, but they don’t provide a customer experience to rival our quality.
These are tough challenges. These are the kind of challenges that come from success, and they’re the kind of challenges we want to face. It’s because you are so talented and because you work so well in a team culture that we’ve had the successes. And for those same reasons we’re highly confident that we can meet the challenges we see.
But I hope you’re sitting there asking yourself, “Great, what can I do to help?”
Here’s what you can do:
- Keep creating results
- Keep building relationships
- Keep having a positive impact
- Delight your customers!
- Make steady, daily progress
- Know your projects-
*Your results will be better if you know the science on all your projects
*Your results will be better if know the finances on all your projects
*Your results will be better if you can help out in areas outside your expertise
- Improve your relationships with your teammates: Understand their contribution, help them out, and smooth out the handoffs.
- Improve your relationships with your clients: The more you know about what your clients want, the better you can help them reach their goals.
- Improve your relationships with your colleagues: Catch them doing something right, and reinforce it. Welcome the new faces, and show them the Rho Way.
Increase your impact
The last major thing you can do is to improve your impact. On your projects, you’re doing it by knowing your project. Take initiative, and collaborate. Do that beyond your projects, too. When you have ideas, write them down and try them out in Rho24 days. If you didn’t write them down, participate in the Rho24 days to help with someone else’s idea, there are plenty of ways to contribute! Go to the innovation showcases, and figure out ways to apply what you see. There are lots of little things you can do to improve your impact.
As always, what you can do boils down to results, relationships, and impact.
Let me finish up with a reminder of why I think this is all worth doing. Earlier this year, I went to a steering committee meeting. There I met a patient from one of our trials. This young lady had a kidney transplant as a teenager. The drugs she got along with that new kidney suppressed her immune system. By the time she was in college, she was in a wheelchair, because her feet and leg were so covered with sores. Her transplant gave her life, but took away her ability to walk. She entered one of our studies, she got off those immunosuppressive drugs, she got out of her wheelchair, she started running, and now she runs marathons.
That’s what we do, folks. Sometimes it works. Sometimes we give people their lives back.