Create a recognition-focused culture. One of the best ways to encourage productivity and positivity at work is to follow the workplace golden rule: “criticize in private; praise in public”. Publicly praising your team for a job well-done shows that you see them, you appreciate them, and you’re giving credit where credit is due.
As a part of our series about “How business leaders can create a fantastic work environment”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Cortney Baker. She went from teenage mom to becoming the founder and CEO of an eight-figure healthcare business, KidsCare Home Health, servicing over 5,000 special needs children. Leveraging her experiences, she coaches female entrepreneurs on how to start and scale their own service-based businesses. As a leadership expert, business coach, and mother, Cortney is passionate about empowering women to close the gender gap through the power of entrepreneurship. This focus was also her area of research when pursuing her Ed.D. in Organizational Leadership from Pepperdine University. A TEDx speaker, podcast host, and author of the best-selling book, ‘The Ten Do’s and Don’ts for Business Leadership: Lessons to Lead Effectively’ and, ‘Unlimited: Conquering the Myth of the Glass Ceiling,’ Dr. Cortney shares these messages internationally for organizations, associations, and entrepreneurs. Dr. Cortney was named the 2016/2017 Texas Business Woman of the Year, and the Top 100 in Healthcare in America.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I was pregnant when I graduated high school and had to put college on hold. Six months into adulthood, I was a single teen mom pulling double shifts waitressing and surviving on food stamps and Medicaid. Not quite what I’d planned, but I was determined to make it work.
It took a lot of grit, but I eventually worked my way through college and earned my master’s degree in Speech-Language Pathology. After graduation, I founded a pediatric home healthcare agency called KidsCare Therapy (now KidsCare Home Health). What started with ten children in Dallas is now an eight-figure enterprise employing 700+ people in 11 cities in three states (currently expanding to our fourth).
I’d always dreamed of going back to school and earning my doctorate degree. After a decade of running KidsCare Home Health, I began studying Organizational Leadership at Pepperdine University. A month in, at the age of 37, I suffered a massive double stroke and underwent seven-hour brain surgery. I re-enrolled in school four months later.
I’d been a little vague on my purpose up until that point, but going back to school gave me some much-needed clarity and focus. I realized I’d built up a lifetime of valuable experience as a successful female leader, but I also knew I was something of a rarity in my industry. Women comprise nearly 80 percent of the healthcare workforce, but occupy only 11 percent of the CEO positions.
I dedicated my research to finding out why women were so underrepresented in leadership — and more importantly, what could be done about it. I’ve turned my experience and my research findings into a business that empowers female entrepreneurs to scale their businesses and become confident, respected leaders.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
In May 2018, I was asked to be a keynote speaker at a conference in Dallas, where I presented my research findings and book, Unlimited: Conquering the Myth of the Glass Ceiling.
Afterward, a twenty-something young lady named Valerie approached me. She was a little star-struck, which was an interesting experience for me! She wanted to know more about my research, so I gave her a copy of my book and my contact information.
I received an email from Valerie about a month later. She’d followed the strategies outlined in the book and negotiated a 10,000 dollars raise from her employer! Wanting more, she asked if I’d mentor her and of course, I said yes.
We met for dinner and Valerie mentioned that she wanted to start her own business “one day”. I don’t do “one day!” I told her that if she wanted to go for it, then let’s get started right now.
Four months later, on the sixth anniversary of my stroke, Valerie launched a digital marketing agency, Lumos Creative. Within a year, she was well on her way to managing a six-figure agency and leading a global team of ten remote creatives.
With a little guidance and the right kind of leadership, this talented young woman went from underpaid employee to global leader herself in under a year. It made me wonder how many more “Valeries” were out there, and that thought ultimately drove me to establish my coaching business.
Are you working on any exciting projects now? How do you think that will help people?
My most recent coaching masterclass is called The 6 Cs of Scaling, which is aimed at female entrepreneurs in service-based businesses who want to scale up without burning out. The 6 Cs are:
- Clarity — how to clearly define your business vision and identify the action steps you need to get there.
- Create systems — how to create and automate the standard operating procedures you need at each stage of growth.
- Core staff — how to proactively hire the right fit for your company culture and values.
- Culture — how to intentionally cultivate your corporate culture before it defines itself.
- Cost — how to project your cash flow and take calculated risks.
- Commence — how to analyze and execute your vision as the CEO.
I started this particular project because I understand the challenge of trying to move your business to the next level. So many women with incredible potential stay stuck in one place because they don’t know how to scale their business. They keep doing what they’ve always done and expect to get somewhere they’ve never been. They’re overwhelmed by systems or hiring or delegation.
This is a systematic approach to scale that any service-based entrepreneur can follow. It’s a framework I’ve used myself, so I know first-hand that it can take a business from 5 to 6, 7, even 8 figures.
Ok, lets jump to the main part of our interview. According to this study cited in Forbes, more than half of the US workforce is unhappy. Why do you think that number is so high?
I think it’s a management vs leadership problem. Managers take a top-down approach, trying to use their power and influence to “manage” what people do. Leaders, on the other hand, demonstrate reasons for others to follow.
People don’t like to be managed. Nobody likes to feel like they’re being herded and controlled. People want to feel as though they have autonomy. Leadership is about giving them reasons to choose to follow you, and reasons to feel good about that choice.
Unfortunately, we have far more managers in the world than leaders, and the reason for that is simple. It’s assumed that people who are competent at a given task can lead others to do the same thing. But leadership is an entirely different skill set. It’s an art form that’s acquired through training, but 58% of managers never receive training.
Another reason I believe employees are unhappy is that managers are not engaging with them about their career goals and motivations. I would venture to guess that most managers don’t know the ideal career trajectory of their employees. And if you do know, are you helping them to move in that direction, or are you holding them back, which fosters resentment? Do you know what’s important to your employee career-wise? Not everybody is motivated by money- not everyone is moved by that carrot.
Based on your experience or research, how do you think an unhappy workforce will impact a) company productivity b) company profitability c) and employee health and wellbeing?
a) Company productivity
Research has shown that happy employees are up to 20% more productive than unhappy employees, who tend to show more hostility and less co-operation in the workplace. It makes sense; you’re not going to bust your bump in a job that makes you miserable, for a manager who doesn’t respect you. But when you’re happy in your job and you feel valued, you’re invested in the success of the company and you naturally want to work hard.
b) Company profitability
An unhappy workforce means a high employee turnover, which is directly tied to decreased profitability.
Too often, we hire for skill or even personality, without considering whether our new hire is a good culture fit, or god forbid, whether they’d be happy in the role. “Happy?! They should be happy to get paid!” Well, guess what? Unhappy people walk, and it costs a small fortune to keep hiring and training their replacements.
We could save all that money by simply hiring the right people from the start. You can teach them a skill. You can teach them your proprietary way of doing things. But you can’t teach them to fit a culture, and you can’t teach them to love a job.
c) Employee health and wellbeing
An unhappy workforce breeds resentment, stress and anxiety, which are directly linked to low productivity, high turnover and absenteeism. I’ve seen it myself as an employer and an employee. In fact, the main reason I started my own business was because I didn’t want to hop around from job to job as an undervalued employee for the rest of my life. I believed that if my “secret sauce” was making my employees happy, then the success would inevitably come. And it did, because when your employees are happy and healthy, so is your business.
Can you share 5 things that managers and executives should be doing to improve their company work culture? Can you give a personal story or example for each?
a) Make work fun again
I want my employees to want to be here! Before the pandemic, we’d order in catering and have The Office watch parties in the conference room. We’d have group games like Pictionary at lunch or theme months with competitions and games. During the pandemic, we sent Doordash gift cards to all our office staff and played a virtual game of Kahoot to get everyone “together”.
We have a CARE committee of volunteer employees that meets twice a year to plan events. We give them a budget of 10 dollars per person per month. They get extremely creative! For example, on National Baked Potato Day, we had a Mr Potato Head decorating competition. It doesn’t have to be expensive or elaborate. Just have fun!
b) Foster emotional intelligence
I think one of the best gifts a company can give their leaders and managers — hell, even their employees! — is the gift of emotional intelligence. We’ve used various personality/work style assessments and implemented leadership programs to help our staff understand their own individual ways of processing information and how they interact with the world around them. It’s a real gift to witness as they start understanding themselves better and having those “AHA!” moments.
c) Invest in women
Women are still undervalued in the workplace and at home. They do 1.7 hours of housework and childcare for every hour done by a man, and they have to work much harder to meet the demands of work and home life.
At work, moms face “the motherhood penalty”, where they’re perceived as less available (and paid less) than men and child-free women. Even those same child-free women are considered risky hires/promotions compared to their male colleagues. They might not have a family yet, but it’s only a matter of time, right?!
This is not 1950! Women make up a huge chunk of the workforce, so any conversation about creating a positive working culture needs to address the very real issues that they’re facing. Leaders need to keep pushing for equality in pay and opportunities. Challenge conscious and unconscious assumptions about women in work. Offer flexibility so that moms aren’t pushed out of the workplace.
d) Create a recognition-focused culture
One of the best ways to encourage productivity and positivity at work is to follow the workplace golden rule: “criticize in private; praise in public”. Publicly praising your team for a job well-done shows that you see them, you appreciate them, and you’re giving credit where credit is due.
e) Communicate clearly and consistently “where the ship is sailing”
A successful, productive organization is about more than just putting the core values up on the wall and checking boxes. Every employee should know the direction the company is taking, what the goals are, and the part they play in the company’s success. Communicate, communicate, communicate!
It’s very nice to suggest ideas, but it seems like we have to “change the culture regarding work culture”. What can we do as a society to make a broader change in the US workforce’s work culture?
Nothing changes overnight. We need to take small steps and incorporate changes one at a time until that change becomes woven into the fabric of our culture. Then, we move onto the next change.
How would you describe your leadership or management style? Can you give us a few examples?
My leadership style is about earning rather than demanding respect. Earn your team’s respect, and they’ll follow you naturally because they want to. Demand respect you haven’t earned, and you’ll be pushing them uphill all the way.
I’ve walked in my team’s shoes and I’ve worked in the field, so they know I’m never asking them to do something I haven’t done myself. That goes a long way towards earning respect.
I also invest in making my company an enjoyable place to be. Everybody knows I’m the leader, but I don’t feel the need to take myself too seriously or throw my weight around. People don’t feel they have to stop talking and look busy when I walk in the room. There’s mutual trust.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
I am the leader I am today because of all of my past managers; they showed me exactly what NOT to do! I learned how not to behave as a leader from pretty much every boss I had before I started my own company. In fact, they were the major driving force behind my move into entrepreneurship.
For instance, prior to starting KidsCare Home Health, the owners of the company where I worked would openly talk about how all employees were replaceable. As a 28-year-old Texas spitfire, that didn’t sit well with me! But that experience inspired what I attribute to KidsCare’s “secret sauce”: treat your employees well! I knew that if I treated people fairly, the way I wanted to be treated, the success would follow. And it has!
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
If we continue at our current rate, we won’t achieve gender equality at the C-level for another hundred years. I’m a mom to two teenage girls. I don’t have 100 years to change the world they live in! I refuse to accept that for them and for other girls, but I know that the only way to bring about change is to BE that change.
We’ve played nice and we’ve politely requested a seat at the table. Now’s the time to stop asking! For the last two years, I’ve been helping female entrepreneurs start and scale their service-based businesses through my two signature coaching programs, From Side Hustle to CEO and Scaling Society. It’s my hope that we can create a generation of women who have the tools to “build their own tables”.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“In a world of rhinestones, be a diamond.”
Integrity and morality are becoming increasingly rare in our society. So many people simply don’t follow through on their word. Being a good person is almost seen as a character weakness, especially in business. We’re told that good guys finish last and you have to be cutthroat and bloodthirsty to succeed.
I completely reject this mentality! I encourage people to rise above that pressure and keep sight of their moral true north. It costs nothing to be kind, and it’s far better to be remembered for integrity than aggression.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I’d start the #screw100years movement! We shouldn’t have to wait another 100 DAYS for gender equality in leadership. If we could put men and women on a level playing field, everybody would benefit. When partners share the load evenly, their relationships are stronger. When moms are happy at work, they’re proven to be better equipped to raise happy kids. Everybody wins when we’re equal. Why would we want to wait 100 years for that?!
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We wish you continued success!