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“To create a fantastic work culture make sure to make human connections” With Mike Koehler of University of Missouri Health Care and Phil Laboon

Make human connections. I use both regular 1:1 meetings with my direct reports as well as frequent “skip-levels” with frontline employees in my organization to create personal connections. As a part of my series about about how leaders can create a “fantastic work culture”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Mike Koehler. Mike serves as […]



Make human connections. I use both regular 1:1 meetings with my direct reports as well as frequent “skip-levels” with frontline employees in my organization to create personal connections.


As a part of my series about about how leaders can create a “fantastic work culture”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Mike Koehler. Mike serves as Chief Human Resources Officer at the University of Missouri Health Care. Mike provides strategic and operational leadership in the development and delivery of state-of-the art human resources programs and initiatives that enable University of Missouri Health Care to fulfill its mission, execute its business strategies and maintain its competitive excellence. He has over 20 years of experience leading diverse HR and corporate functions through organizational transformations, mergers and acquisitions, periods of rapid growth and contraction, and extensive quality and performance improvement efforts. He successfully designed, launched and ran a very large and successful HR Shared Services operation while also leading employment branding and culture transformation efforts for a Fortune 25 organization. Mike’s prior employers include Express Scripts, Citi, Maritz and Asbury Services. He lives in Columbia with his wife and children and hails originally from Maryland.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

In college, I majored in psychology and had a business minor. I was interested in both fields but didn’t really know what I wanted to study in graduate school. I spoke with several professors and business leaders and found that human resources was a good blend of my interests, so I decided to pursue HR. It’s worked out pretty well.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

I’ve been the chief human resources officer at University of Missouri Health Care for only seven months, but I have more than 20 years of human resources experience. MU Health Care is an academic health system, and our mission is to save and improve lives. Observing our surgical operations first-hand was a fascinating experience. Both traditional and minimally invasive surgical procedures make the work of health care incredibly real. I’ve also encountered a number of amazing leaders both in our health system and in our university. I’m constantly fascinated by my colleagues across the organization.

Are you working on any exciting projects now? How do you think that will help people?

One of the exciting projects I’m working on now is how to drive a better employee experience. We’ve done a great job in recent years with improving employee engagement, and we’re intent on finding ways to create better employee experiences across the employee lifecycle. We’re using methods from fields like marketing and anthropology to better understand the needs of our people and create differentiated employee experiences. We’re also rolling out an improved, electronic recognition program to enable peer-to-peer and leader-to-employee recognition. We’ll finally have the technology to enable real-time recognition and then track the aspects of our culture that are driving the most recognition.

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?

Unfortunately, the sad statistics in this article, and in so many others that cite similar bad news, are really reflective of society in general. Regardless of my personal beliefs about why society is heading in many wrong directions, I believe that companies, and leaders in particular, have a responsibility to do all we can to create an environment where people can be happy. Some companies do this better than others. We need to learn from those companies.

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?

There are many ways in which an unhappy workforce negatively impacts business results. The reason that most concerns me is the direct impact of employee satisfaction, engagement and happiness have on the customer — or in our case, patient — experience. More and more across any industry, customer experience is everything. It doesn’t take many negative customer experiences to sink a business, and employees create the customer experience. On the flip side, when employees create a great customer experience, the customer’s reaction usually creates a virtuous cycle of a great employee experience. The more these employee-customer interactions turn positive, the more opportunity for improving workplace cultures and society.

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?

1. Build strong and diverse teams. There is no more important leadership responsibility. Leaders should surround themselves with people who are different and stronger than themselves and encourage collaboration among those individuals.

2. Make human connections. I use both regular 1:1 meetings with my direct reports as well as frequent “skip-levels” with frontline employees in my organization to create personal connections.

3. Recognize performance. I use our recognition program as well as just saying “thank you” sincerely to help others feel appreciated.

4. Be honest. Leadership communications and town hall meetings should address the “elephants in the room” and address what other leaders are reluctant to address.

5. Speak truth to power above you. We all have a boss that needs to hear the hard truth. Leaders need to be courageous and step up to challenges.

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?

We need to continue to celebrate what’s working. Many companies have fantastic cultures and engaged teams, and we need to continue to tell those stories and help others learn from them.

How would you describe your leadership or management style? Can you give us a few examples?

I am highly engaged and empowering. I dedicate several hours per week engaging directly with all levels of the organization in 1:1 and team settings. In the past few months, I’ve stood up multiple cross-functional teams to tackle serious business challenges. My №1 job is to develop others, and engaging cross-functional teams in exciting work is a great way to develop people.

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?

One of my earliest human resources leaders comes to mind. When we talked through decisions or daily issues, he was always careful to explain his thought process to me so I could understand what was important to him and how he made decisions. I learned early that the sooner one can understand how his/her leader thinks, the more successful you both can be.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

In addition to serving on various not-for-profit boards of directors over the years, I like to think I’ve created great leaders and contributed to great work places. I hope I’ve been able to contribute in a way so the organizations and teams I’ve worked with are in a better place that when I found them.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

One of my favorites is “Leave things better than you found them.” I have moved from place to place quite a bit in my personal life. I attended five different elementary schools and have had over 20 places I’ve called “home.” I found early on in life that it’s much more fulfilling to leave places and people in a better position than when I found them.

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. 🙂

It’s not a novel idea at all, but somehow it has failed to catch on over the years: we need to do all we can as people to be helpful to other people. Random acts of kindness and paying it forward. Call it whatever you want, but it’s about choosing to be a good, helpful human, for no other reason than to be a good, helpful human.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We wish you continued success!

About the Author:

Phil Laboon wants to live in a world where actions speak louder than words, people shout their stories from roof tops, and where following one’s passion is the norm. As a serial entrepreneur and investor, his personal and professional life has spotlighted in hundreds of publications such as People Magazine, Rueters, Forbes, Inc, HuffingtonPost, and CBS This Morning. Phil also writes a regular, nationally syndicated column on the subject of how great leaders build great companies. When he’s not building memorable brands or launching exciting startups, you can find him backpacking exotic countries looking for new inspiration and challenges. If you would like to book Phil for an entertaining speaking engagement about inbound marketing or growing a business, he can be contacted HERE.

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