Sirtex Medical is in the business of saving lives. The global medical device company, headquartered in Woburn, MA, creates devices to treat patients with liver cancer, including a radioactive minimally invasive radiation therapy.
“Everything we do here is centered on the patient experience,” says Cathleen Lowndes, CHRO of Sirtex. That commitment begins with how they support the workforce, who “have a lot of talent and not a lot of ego,” says Lowndes.
When an engagement survey in 2017 showed Sirtex employees wanted more and better professional development opportunities, Lowndes decided they needed to build a talent development program that could accommodate the company’s culture, passion and unique scientific skill sets.
At the time, she was working with Surepeople, a people analytics platform, where she partnered with Juan Antonio Ruiz-Hau, Surepeople’s head of content and learning strategy, to build the emotional intelligence of Sirtex’s workforce.
“The brilliance of Juan is that he cuts through the noise to focus on things that are important to the individual,” says Demetra Anagnostopoulos Co-CEO of Surepeople. “He’s masterful at adapting to stakeholder needs – focusing on high level strategy for leaders and going into detail when he needs to.”
“Juan got our mission and understood the importance of our work,” Lowndes says. At the same time, Ruiz-Hau was passionate about helping businesses improve performance by giving their people the tools they needed to be better managers, leaders and performers.
Lowndes believed Ruiz-Hau was exactly the right person to lead Sirtex’s learning transformation. So, she hired him as the company’s first global director of talent management and sales effectiveness.
It was the perfect match.
Small town boy
Ruiz-Hau was born in a small town in Puerto Rico. His parents were school teachers who spoke no English, but when he was two years old, they moved to Chicago and later to Boston.
“Imagine moving from a small town to a big city where you don’t speak the language,” Ruiz-Hau says. He says his parents wanted to create a better future for their kids, and they were willing to disrupt their lives to make it happen. “It is part of the immigrant story that so many of us share.”
It was the 1970s, and at the time there were no immersive elementary school language programs, so Ruiz-Hau learned English the hard way – by sitting in an all-English speaking classroom and figuring it out.
His parents also learned the language, and both went on to get advanced degrees from Harvard and Boston University. Their ability to attain that level of education and success despite the odds, shaped his own perception of education and the importance of engaging diverse students and faculty in the educational environment.
As an adult, Ruiz-Hau received a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Boston University and an MBA from Boston College. The combination reflected his own dual interests in helping people find what inspires them as a way to build more resilient, customer-focused businesses.
He’s now bringing that balance of human and business development to the team at Sirtex.
Building EQ from the ground up
The company’s 266 employees include scientists, engineers and researchers who are adept at pursuing the knowledge they needed to do their jobs. So when Ruiz-Hau was hired he didn’t want to dictate what training programs employees had to complete. Rather he sought ways to “infuse the company with the skills needed to balance people and business.” That approach is driving a talent transformation across the organization.
Sirtex didn’t have a huge budget for change, but Ruiz-Hau found innovative ways to engage employees in learning, coaching and performance management to drive a more connected and collaborative environment. It started with a focus on emotional intelligence (EQ).
Lowndes and Ruiz-Hau believe EQ is the key to creating a stronger, more values-driven organization that results in better business outcomes. They want to foster EQ in every employee at Sirtex.
Ruiz-Hau originally worked with Lowndes when he was a consultant at Surepeople to bring Prism, a comprehensive psychometric assessment, into the Sirtex culture. Prism is a personality tool that maps three elements of employees’ behavior: how they prefer to behave, the patterns of behavior they usually follow and the extent to which they are able to modify that behavior to achieve key objectives.
Ruiz-Hau continues to use the tool to shape everything they do, from hiring through personal development. “We use Prism to help our people build self awareness; to understand themselves and how they relate to others,” he says.
We all serve a purpose
That begins with talent acquisition. Rather than hiring talent only based on specific skill sets, he’s taught recruiting managers to look for people who “map to the culture,” by identifying features like humble leadership, innovative thinking and collaborative personalities.
He also aligned the company’s onboarding process to make sure the talent they do hire feels immediately engaged with the team and the business. “Onboarding should be about relationship building and hand holding – not paperwork,” he says.
Now every time a candidate is hired, Ruiz-Hau makes sure they meet the CEO and a chosen group of “influencers” related to their role in their first few weeks on the job.
They also all learn about the company’s products and how they help patients with liver cancer. This is an important element of Ruiz-Hau’s leadership philosophy, says Santiago Madrinan, leader of global sales effectiveness training. “Every employee represents the product, not just sales reps,” Madrinan says. “So they all need to be educated about the product and how it ties to their roles.”
Ruiz-Hau also makes sure each employee understands how their individual work supports the company’s goals – regardless of their role. Lowndes says she has seen Ruiz-Hau sit with many employees, from scientists to receptionists, talking them through how the work they do connects to the business and to patient care. “There were a lot of ‘aha’ moments,” she says.
The onboarding program and efforts to connect employees to the business received rave reviews. “We are also seeing tremendous improvements in culture, engagement, leadership and diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) efforts,” Ruiz-Hau says.
Everyone’s in sales
Ruiz-Hau and Madrinan have since opened sales and product training to everyone in the company as a way to expand the onboarding program to give all employees access to content on how the products and business works, as well as the c-suite perspective on the where the company is going. This content was delivered virtually during the pandemic, but Madrinan is looking forward to offering it live at the Boston office over several days to anyone who wants to attend. “It’s a decision we made because we believe
“I want everyone to understand what we do and why we do it,” Ruiz-Hau says. “It is how they become part of the fabric of the company.”
everyone in the company will benefit from understanding our products and services,” he says.
They weren’t sure how interested employees would be in sitting through product training courses, but the response has been amazing. Madrinan recently hosted a course on the biology of cancer for a group of five new employees and 30 people showed up. “We’ve created a culture where you can always get access to education and people are really engaging.”
Ruiz-Hau’s teams have also given employees greater control over their own personal development paths, through Own Your Own Career. Through the program, Ruiz-Hau has promised $4000 to every employee to use for personal or professional development as they see fit. It can include any topic an employee is interested in, as long as they can communicate the value to their managers.
Ruiz-Hau is encouraging managers to be open-minded to all ideas. “You never know how the dots will align,” he says. He likes to share the story of Steve Jobs spending time in a calligraphy class in college, which he attributes to the Mac’s first font collection. “Who are we to say someone shouldn’t take a class or attend a conference if they see value in it.”
Employees love the program and have used it for everything from online masterclasses to Harvard leadership programs.
Leading the leaders
Ruiz-Hau’s next goal is focusing on leadership training and using employees’ Prism profiles to help them become better coaches by adapting their style to the needs of their people. “We are creating a culture where leaders lead with humanity,” he says.
Ruiz-Hau uses the Prism profiles to help managers become more self aware about how they lead, and their preferred leadership methods. Then he teaches them how to use their team members’ Prism profiles to understand what mentoring strategies they are most likely to respond to.
It’s had a profound impact on leadership for many managers, particularly those who aren’t inherently focused on the relational side of management, he says. He recalls working with one manager who was struggling to guide a team member who was outcomes focused and tended to ignore his suggested changes.
The manager thought he was telling her what to do, but Ruiz-Hau helped him recognize that his communication style was causing his directives to be heard as suggestions. “A lightbulb went off,” Ruiz-Hau says. At the time, the manager was trying to find a way to get that person to leave the organization, but once he altered his communication style, she became much more receptive and her performance improved significantly. “Now they both see a successful way forward.”
Ruiz-Hau also tries to demonstrate this behavior in all his interactions as a way to embed them in the company culture. “He has a comfortable way of talking to people that is never defensive,” Madrinan says. “He never tells someone ‘this is the way to do it.’ He tries to help them think about how they might find a better way.”
Focusing on EQ and encouraging people to lead with humility and civility has altered the culture at Sirtex. “We are self-orienting to civility,” Ruiz-Hau says. “When people don’t speak in kind ways, others react. It causes people to auto-correct.”
He’s now using the work invested in Prism and EQ to address the mental health needs of all employees. He notes that recent employee surveys show people are facing a lot of uncertainty about the future and he hopes to ease their stress by offering wellness programs and teaching leaders how to have purpose-driven conversation with employees struggling to see the way forward. “Leaders have an important role to play right now in helping employees feel connected to the organization.” Sirtex believes Ruiz-Hau is the perfect leader to help guide them through this crisis and beyond.