According to Gentiva Health Services’ Eric Slusser, success requires putting the right people in the right seats.
By Christine Gatuiria
Eric Slusser gets it done. With an extensive skill set in finance and operations management from years of experience in several industries, Slusser is who you call when change is necessary. As the Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer (CFO) at Gentiva Health Services, the largest provider of home health care and hospice services, his current focus is on growing a health care business in a difficult economic and regulatory environment.
“There is never a lack of being challenged in our environment,” Slusser said.
Slusser started out in public accounting with Arthur Anderson in 1983, where he was exposed to a wide range of organizations and projects. In 1995, he became aware of an opportunity at a startup called Sprint PCS Wireless (now Sprint Nextel). He joined the young company and rode the wave of rapid growth and success for eight years.
He then was recruited by MCI/WorldCom and hired in the wake of the accounting scandals and resulting bankruptcy filing. He was tasked with cleaning up the books and helping rebuild the finance organization, and he rose to the occasion. Based on hard work and results, Slusser’s reputation grew and he moved on and up, gaining knowledge and experience with companies such as Cardinal Health, and eventually finding his current position at Gentiva.
In an effort to unfold Slusser’s keys to success, Forefront sat down with Slusser to discuss his journey, what he has learned and where he finds his inspiration.
Forefront: Based on your background, it seems like a common theme has been jumping in those things you’re not familiar with and becoming the fixer-upper. Can you tell me what draws you to working in these types of challenging environments?
Eric Slusser: Fortunately they are not all fixer-uppers, but I certainly enjoy complex business and financial challenges. After having done it several times, I am certainly comfortable jumping into foreign situations or new businesses and helping them solve complex issues and focus on how to grow the business.
I think what draws me to it is my experience going back to the days of public accounting where I saw a lot of different businesses. One of the benefits of working in public accounting is that you would be put in a lot of different situations and a lot of different types of industries faced with solving a lot of different problems. From there, going to Sprint PCS—which was a startup dealing with high growth and a constantly changing environment—has given me a background of skill sets that I feel I can deal with any challenge or complex business.
Forefront: What do you think is your key to success?
Slusser: One of my past bosses made a comment saying your experiences are the sum of your experience. I think the fact that having faced all those challenging environments in several different industries gives me a very broad spectrum of experience and perspective in dealing with different issues. The other key thing as a finance leader is you have to see the big picture and be able to manage across the complete process to be successful. There are many moving parts, and you have to understand how each and every one impacts the other as you move through change and growth.
For example, at the Sprint PCS Wireless business, the challenge there was it was a true startup. Day one there was no people, no process and no systems, and so we built everything from scratch. And it went from startup to about a $15-billion business in eight years. The challenge was that every day was extremely fast paced and high growth, so you had to constantly react to the changes in the people, processes and systems and grow them alongside the business. I believe every business can be broken down into those three elements and managed from that perspective.
Forefront: It also sounds like leadership is a big factor to your success as well as team building. Would you say you agree?
Slusser: Absolutely, leadership is very important. I try to hire very good people and give them direction, but I don’t micromanage them. I let them grow as much as they can. I give them a significant amount of freedom and decision-making in their role to run their organizations and do what they are accountable for. Holding them accountable but giving them the freedom to make the decisions to do their jobs and have ownership in that process helps them grow professionally and move throughout the organization.
Typically, people that do well working with me are those that are really strong technically, highly motivated, independent and can operate on their own with the direction we agree on. We typically sit down and agree where we are going, what we are doing and then they go execute it.
For example, I came to Gentiva when they were moving the headquarters from Long Island to Atlanta. We had to build a finance organization here since most of the employees did not move to Atlanta. It was a lot of fun for me because I was able to hire those same types of people I referred to earlier. I had to hire five of my nine direct reports after I got here, all of whom have turned out to be great performers. They are recognized within the company for being experts and really top performers, which gives me a lot of satisfaction.
Forefront: Can you tell me about your style of management, and where you draw inspiration from to lead your team?
Slusser: I ascribe to the “Jim Collins” theory of management. As you read his theory, it is all about his concept of leadership and why companies were successful. It’s the same philosophy I use when I go into companies where there are challenging situations. The first thing I look at is the people. Do you have the right people in place? That’s not always the case. The most challenging part of your job at times can be to counsel employees that the company has outgrown them or that they are not in the right position and to move them either off the bus or somewhere else on the bus, as [Collins] talks about. Once you get the right people on the bus, you then get them in the right seat.
I have used that theory coming in [Gentiva], going back to MCI and even Cardinal Health. It was all about getting the right people in the right positions and then letting them do their jobs. Once you do that then the bus will all but drive itself.
Forefront: Following up on our discussion of defining success as a leader, how does this align?
Slusser: Everybody has their different styles of leadership, but it does align with my style of hiring great performers, giving them direction and then getting out of their way. I spend a lot of time with our CEO, a lot of time focusing on strategy, a lot of time focusing on operational issues, and a lot of time with investors on the road. Those things demand a lot of time, so having the right people on board and really good people in the finance organization allows me to be able to do a lot of things I wouldn’t otherwise be able to do.
Forefront: We have chatted briefly about your team. What qualities specifically do you look for in people on your team—when you’re building it or when you’re looking to fill seats on the bus?
Slusser: There are several. I break the skills down into their administrative, decision-making and problem-solving capabilities. From the administrative perspective, I am looking at their leadership and management style. In other words, can they run and manage their department? From a decision-making perspective, I look at whether they tend to make good, sound decisions and can they be decisive. Finally, from a problem-solving perspective, I look for people who demonstrate the ability to analyze and solve complex problems or lead complex initiatives.
Forefront: And the relationship between CEO and CFO, could you explain the dynamics there?
Slusser: There has to be a good chemistry between the two from a personal perspective, a professional perspective and a respect perspective. The relationship has to be a partnership. You look at many successful companies, and the two people that are kind of locked arm in arm are the CEO and CFO because the financial aspect of the company is so significant to all areas of the business. Particularly in public companies, the CEO and CFO are the main faces to shareholders and investors. You also have to be on the same page from a strategic perspective on how the company is going to move forward in the future.
Forefront: Lastly, what career advice do you have for people who are looking to move up or who are just starting out in their career?
Slusser: I think a couple things. One, you have got to be assertive and you have to understand what you’re doing. I think the more assertive you are, the more knowledgeable you are, the better you present your skills and your understanding of a business, and being a problem solver will get you recognized.
I think another important trait is confidence. Confidence without an ego, as I describe it. You can be confident. Big egos don’t always do well, but people who are good at what they do and have confidence in it and can express that in a way that accomplishes things and achieves results will likely be successful.
I think the other piece of advice is never let anybody get in your way. If you set your mind to it, I believe people can accomplish whatever they want to accomplish. You’ve just got to be willing to put in the time and effort to succeed.
Christina Gatuiria is a freelance writer based in St. Louis, MO