Will Andrews: Lessons from Anthem’s Year of Listening and Learning

Apr 4, 2023

It’s been a busy year for Anthem Partners U.S. President Will Andrews. In addition to bringing the total number of funeral homes, cemeteries, and crematories under the Anthem umbrella to 80+ rooftops, Andrews and his team spent 2022 making the rounds across five states to visit the newest members of the Anthem family.

For Andrews, each visit provided a unique opportunity to tour the facilities, meet the staff, and share the Anthem vision. Most importantly, though, these visits gave Andrews the chance to ask employees what they needed, what they wanted, and what he could do to help.

Listening and learning (a lot)

“I call them listening tours,” Andrews says. “We try to go into each one of our locations and into every conversation with a curious mindset. We don’t know everything. We don’t have all the answers. We’re not the smartest people in the room. We don’t know your market. So we really ask questions, and then spend a lot of time listening, learning, and then applying what we’ve learned.”

Joining Andrews in visiting locations are Chad Jackson, Anthem’s Executive Vice President of Operations, and John Goobeck, who provides operational support. With a grand total of six employees now in Anthem’s Frisco, Texas home office, there are even more ears to listen. And what Andrews and his team are hearing might surprise you.

“The biggest thing I hear all the time is ‘When are we going to start feeling corporate?’ or ‘Things haven’t changed,’” Andrews says. “Being ‘corporate’ isn’t just telling you where to stand, what to say, and how to do it — which we don’t do. It’s not having your logo on the sign or anything like that. But we do provide a lot of support, like providing world class benefits and world class financial support through our partners. We want them to have all the benefits of a large corporation but none of the red tape or bureaucratic issues that they bring.”

No more assumptions

One of the most valuable lessons Andrews has learned from his listening tours is that he can’t make assumptions — especially when it comes to what people really want and need.

“You know, there’s a common theme in this industry that you can just throw money at people and they’re good,” he says. “Well, that’s an assumption. What I’ve found is that it’s not about more money. It’s about work/life balance. It’s about the little things like looking at calendars and schedules and making sure that people are utilizing equipment, whether it’s vehicles or equipment or computers. If you can help them with the little things that are annoyances and nuisances within their day, it leads to a better work/life balance.”

Andrews went into his tours expecting some Covid-related stress and perhaps even burnout. He expected employees to want the supplemental income they were earning from working overtime hours. However, that was far from what he found.

“We found out they’d rather have a couple more people to support them instead of overtime,” he shares. “They’d rather know they’re able to have a Saturday or Sunday off, or would love to know they don’t have to take the phones. We’re learning that we can’t assume what motivates someone. We can’t assume why someone is struggling. If you really are that servant leader, you won’t just take the time to ask the question. You’ll take the time to listen. And then you’ll also take the time to apply what’s being used and try to help them out.”

Better, not bigger

With its successful completion of six acquisitions in just a 24-month period, you might think Anthem would be experiencing some major growing pains. However, that’s not the case at all.

“We did a good job of onboarding,” Andrews says. “We did a great job of acquiring businesses that didn’t need a lot of fixing up.”

Andrews explains that the listening tours are providing him and his team the opportunity to better understand each individual operation and learn what and how they can improve. And although Anthem Partners has a robust pipeline of potential additions, the company is truly focused on their current holdings.

“With us not trying to onboard as many locations, we’re really able to focus on how we become better,” Andrews says. “We’re not worried about being the biggest. We’re worried about being the best. We’re taking that step back to survey exactly what we’ve got and understand what can make us the best operator in the industry.”

A hands-on, yet hands-off approach

Even as Andrews and the Anthem executives are taking a hands-on, one-on-one approach to what their employees need, they’re committed to a relatively hands-off perspective when it comes to doing day-to-day business. In other words, they’re trying to eliminate the “I’ll have to call corporate” conversations families encounter with other large organizations.

“We want our teams to make decisions on the local level,” Andrews says. “If you feel like it’s right for the family, you make that decision. If you don’t feel like it’s right, be able to explain why it’s not right. If you feel it’s right, don’t feel like you’re coming back to us to ask for forgiveness, and don’t feel like you have to ask for permission. We feel comfortable with our frontline people and their ability to make those on-the-spot decisions. You can’t have a policy or procedure for everything, so our people have to be empowered to make the decisions that make sense. We’ve made it clear that we have their backs.”

Interestingly, Andrews’ listening tours have revealed that although the front line employees appreciate this decision-making autonomy, the support and benefits that being part of the Anthem family offers is equally important.

“We’ve been asked by some of our leaders at the local level for more support in decision making,” he explains. “We have some great partnerships and we’ve put those partners in front of our team. We ask them how does this fit into your market, and how can we utilize this partner in your market? There’s a fine line between telling someone what to do and giving them good ideas. I think we’re doing a good job of staying on the right side of that line and providing them enough tools, support, and guidance so they feel comfortable in making the decision they already had.”

Growing pleasures, not pains

Andrews is happy that he’s been able to meet the majority of the individuals working under Anthems’ 80+ rooftops, even though he understands that will be more difficult as the company grows. Taking care of the people will always be a priority, and Anthem has some big plans in store to ensure that focus never changes.

“There’s some really cool stuff we’re looking to do to help the lives of our employees, to help with the communities we serve, and to help them organizationally,” he says. “We’re really trying to understand what’s important to them, whether it be benefits, whether it be compensation, whether it be education, whether it be learning and development.”

“As we gain support and as we get a little bit bigger, we know we’re going to be a little farther from the fray,” he continues, “which is good because we’ll be able to focus on other things. But my DNA of knowing everybody and everything about them, it’s going to be a little harder. So I guess I’m going to have to study a little longer.”

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