jess rivera and team
Photo taken pre-coronavirus and social distancing.
Learning to Lead & Leading to Learn
Although her employees are scattered across multiple University of Utah Health locations, Jessica Rivera, director of environmental services for community clinics, maintains a tight-knit team that works and learns together. To strengthen that bond, Rivera has focused on five leadership lessons spanning value improvement, institutional standards, and good old-fashioned trust.

ut in the community clinics, I have the pleasure of managing 36 Environmental Services technicians and supervisors spread over 40 miles. They work around the clock. The majority of my staff work far from patients. They begin coming into the clinic when it closes and work into the wee hours of the night.

Their job is a big, ugly, dirty, repetitive job. It’s not very glamorous. But it’s very important. Think about spring cleaning your home. It’s a big job, trying to take care of so many rooms and areas so they all look beautiful. Now imagine doing that job on Monday, then coming back in to do it on Tuesday, and Wednesday, and every day. But it has to be done for our patients — and for our clinical staff.

Sometimes an Environmental Services technician’s job can be thankless, or they feel like it goes unnoticed. Sometimes they feel like they’re only recognized when something isn’t done. Part of my job is to change that. Here are the leadership lessons I’ve learned as I’ve built a team that cares about each other, takes pride in what they do, and strives for constant improvement:

#1: Build Trust With Your Staff

You have to earn trust with your staff. You have to walk the walk. From the first moment I started in Environmental Services, first at Business Services Building and then at South Jordan, I made sure to put on a uniform every day, get out of my office, and go work side by side with my team to do the dirty work. It’s an important time to spend with them. My schedule was an important factor; all the magic happens at 5:30 PM. That’s when the expectations are set for the big jobs to come. So I would work from 5:30 PM to 2:00 AM. As I transitioned into a managerial role, that became a struggle for me. I wanted to be there for my staff. I didn’t want it to be like two ships passing in the night. I wanted to give them my time.

Now, I have three awesome supervisors, and I’ve coached them to do the same. They work a mixed schedule — a few days during the week they work evening hours as an opportunity to be with all staff. Later on in the week, they work day shifts in the office to ease into the weekend. This is crucial for interacting with your employees. They don’t want to hear from you if you haven’t done what you’re asking them to do. It makes our conversations more genuine. When you’re out there working side by side, they get a sense of who you are.

#2: Demonstrate the Standards You Expect From Your Staff

Working side by side, your employees get a sense of who you are. It’s also a good opportunity to demonstrate PROMISE behavior standards. It’s not just about performance. As a leader, you have to act right. You could be the best scientist in the world, but if you suck as a human being, nobody’s going to listen to you. Keep walking that walk to build upon that trust that you’ve earned. Michael Bronson reminds me that, when we open a new clinic, it’s not a sprint. It’s a marathon. You’re in it for the long haul.

It’s easy to get wrapped up in that desk work and close your eyes to what’s happening, but you have to make a commitment to yourself and your team to really get out there. On occasion, that means showing up on the weekends. If you expect your staff to work on the weekends, it’s nice to go check on your staff and help out if you can.

#3: Leaders Take Care of Their People

When you’re a leader, you’re not given that position so you can boss people around. I consider it a privilege to support my staff. I know that all successful relationships require reciprocity. It’d be easy to mistake the fact that you pay your staff as that part of the bargain. That’s not accurate. If we expect our staff to give more, we have to be accountable to give more, too. As a leader, you’re more of a servant. It’s the most important job, and it should only be given to those who are worthy of it.

So I care for my employees like family. I want them to know they’re a top priority to me. We celebrate milestones; we support each other’s struggles. This is such a big, dirty job, we have to make it fun. We laugh, we dance, and we fill each other up with sunshine. We let our employees vent to us—and we listen. My favorite quote is from Maya Angelou: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said. People will forget what you did. But people will never forget how you made them feel.” That’s important to me, because I want to leave a good impression on the people I come in contact with.

#4: Leave Things Better Than You Found Them

Growing up, my parents taught me this: Don’t just do a little; do a little bit more. They would remind me when I was headed out the door: “Jess, use your manners, be kind, and ask if anybody needs help.” What you put out to the world comes back to you. It’s important that I’m a better version of myself than I was yesterday. At the end of each day, when I look back and think about the struggles and mistakes and difficult decisions, one thing I’ll never regret is being kind.

One employee, after working for me for three years, asked me to look at something. He took me to his locker and handed me a Mountain Dew can. On the bottom, it had the date and my name. “The day you bought that for me,” he said, “I told you that I didn’t drink soda, so you went back to the store and bought me a milk. I’m 55 years old, and this was the first time in my life that my boss bought anything for me. So I wrote your name and the date and I kept it in my locker — it meant that much to me.” Making your staff better today than they were yesterday makes you better as a leader today than you were yesterday.

#5: Learning Is Important

There’s something truly special about learning together. A sense of camaraderie is built; a culture is established. Everyone benefits. Our Environmental Services Technicians are not just taking out trash. They’re on the frontlines of infection control: killing pathogens, reducing hospital-associated infections, and saving lives. The Certified Health Care Environmental Services Technician (CHEST) Training & Certification program is a designation setting national standards for health care workers. In 2015, Oak Leavitt and I became certified trainers for this program, and all but our newest employees have taken the training and passed the exam to earn their certificates. This year, all of my supervisors earned our certificates of mastery in infection prevention, and I’ve also completed my Lean Six Sigma Green Belt course. Learning makes our environment special. It helps foster a unique community of creativity and understanding. Once you start learning together, the real work begins.

Annotated transcript from Jess Rivera’s speech at the November 30, 2017, Leader Development Institute in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Originally posted July 2020.


Jessica Rivera

Director, Community Clinics Environmental Services, University of Utah Health

Subscribe to our newsletter

Receive the latest insights in health care impact, improvement, leadership, resilience, and more.