At a time when hospitals are competing not only for loyal customers, but also committed employees, Baptist Medical Center Jacksonville (Fla.) seems to have the arrows pointed in the right direction.

Between 2011 and 2014, the medical center’s HCAHPS score for “likelihood to recommend” jumped from 75.4 to 81.2 percent of surveyed patients. On a 2014 National Research Corp. public perception survey, the medical center, which is part of Baptist Health, topped the list of most preferred hospitals in the area.

Equally as important, staff engagement numbers are trending positively as well. Annual nurse turnover was 14.4 percent in 2014, down from 17.9 percent in 2012. For newly hired nurses, turnover during the first 12 months of employment dropped from 10 to 5 percent during the same two-year period.

What’s the secret sauce? To a large degree, it’s the “squishy stuff,” says Michael Mayo, hospital president.

“It’s the 17-inch factor,” he said during a session at last month’s American College of Healthcare Executives 2015 Congress. “There are 17 inches between your head and your heart. We need to find people who can connect those two.”

Since arriving at Baptist Medical Center Jacksonville four years ago, Mayo has set out to find, hire and retain just those people. He did this hand in glove with Nancy Simon, former vice president of patient care services and chief nursing officer. Simon, who appeared with Mayo at the ACHE meeting, recently accepted an executive post at HCA. Mayo pledged to keep things moving forward with his new CNO.

During their session, Mayo and Simon talked a lot about the squishy stuff that can’t really be measured — the importance of first impressions, rewarding exemplary behavior, building trust — but ultimately tied it back to numbers that matter — positive operating margins, positive quality of care metrics, positive HCAHPS scores, etc.

The more Mayo and Simon spoke, the more you could see how their relationship framed the foundation for what sounds like a strong culture at the medical center.

“Trust is the basis of everything,” Mayo said.

Part of that trust, both acknowledged, is the willingness to challenge and critique each other.

“As a nurse executive, you can’t be afraid to tell the CEO he blew it today,” Mayo said. “As the CEO, you can’t be afraid to hear it.”

Another key element is having a shared vision and mission. For Mayo and Simon, it’s all about providing high-quality care and a high-quality work environment. They’ve set up a hiring process that assesses candidates against this backdrop every step of the way. At the same time, hiring managers, directors and even executives are held to a high standard of accountability to bring on the best and brightest.

Ultimately, Simon said, everyone who works at the medical center has to answer one question: “Will you love our patients? Will you love them like they are your own family?” she said. “If that’s not who they are, we’ll know because we listen to our patients.” — You can reach me at mweinstock@healthforum.com.