So you thought being the CEO for a day might sound like great fun, but the question is after the free ice cream for all employees and the large billboard of yourself, what would you really do? When I posed this question to a number of your colleagues, the response was very consistent. The most common theme focused on CEOs and senior leaders getting better connected to the staff. The suggestions were to get close enough to the work to have real conversations about the staff’s life inside and outside the organization (and, as you may have guessed, it was suggested that it will be a surprise to some senior leaders that the staff has lives outside of the organization).
Another important theme had to do with connecting all the various levels of an organization; not just the CEO talking with staff, but broad teams from board members to front line staff. One of the responders called this vertical rounding. And when we do connect with staff, in small groups or as a large team, it is important to pay attention to the wisdom of senior members as well as young staff and their fresh ideas. The strength of an organization will be improved by listening to both. During my time as CEO I tried to do these things with variable success, but I had many other areas where I fell short. One early mistake I made was listening to the common wisdom that CEOs need to stay at 30,000 feet. Bad advice. It is completely wrong; it runs counter to the suggestions above and will guarantee that you lose touch with the work and the people doing it. My most common mistake was that I was terribly optimistic that we could fix people. That was true if it was a knowledge or habit problem. However, if it was a fundamental difference in values or an attitude, and the person was unwilling to change, then we mostly wasted our time. And worse, people were harmed while we were trying to “fix” the staff member. It may have been naive of me, but I was surprised and disappointed that people would join an organization with clearly stated values and somehow believe it was optional to follow them.
It also took me longer than it should have to understand that finances were a tool—an important tool—but not a goal or destination. Of course, we had to meet financial targets to pay our staff and lower the cost of care, but finances were a way to help us deliver on the mission, inspire the staff, and earn the confidence of our community. We had strong financial performance by all the common measures. It was just not what we lived for; it helped us live, but it was not life.
Another mistake I made early on was in planning. Conventional wisdom says under-promise and over-deliver, so my approach to planning was to allow for small incremental goals. Easier to hit, for sure, but it is hardly inspirational to say we are going to get one percent better than our mediocre past or stay a little ahead of our mediocre peers. But along the way, I did learn it is much more meaningful to aim high for the good of the whole, give the staff tools and support to get there, and celebrate their work as they make faster progress than would have been in the previous model.
Finally, when forming partnerships, there is a lot of talk about matching cultures. I believed that idea at first, but don’t believe it now. I agree that matching cultures is important within internal groups that are working with each other all the time, but not nearly as much so when you’re finding partners outside your organization. Rather, you need to have the same general goals, or you will end up in different places. You need to have the same general value sets, or you will not be able to work well together. However the cultures don’t have to be perfectly aligned. I found many great partners that allowed us to serve our community by instead focusing on goals and values.
I wish you the best of luck in steadily improving your department, division, or organization. Don’t be afraid to take risks and aim high; your success will far outweigh the inevitable stumbles. Next month I will have a list of interesting links for your winter reading.