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The Rise of the Chief Strategy Officer

Philip Betbeze, for HealthLeaders Media, November 13, 2013
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Certainly many positions in the C-suite are morphing as healthcare leaders try to embrace the fact that systems are getting bigger with consolidation, that massive changes to reimbursement loom, and that health systems are taking on new responsibilities outside their traditional area of expertise—inpatient care.

Adriane Willig, a consultant with Oak Brook, Ill.–based Witt/Kieffer and an expert on strategy officer executive searches, says even in the current environment, not all organizations have this position and not all need it, although those that want to survive independently, regardless of size, probably should.

"The title is a newer version of what a strategy executive does, but it's an indication they are part of the senior team," she says. "Given the changing dynamics, it's critical for hospitals to be looking at the future and paint that vision, so having someone who can focus on planning for that uncertain future is becoming more critical."

Historically in many organizations, strategy has been done collectively by the CEO in conjunction with the board and often helped by outside consultants, says Willig, but that's no longer sufficient for many organizations. Foremost among their responsibilities, strategy officers are focusing on developing a framework for the entire organization, which even at a standalone hospital is a complicated place. The layering on of nontraditional offerings such as hospice, skilled nursing, a health plan component, or physician practices, just to name a few, brings another level of complexity. Finally, the CSO is charged with differentiating his or her hospital or health system based on value and quality—two metrics that, let's face it, are still relatively new to healthcare.

"In order to do that, they need to understand the whole spectrum of the business," Willig says.

The CSOs have to process information from disparate pieces and understand how to evaluate, using strong analytical skills, whether the organization has the right pieces for effective clinical integration, for example. Further, CSOs need to understand payers and the health insurance exchanges, and how to focus on driving their organization's differentiators into a competitive advantage with payers. They also need to understand technology, Willig says.

"You can't have a strong strategic plan without technology, and that's all coming out of the top strategy person or CSO," she says. "They have to understand everything from the technology to the mergers and acquisitions, as well as finance and operations. So it's a complex skill set and a person can't be a heavy hitter with all of these expansive skill sets." Which means the role of the CSO is still very organizationally driven in terms of what he or she needs to bring to the table, and why individual's responsibilities and influence seems to vary so widely among organizations that may seem similar in makeup.

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