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HealthLeaders CEO Exchange: 4 Leadership Types for 2021

Analysis  |  By Melanie Blackman  
   September 15, 2020

Hospital and health system CEOs discussed what their roles must become to successfully lead in the future.

The COVID-19 pandemic exposed a myriad of healthcare industry challenges, yet it opened an opportunity for hospital and health system CEOs to reevaluate their roles to lead more effectively in 2021. The role of the healthcare CEO of the future encompasses many leadership types. CEOs must be entrepreneurs and actively engage their patients, leadership teams, and staff members in contributing to and implementing innovation. Healthcare CEOs of the future must also be conveners who collaborate with external sources to meet the needs of their communities. In addition, CEOs must be advocates who build resiliency and flexibility into their organizations' structures and work on behalf of their workforce and patients. And it is also essential that the CEOs of tomorrow be leaders in accountability and transparency.

At the HealthLeaders CEO Exchange in late August, executives discussed how these different leadership types must be part of their positions to move their health systems forward. They hope to redefine what it means to be a CEO in healthcare in 2021.

Below are the four leadership types that executives discussed in more detail:

1. Proven Entrepreneur

It's one thing to have an idea, but it's another thing to implement it. Executives agreed that they must be active participants in implementing innovation as one of the key roles of their jobs. One executive said innovation is no longer something nice to have for health systems, it must be a core value. With that in mind, executives must be ready to respond to market demands, and put plans into action like an entrepreneur. Executives also realize that being an entrepreneur means including others beyond themselves, such as engaging their staff and patients in the creation of and implementation of innovation for the best outcomes.

Joseph Golbus, MD, president and CEO of NorthShore Medical Group in Chicago, explained that "innovation is both a noun and a verb."

"The noun part is the idea … but really, what makes a difference in getting stuff done is the verb part …  how effective are you at implementing the idea and how well is it culturally embraced by the organization," Golbus said. "What the crisis brings out is your ability to more rapidly change behavior. It really allows one to fix or advance all those nouns in a better way that makes it more effective."

Being an entrepreneur also means sharing and receiving innovative ideas across the organization, no matter how big or small.

Chris Woleske, president and CEO of Bellin Health in Green Bay, Wisconsin, explained that while  innovation often can be thought of as major initiatives, it can also happen in "small, incremental ways."

"We have an internal recognition system, and I'm constantly looking for people to share with me the little ways that they have been innovating. Then I share that in our all-employee meetings so that we start to build on that," Woleske said. "We have to find ways that we use this crisis to advance us forward. And one of the ways that I hope to do that is by encouraging some of that innovation at the local level, so that when the crisis is over and we have more bandwidth, we can actually use that innovation muscle to tackle some bigger things."

Other executives at the Exchange agreed. Karen Weiner, MD, CEO of Oregon Medical Group in Eugene, Oregon, explained that "the sky's the limit" when senior leadership shares and communicates with the workforce, which can lead to more innovation within the organization.

"They can come up with things that senior leadership would never come up with, empowering the people on the front lines to be able to think about their work differently, and then be able to impact it," Weiner said.

Another CEO said that with the help of frontline staff, the hospital implemented an innovative outpatient program to monitor COVID-19 patients at home. This, in turn, freed up resources, beds, and staff inside the hospital.

Innovative ideas can also come from patients. One CEO explained that cancer patients at their hospital suggested ways to create safe spaces for visitors, which led to cancer patients being able to safely visit with family during the pandemic.

2. Active Convener

CEOs must work to make their healthcare organizations the voice of health and well-being and be active influencers in their communities. Leaders must step up and actively convene key stakeholders from the local government, social services, and businesses in the organizations' communities for the greater good. In addition, executives should assemble partnerships with organizations that they would not normally consider, such as competitors, to strengthen resources.

Robert Bridges, executive vice president and chief executive of Nemours Florida Operations in Jacksonville, Florida, explained that the pandemic brought together four competing children's hospitals in the state as essential leaders.

"It gave us the opportunity to not only convene and learn about each other and to become much more collaborative, but it also gave us the opportunity to have a voice in Tallahassee," Bridges said. "We found ourselves becoming a resource to members of the legislature, as well as the governor's office, as well as to other community agencies. The big learning for our organization is the power of working with others, even in a very competitive environment."

Another CEO explained that their organization set up weekly town hall meetings for community employers to dial into and get information about COVID-19. The health system shared what it was seeing for cases, current data, and information about safely reopening, and it continuously shared its learnings during the pandemic. It also communicated data with other health systems in the area and collaborated to handle patient surges.

3. Chief Accountability Officer

CEOs must resolve to stay accountable to their organizations' strategic goals and focus on what’s important to the health organization. They must guide their colleagues and staff into that same accountability and emphasize the importance of transparency.  

Jeremy Davis, president and CEO of Grande Ronde Hospital and Clinics in La Grande, Oregon said, "When I think about [the role of] chief accountability officer, I think there's nothing like COVID to test a newly adopted strategic plan. I found myself as a CEO having to get a little deeper within some facets of the operations to lend support and really make sure that the right communication and the right level of accountability was happening.

"As we started to get our feet under us, we had to get ourselves back into our strategic plan. We can't lose sight of our overall goal. Yes, we've got a crisis. Yes, there's a pandemic. But we still have patients to serve, we still have the community to serve."

Another executive shared that communication must be ample, and that CEOs should clearly and continuously share the organization's mission and values both with its workforce and the community.

4. Compassionate Advocate

When the pandemic struck, it demanded that CEOs be flexible and resilient in leading their organizations. To do that, they must display compassion, humility, and vulnerability in their leadership. They also must live up to the values of their organizations to inspire their workforce to do the same, and leaders must also advocate for their team members and patients.

John Phillips, president of Methodist Dallas Medical Center, said, "Over a year ago, we gathered a cross-section of our staff to help them reimagine our value statements. Our staff came up with what we now refer to as our four care commitments: caring for patients, caring for each other, caring for ourselves, and caring for Methodist. 

"I learned that until they see [those values] in me, until they see these behaviors in my leadership and in the behaviors of the senior leadership team, and then ultimately seeing these commitments lived out through their supervisor, manager, and their director, that our care commitments and the frequency of always living those care commitments really won't take root."

Another executive added that self-care is an important attribute of a compassionate advocate. She mentioned organizations must offer elevated conversations about mental health, terming it psychological PPE. She said leaders need to talk to staff and share resources with them about how they can safely deal with the stress and anxiety of the pandemic.

The Exchange discussion also touched on how CEOs can ensure that learning opportunities from the pandemic are captured and embedded into the organization's long-term vision.

Rachelle Schultz, president and CEO of Winona Health in Winona, Minnesota, said, "A statement I shared with my organization is that we have learned an awful lot over the past few months, and as a result, we should never be put in a position where we have to close down services again."

Phillips added, "You have to be intentional about weaving some of these best practices that we're learning into the whirlwind of our organizations and industry, because if we don't, the whirlwind of normalcy—if there is such a thing in our future—will quickly tempt us to forget all of our learnings. Forcing us into our new cadence of leadership is my best response."

The HealthLeaders Exchange is an executive community for sharing ideas, solutions, and insights. Please join the community at our LinkedIn page.

To inquire about attending a HealthLeaders Exchange event, email us at or visit our website for more information.

Melanie Blackman is the strategy editor at HealthLeaders, an HCPro brand.

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