The three qualities of effective health care leaders in 2015

Leaders are 'different-in-kind' compared with past decades

Josh Zeitlin, Associate Editor

I very much enjoy listening to the Weekly Briefing podcast, the Advisory Board's weekly look at the news and research shaping health care.

And I thought one recent segment was particularly interesting, where the Daily Briefing's Dan Diamond spoke with the Health Care Advisory Board's Rob Lazerow and the Medical Group Strategy Council's Rivka Friedman about the qualities health care leaders need to succeed.

You can listen to the full segment by clicking on the player below. (Skip to the 19:45 mark.) But I've also transcribed their conversation, while moving parts of it around to make it easier to follow.

Dan Diamond: Rob, you spend a lot of your time working with senior-most health care leaders—you get to see leadership in action. What qualities do a health care leader need to have to succeed?

Rob Lazerow: During my nearly 10 years at the Advisory Board, I think we've seen a pretty dramatic shift in what effective leaders look like, or at least an evolution of the model.

In thinking about the characteristics that are really rising to the top of what makes for an effective leader at the end of 2015, three stand out.

First, effective leaders embrace business transformation. There's so much change happening in health care right now. The fundamental business model that most of our member organizations have used for years and years is radically changing before their eyes, and they need to steward their organizations through that change and be willing to experiment, take risks, and change their economics in spite of doing very well for most of their careers.

Second, effective leaders embrace cultural revolution. So much of this change isn't just about the business model but how the organization functions day-to-day. I have frequent conversations around consumer experience and what it means to provide service excellence, and whether the patient is a patient or a customer or a consumer—it's a radically different way of thinking and operating. And succeeding through this transformation means getting frontline staff on board and engaged and understanding their role in delivering an exceptional experience and managing population health.

Third, effective health care leaders embrace partnerships. As I think about what health care strategy was five or 10 years ago, a lot of it was about 'what are we going to own, what are we going to build, what are we going to buy?' I have a lot more conversations today about 'who do we work with, who do we engage, how do we partner?' Health care is becoming much more of a team sport right now—whether that's with other health care providers or parts of the economy and the community that were not necessarily part of the health care system before, or whether that's about access to housing, or food, or working with community paramedics. I think it's a different-in-kind of leader who's willing to partner rather than own everything.

The strategic thinker's guide to partnerships and affiliations

Diamond: With how health care has changed versus, say, 20 or 40 years ago, how many of these qualities are constant in terms of what's needed from a top health care leader?

Lazerow: There may be some similarities, but I think the magnitude is so different now. As I think about leaders shifting their incentives from fee-for-service to population health, that is a fundamental change in how they operate their organization. So this isn't just 'do I invest in this particular outpatient clinic or  try a risk in one area of our business'—this is really turning the aircraft carrier on a dime or at least trying to, and those are major decisions. The magnitude is just so different now.

Diamond: As health care has changed, have you also seen a difference in who the CEOs are?

Lazerow: In terms of the executives that I work with closely, there are more women, more younger CEOs, and more folks who came into leadership from different places. They're less likely than before to come to the CEO perch from being an operator or a CFO, for example. It now tends to be much more about relationships with physicians, or running outpatient facilities, or running different parts of the organization.

Rivka Friedman: There's some evidence that women leaders are more collaborative and tend to seek input form a broader variety of people. I think your comment about how important partnerships are in today's day and age does play to the traditional strengths of women leaders.

Diamond: To that point, how else does personality play a role here?

Friedman: And a large part of that is because these changes are really big. They're big at a business leadership level, but they're sometimes even scarier for rank-and-file physicians, for all of the frontline staff who don't have a big say in the decision-making process but are hugely important to the execution and the success of an organization taking on this change.

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When I talk to leaders who maybe had a seat at the decision-making table but are big on the execution, whenever they're happy about the change, they'll almost always rave about how great their CEO is. It's pretty clear that when folks make these decisions, it helps a lot to be respected and liked and trusted by the people you're working with.

Becoming a better leader

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