7 Traits of a Great Hospital CEO

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CEOs play a large role in the success of a hospital. But as the healthcare system gets more complex, CEOs face increasing demands on their time and responsibilities. What skills are most important for a hospital CEO in today’s world? Several top leaders — including St. Vincent Health’s Vincent Caponi, Lehigh Valley’s Ronald Swinfard and Johns Hopkins’ Edward Miller — share what they think makes a great hospital CEO.

1. Servant leadership. Vincent C. Caponi, BA, MHA, CEO of Indianapolis-based St. Vincent Health, says CEOs should be servant leaders. “A great leader, I believe, is one [where] people are doing things under [his or her] supervision because it’s the right thing to do and they want to do it, not because you told them to do it,” he says. The concept of servant leadership encompasses several traits, including integrity, genuineness and gratitude. Great hospital CEOs are responsive, available and keep promises, according to Mr. Caponi. “Somehow, great leaders in my experience made return phone calls in 24 hours,” he says. Being true to one’s image as a CEO is also important, according to Ronald W. Swinfard, MD, president and CEO of Allentown, Pa.-based Lehigh Valley Health Network. Part of being genuine is being honest and insisting on transparency. He also suggests sharing one’s personal life as a way to show genuineness. Part of servant leadership is also appreciating others. “Take nothing for granted,” Mr. Caponi says.

2. Communication. Communication is important for any leader to be successful. The structure of a hospital, however, with many departments, employees and physicians, may make communication even more important for leading the organization. Part of the CEO’s responsibility is to keep employees, staff and physicians informed of the hospital’s plans, including progress on key initiatives and intentions to form affiliations or partnerships. “Communicate often and clearly,” says Mr. Caponi.

Edward D. Miller, MD, CEO of Baltimore-based Johns Hopkins Medicine, suggests communicating with constituents through multiple avenues, such as town hall meetings, daily emails, the hospital website, printed material, radio announcements and of course, face-to-face interactions. It is important to be “out and about,” Dr. Miller says. “People need to know who you are.” At Johns Hopkins, the executives, including Dr. Miller, are involved in different units. Dr. Miller, for instance, is the safety officer for the neuro-intensive care unit, where he talks with staff and physicians about their concerns and any issues related to the unit. “I think it’s a little too easy to stay in your office,” Dr. Miller says. “Extend your comfort zone. Get out and talk to people in the hospital.”

Communication is a two-way street, however, and for hospital CEOs, listening may be more useful than talking, according to Dr. Miller and Mr. Caponi. “You need to listen more than you talk,” Mr. Caponi says. “I have a great feel of the wisdom of those around us, and I seek that out as much as I can,” he says.

3. Mentorship. “Have and be a mentor,” Mr. Caponi says. “You need somebody who can unabashedly tell you where your blind spots are, encourage you and sift through some of the difficult decisions you have to make.” He also suggests trying to learn something new every day, which can remind a CEO that he or she can always improve. Mr. Caponi says hospital CEOs should be humble — self-aware and willing to admit their mistakes. Furthermore, just as CEOs needed help getting to their position and need help continuing to develop skills, CEOs have a “responsibility to share wisdom and knowledge with those in the organization who are open and would want that,” he says.

4. Being a model. As the head of a hospital, everyone looks to the CEO to gauge the state of the organization. The CEO plays a large role in setting the tone and culture of a hospital. For example, Mr. Caponi says a “can-do,” positive attitude can help motivate others in the hospital to work to overcome challenges.

Dr. Miller says he purposely does not travel often because his responsibility as CEO is to be at the hospital. Being physically present in the hospital every day sets the work ethic, according to Dr. Miller. “You certainly should not see yourself as appointed king. You work for the organization, the organization doesn’t work for you,” he says.

5. Connection with the community. Mr. Caponi suggests CEOs volunteer and give back to the community. “Great leaders have a sense of community,” Mr. Caponi says. Dr. Swinfard suggests networking is useful for CEOs to connect with and learn from the community. In light of healthcare reform legislation, hospital CEOs should be aware of how other organizations react to changes in the field, according to Dr. Swinfard. It is helpful to get different perspectives on changes in healthcare. Talking to board members, for instance, can provide insight because many board members have experience in businesses outside healthcare, Dr. Swinfard says.

The community includes not only the outside community that the hospital serves, but also the community within the hospital. “The people are the most important part of the equation [in the success of a hospital],” Dr. Miller says. He suggests the collective employees, staff and physicians is one of a CEO’s greatest assets as a leader. Dr. Swinfard also remarks on the importance of people and community. He says CEOs should have warmth: “the personal touch that engages [employees] in a common mission and aligns us all; we’re humans, we care for one another and we care about taking care of people.” Connecting with the hospital community on a basic level can help the CEO gain support and respect as a leader. “I think that sense that you are engaged in the same thing that called the employees to work in healthcare is probably what separates good [CEOs] from great [CEOs],” Dr. Swinfard says.

6. Sense of humor. Mr. Caponi says humor and learning to have fun are important for a hospital CEO. Dr. Swinfard also says CEOs should have a sense of humor. “People go into healthcare because of a calling,” Dr. Swinfard says. “They are there because they want to serve people; they get an emotional and psychological personal return from service and giving of themselves. That’s stressful work. It can take quite a drain. A little humor along the way can cut through that stress and make people feel better about themselves,” he says.

7. Balance. Because of the varied responsibilities and concerns of a CEO, balance in one’s actions is key to achieving success. Dr. Swinfard says it is important to be conscious of the importance of people in healthcare as well as the importance of a bottom line. Maintaining a balance of concern for people and finances helps the CEO not get worn down, according to Dr. Swinfard.

Mr. Caponi says one quality of great CEOs is the ability to differentiate when they need to compete and when they need to collaborate. “If [you’re] always in a competitive mode, you’re not going to get things done; you need cooperation from others.” Collaborating in patient safety initiatives and sharing best practices, for instance, can benefit the whole. However, “competition is not a bad thing,” Mr. Caponi says.

To attract and retain patients, employees, physicians and board members, the CEO may have to be competitive. Competition can also drive positive change. Benchmarking, for example, can help a CEO identify areas for improvement. Balancing security and risk is also a useful strategy for CEOs.

Dr. Miller says a willingness to take risks is important in improving the hospital. Taking risks may be particularly rewarding in times when the industry is changing, such as healthcare is now. “There is a lot of opportunity in turbulent times,” Dr. Miller says. For example, Johns Hopkins took a risk by investing in home care. “We have not just stayed static; we are moving.”

Related Articles on Hospital Leadership:
How to Run an Academic Medical Center: Q&A With Johnese Spisso, Chief Health System Officer of UW Medicine

4 Strategies to Optimize Leadership in Integrated Care

5 Ways to Put Meaning Behind Your Hospital's 'Mission, Vision and Values'


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