10 healthcare leaders share tips for effective communication

Proper communication between hospital leaders and staff plays a key role in the success of the organization. Here, 10 healthcare leaders share their strategies for improving communication skills with colleagues and direct reports. Their responses are below, presented alphabetically.

Editor's note: The following responses were lightly edited for length and clarity.

Thomas A. Biga, president of the RWJBarnabas Health Hospital Division (West Orange, N.J.)

Given the current environment in which we work, communication is no longer only a planned, formatted event. Of course, a regular cadence of reporting is required. However, due to the manner in which events and activities occur, and the unending flood of data that pours into our devices, the customary ongoing manner of communication no longer fits any preconceived notion of prepared reports, summaries and the like. While such regular reporting is still needed, it is no longer sufficient on its own.

My experience, therefore, with my colleagues is an open access model. We exchange emails and texts 24/7, given the latest event or relevant information that may have just been published.  The challenge is keeping those colleagues informed of changes that may affect them. No one enjoys being surprised due to information not cycled their way.

The proper communication keeps people in the loop, involved and feeling part of the team, with everyone working toward a common goal.

Robert Gardner, CEO of Banner Ironwood Medical Center (Queen Creek, Ariz.) and Banner Goldfield Medical Center (Apache Junction, Ariz.)

There are two main thoughts that come to mind. First, as silly as it sounds, when it comes to improving communication skills, there is no substitute for … well, communicating! What I mean by that, is that unfortunately, far too often we think we are communicating clearly or enough, when in actuality, colleagues and direct reports feel somewhat "in the dark."

Second, much of our day-to-day revolves around numbers and figures (finance, budget, strategy, volumes, etc.), and so when we communicate, we tend to simply report out in some fashion on these numbers. This may satisfy a surface-level of interest or curiosity; however, what colleagues and direct reports really want are the stories behind the numbers. The single greatest way that I have learned to improve my communication skills is through improving my ability to tell a story.

I'm not talking about fabricating or dramatizing to bedazzle or entertain people, I'm talking about conscientiously weaving your organization's mission, values and purpose into your communication in a way that inspires your intended audience to engage in more purposeful ways than ever before. Most of the individuals who we consider to be highly influential leaders in our lives have mastered the art of storytelling. Practice it, and I promise you'll see positive results in your communication.

Aaron Gillingham, senior vice president and chief human resources officer at Beaumont Health (Southfield, Mich.)

Professional athletes don't just perform on game day. They spend hours practicing and learning from their mistakes. Improving communication with colleagues and direct reports is a skill, like sports, that must be practiced to get better. 

There are several ways I refine my communication skills. The first is continuous feedback. For those that know me, I frequently end meetings by asking a few questions, such as:

1) Is there anything we could have done that would have yielded a better outcome?

2) What could I, as a leader, have done to make this a better meeting or outcome?

3)  Is there something we should implement for future meetings that will allow us to be more efficient or communicate better? 

I often find colleagues are surprised by these questions because most people usually show up to a meeting expecting only to drive toward an outcome. Saving a few minutes at the end of meetings to discuss what is working, what is not working, and what could change helps to improve communication among colleagues and direct reports. 

The second way that I practice improving my communication skills is through transparency. Transparency is not just telling someone exactly what you think. It's first asking for permission to provide feedback. Then, it's being constructive, not destructive. By asking for permission to provide feedback, you are essentially shifting the power of the conversation to the other party. The other party must acknowledge the request and then give permission to receive feedback. Once permission is given, the power shifts back to the person providing feedback, thus allowing for the opportunity to provide good, constructive and direct feedback. 

Just like with sports, the more time you put into working on your communication skills, the more likely you are to succeed and score a big win for yourself and your team.

Tracey Hoke, MD, chief of quality and performance improvement for UVA Health (Charlottesville, Va.)

I use a multipronged approach when it comes to communication with my peers and my teams. With my peers, I strive for face-to-face conversations — so much can be lost in email. This said, I often follow up in writing to confirm what was said. With my team, I like to share agendas and materials when appropriate, and I hold a regular in-person meeting to review what was shared. I also write and send minutes and check in one-on-one to see how messages are percolating in the organization. When a gap is identified, I am quick to clarify.

Ronda Lehman, market president, Mercy Health – Lima (Ohio)

I am a firm believer that communication improves when you are in close proximity with one another during the workday. I enjoy the camaraderie of having offices near one another and lots of shared space. I believe this both helps people feel connected and supported as well as creates countless opportunities throughout the day for the open sharing of ideas or updates. While emails can be helpful to communicate, taking a few extra minutes to get up and go have a discussion with someone builds relationships.

Mike Marquardt, CFO of UVA Medical Center (Charlottesville, Va.)

Wherever there is an opportunity, I try to have in-person, one-on-one discussions with colleagues and team members.  I try to be intentional with how I approach conversations so that co-workers see me as accessible and open for dialogue.  For example, I try to stop by someone's office or pick up the phone instead of responding to an email.

My goal is to make any communication a two-way communication to either solicit input or create a call for action to the intended audience.  For example, instead of making my monthly financial review to the management team a simple summary, I try to finish every presentation with a couple of questions or action items for everyone in the audience to investigate and follow up on. This has initiated many insightful conversations and fostered great dialogue with front-line managers.

Quinn McKenna, COO of Stanford (Calif.) Health Care

Listening turns out to be the most important skill I have worked to develop on my quest to become a better communicator with my team, colleagues and organization.  I have learned that if I don't understand where my team is coming from and how they view the world, then any attempt I make to communicate will come across as incomplete.  How others hear my message is even more important to effective communication than me clearly understanding what I am trying to say.

There are three books that I read early in my career that helped shape my perspective of trying to understand others. 

The first book is Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me), by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson.  The key lesson in this book was to teach that leaders who can admit mistakes and learn from them have more credibility with their teams than leaders who never admit to making mistakes.

The second book was Start with Why by Simon Sinek.  The lesson in this book for me was to recognize that everyone wants to be successful.  And as I am asking my team to take on new challenges, they must understand how this new priority fits in.  Why is it important?  Why should they be engaged? How will it help them be successful in their jobs as well?

The third book was The Tao of Leadership by John Heider. There are many lessons on leadership one can learn from this book.  With regards to communication, the key lesson for me was to recognize that leadership is the catalyst for a successful team — not the team the catalyst for a successful leader.  At the end of the day it is all about the team and their ability to be successful. 

Clear communication on a consistent basis is challenging at best. 

I have learned that when I start from a place of humility and desire to serve the team, I have a greater chance of bringing us together as an effective group.  And even when I know this is an important starting place, it is good to keep reminding myself, so I don't get lost in the tyranny of the moment and just tell people what to do because it is the quickest path.

Seung Park, MD, senior vice president and chief health information officer at Indiana University Health (Indianapolis).

Improving communication skills is often a matter of self-reflection; I have personally found the 360 evaluation process to be helpful in bringing to light strengths, weaknesses and areas for improvement. The act of communication is necessarily the act of bridge-building, and you can't build bridges without knowing where you're coming from and where you're going. To that end, I am trying to speak less, listen more and think deeply. Finally, let us not neglect silence and mindfulness. I've found that my communication acumen suffers when I do not explicitly carve out quiet time for myself.

Marschall Runge, MD, PhD, executive vice president for medical affairs at the University of Michigan (Ann Arbor)

At Michigan Medicine, we have many useful tools to communicate (websites, newsletters, podcasts, video presentations, etc.) which help inform our employees. However, I believe I have made the most meaningful connections when I speak directly with my colleagues. In-person communication strengthens relationships, builds trust and can make it easier to convey expectations and discuss more sensitive issues, when necessary. I believe it is important to make the time for these conversations on a regular basis, both to learn from employees and understand how leaders can help them overcome challenges. I have added monthly faculty breakfasts and weekly lunches with department chairs to my calendar. I also drop in on staff meetings in various departments, and I find that I always walk away with something new. Another way to connect with a broader audience is through my  Minute with Marschall blog, where I encourage employees to join the conversation. No matter how you communicate, I believe we all benefit when the conversation becomes a two-way dialogue, allowing us to all learn from each other.  

Dave Williams, MD, president and CEO of UnityPoint Clinic and UnityPoint at Home (West Des Moines, Iowa)

As a pediatrician, actively listening to the parents and children I've cared for is also one of the most important communication practices I've taken with me into my leadership role. It's so easy for our minds to focus on the next appointment, the next meeting or the next great thing we're going to say when someone else is talking. And I think people pick up on when we aren't truly present. The magic happens when we turn off our "monkey brain" and listen to learn and understand. Then the conversation becomes much more meaningful for both people.


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