Hospital leadership post-pandemic — it's personal, says Nebraska children's hospital CEO Chanda Chacon

Many hospital leaders know that one of the keys to success is to surround yourself with smart people — the kind of professionals who help you rise to the occasion and balance out your strengths. 

In other words, "If you are the smartest person at the table, move to another table," said Chanda Chacon, president and CEO at the Children's Hospital & Medical Center in Omaha, Neb.

To be the very best leader in any environment, but especially in a hospital, embrace humility, Ms. Chacon said. 

If the pandemic has taught C-suite leaders anything, it's that there's plenty they won't know until they need to know it. However, Ms. Chacon said, "Be open to new lessons, ideas and perspectives because it will only make you a stronger leader. Strive to surround yourself with smart, talented people who can help you sharpen your knowledge and skills."

Ms. Chacon said while she has always led with a people-first focus, her commitment to being in the middle of things — getting out of her office and rounding in the units — has elevated her leadership style. Now, it's personal.

"To be an effective leader, you need to know what's happening around you in the hospital. You need to fully understand the culture of your organization. The only real, meaningful way to do that is to get to know your people. You need to be present with them by participating in meetings and town halls and asking questions," she said. "The power of connection informs great leadership."

In an interview with Becker's, Ms. Chacon spoke about the importance of transparency in communication, the need to put your own proverbial oxygen mask on first and why having a bit of humility can always help. She also shared lessons other hospital leaders can use to "accelerate the drive for excellence."

Question: You speak about the importance of transparent communication between C-suite leaders and the entire team of employees. What does that look like for you?

Chandra Chacon: It looks like a willingness to put yourself in a position of vulnerability.

It means admitting you don't have all the answers, which can be uncomfortable for hospital leaders. But making a commitment to share information when you have it, letting people know that you are always working to overcome challenges, is helpful for the team.

Of course, people want clarity — we all want to know what the future is going to be. And that's impossible. But if we are consistently having a dialogue, constantly sharing information, we can work together to find better solutions.

Q: How did the pandemic affect your leadership style? What changes do you think you'll keep in place?

CC: During the pandemic, we needed to ask ourselves how we can lead differently than before. We had to focus on how to support our people beyond how much they get paid. It became about how we show gratitude. The biggest thing for me is really making sure our people know they are appreciated and that their efforts truly have a big impact on our success. 

Perhaps we looked at showing gratitude in small ways before the pandemic, but I'm not sure it was at the core of anyone's leadership plan. We've learned when you focus on the people on your team, great things happen. You create an environment where people feel like they're part of something bigger, and make sure they know that, no matter their role, they're making an impact. 

Q. What is something you think most hospital C-suite leaders can do better? 

CC: I think they can remember they are human beings first and foremost. You need to be honest with yourself and have some humility when it comes to knowing your strengths and building on them. Embrace your challenges and surround yourself with people who can help you be better. Humility is mission-critical for successful leadership, and it's important for all of us to recognize we're still on this journey and we've never "landed." 

Q: Can you share some advice on how your colleagues can level up their leadership skills?

CC: Take your work personally, because it is personal. By this I mean two things. First, we in healthcare often focus so much on taking care of others that we don't put ourselves in a place to receive care — even self care. Don't be afraid to ask others around you about what they do to try to keep themselves balanced. You're allowed to make yourself a priority sometimes.

As a leader in your hospital, encourage others to have those same conversations. As a person, your work and home lives are interconnected. That's a reality. But I realized during the pandemic that we always should have been caring as deeply about the people on our team as we care about the people that we care for. 

The second personal connection tip is to always know your "why." For me, that's essential to the work we do. I always remind myself why this work matters.  Understanding your "why" will keep me anchored, positive and excited about the work you get to do — even (and especially) when it's hard. 

Value the power of authenticity. Authenticity is a powerful tool for leaders. Organizations and leaders who encourage authentic behavior are more likely to have teams that are engaged and motivated. To become more effective at guiding others, authentic leaders must first focus on bettering themselves — which is why many authentic leaders are disciplined, mission-driven and cultivate self-awareness. 

Leadership is about action and outcomes; it's not about title. I believe that everyone is a leader, and you lead from the role you're in. Everyone and every role is important because what we do in healthcare is a team sport. For me, getting rid of the idea of chasing a title was empowering, and it enabled me to focus on acquiring the knowledge and skills I needed to make the biggest impact. Keep asking yourself, "How can I invest in myself today to better myself tomorrow?" 

Realize success is a journey, and enjoy the ride. I like to say people need to chase progress, not perfection. In any leadership job environment, if you focus on trying to be perfect, you'll always fail. Leadership is a journey, not a destination. As soon as you land where you think you should be, the world changes. Healthcare is so dynamic. 

If you want to be excellent, and encourage others to be excellent, focus on always striving to be better than where you are now. It doesn’t mean that where you are now isn't great, but it means we're always aiming for more. I've always thought if you're standing still, you're falling behind in this work.  

And again, the journey to successful leadership is personal. Challenge yourself to find someone — a leadership coach, peer or mentor — who can reflect the mirror back on you, helping you identify areas of growth and opportunity and how to leverage your strengths for action. 

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