Jonathan Bush: Retreating Toward a Purpose

Every year my leadership team and I go off the beaten path, usually somewhere in New England (though we've trekked as far as Gettysburg, Pa.). Deep under cover of nature, we tuck in to review the year and refresh our understanding of who we are and who we want to be as leaders and a company.

jonathan bushOn one such retreat, I found myself walking alone on a Boston Harbor island doing just that —reflecting on who I am as a leader, teammate and person. How had I gone from a startup in a living room to the Arsenal campus in Watertown, Mass., with a company of thousands? I thought about the changes over the years, what I had done well and where I had failed, and I started to contemplate the best way forward.

I'm sure many fellow leaders in the industry have grappled with the same questions as the landscape changes rapidly with even more government mandates and the move to fee-for-value. It is in these times of flux that I think back to the lessons I learned on that island, and it is these lessons I try to remember and draw from as we hit uncharted territory.

Retreats have a way of spotlighting issues simmering just under the surface. Sure enough, early on we found ourselves at an impasse when none of us were able to talk about how we at times fail each other. We couldn't get past our aversion to admitting failure. Some kept silent, others made excuses.

It was clear in order to keep our company healthy, we (executives and team members alike) needed to take ownership of all our actions — those we're proud of and those less so. The key is having the right attitude. A self-centered attitude creates a defensiveness that erodes so much of life, particularly corporate life (and even personal life). Instead of coming up with excuses such as, "Well, I was ready and you weren't," we needed to shift thinking to, "I messed that up and I could have done this differently."

So we grappled with the obvious question: How do you create the latter model? It hit us that to guarantee this, we had to do away with the "star culture." Instead we'd build a community of teachers and learners. We realized we weren't going to just have staff who were the best and brightest in their class, but those who could also share their wealth of knowledge with others. If they couldn't share the "magic" with colleagues, then we didn't want them.

At one point, each leader walked alone for 30 minutes to think about how and whom they'd ever thrown under the bus. When we gathered to share, most broke down and gave heartfelt and self-aware acknowledgments, but others just couldn't see it nor admit their limitations. After that retreat, we lost about 10 of our top-performing employees.

Difficult as it may be for some, this has become part and parcel of a foundational competency at athenahealth: Teaching & Learning. If you can't do either of these, then you won't last long with us, regardless of your pay grade.

Since that week on the island, our mantra of Teaching & Learning has become infused in everything we do. athenahealth is the kind of company where a new hire can be pleasantly surprised when a supervisor or teammate takes the time to patiently teach whatever needs to be learned, until the new teammate gets it. If you are learning, it means you are absorbing new information that wasn't there before. If you are teaching, you are helping people handle new information they didn't previously know or understand. We've applied this foundational block to programs with clients and prospects at meetings and roundtables. It's also found in initiatives such as More Disruption Please, which engages entrepreneurs, and internally with a nascent Teaching & Learning initiative, called athenaUniversity.

You might ask why a company that provides network-enabled services for hospitals and physicians would champion disruption. To our way of thinking, it's how we can get to a place where we're ready to do some invaluable learning about ourselves. It's about being a bit vulnerable and open to learning. Knowing what you don't know makes you powerful, not weak.

I remind my employees that though rapid change may seem troubling and scary, it's the only way forward. We must render ourselves obsolete in a way, and try a new way of doing things. After all, this internal growth and change mirrors our entire industry, where we're constantly reminded that our healthcare system is broken. We must find a better way to drive down costs and deliver better care. Our clients are also navigating new territory, and we must be willing to be teachers and learners with them, working as one, to make healthcare work as it should.

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