Michael Dowling: Staying focused is the best thing leaders can do for their teams

I'm often asked about the best thing leaders can do to keep their teams engaged. My answer is simple: Stay relentlessly and unapologetically focused.

At first blush, my approach may seem overly simple and non-strategic, but I underscore it continuously because the advice is usually ignored, overlooked or forgotten. 

The human ability to focus does not vary based on an organization's revenue, location or talent pool. It does not take charisma, a doctorate degree nor a job title to maintain focus. This competency may not discriminate, but it's by no means commonplace. 

The average human attention span is 8 seconds. Think about that for a moment. All of us are constantly redirecting our attention toward the task at hand. For those of us at the helm of hospitals and health systems, the challenge escalates. We face great demands on our time and energy, some more meaningful than others. In a digital age, the scope of communication is expanding and nearly impossible to manage in real-time. For instance, every 90 minutes I receive roughly 250 emails. 

These details don't change the bottom line: My work is about managing complexity and ambiguity. The minute I find myself sidetracked or distracted, I am not doing my job well. 

So what does relentless, unapologetic focus look like? And how do I maintain it? Here's what works for me, and what I hope will help you and the people surrounding you. 

1. Return to core questions. I stay focused by asking myself the following questions each time I'm faced with a decision or choice, whether it is about technology, research, construction or any other issue: Will this be good for the people we serve? Will people be better off if we do this? If every choice comes back to patients, families and our community, I stay on track.

2. Know what you aren't. There's no shortage of ways for healthcare organizations to diversify their businesses and take on new challenges. Part of demonstrating unapologetic focus is declining some of those opportunities that may seem intriguing, whether it's taking over someone else's facilities, operating hospitals overseas or taking on "first-of-a-kind" initiatives. Saying "no" doesn't mean opposing change or innovation. Just the opposite: I believe we need to broaden the definition of health, and I want to deliver the best affordable, accessible care we can for the communities we serve. That includes moving away from traditional models of healthcare delivery such as hospitals, which are closing with increasing frequency across the country because, in many cases, the community no longer needs them. Our sustained pursuit of a long-term, sustained vision means saying "no" to business opportunities that would take us off track.   

3. Consistency is good. With 8-second attention spans, more-affordable access to information than ever and technology advances changing the way we work and live, our ability to embrace change is crucial. At the same time, society sometimes underappreciates the value of stability. For example, during the 18 years that I've been CEO at Northwell, we've been very consistent in the general direction of our annual strategic plan. When employees hear the same common themes emphasized year after year, they get a clear sense of direction and an understanding that we are willing to be entrepreneurial and innovative — as long as those efforts are aligned with the direction we're moving toward. 

4. Keep a consistently optimistic view about the good work we do. Leaders must be deeply hopeful about their people. When people regularly hear their boss say, "There is no problem we cannot solve," they have a much easier time ignoring distractions and investing energy where we need it — for the good of patients, families and our community. It's crucial that this optimism is steady. People sense when their boss is confident in them, and they need to see it from us during bad times and good times. Working in an organization where optimism is demonstrated consistently makes it easier to focus on the right things. 

5. Think before you hit 'send.' Everybody and anybody can send emails, but I find them to be very unproductive, inefficient and impersonal. Too many times, email provides an avenue for people to churn out a stream of consciousness without really thinking it through. If someone sends me an idea over email and asks what I think of it, I rarely respond in kind. Communicating over email makes it difficult to fully understand an issue. Given my duty to manage complexity and ambiguity, I usually need to sit down and look at an issue from all sides before making decisions. 

6. Focus and stress management gets easier over time. I've always been pretty focused on the job, but I've found that I've gotten more attentive over the years. First of all, the more you know about the business of healthcare, the easier it is to maintain clarity. The more you know about people, the easier it is to discern serious complaints from petty. I have also come to embrace our physiological responses to stress and help my team cope with them. If people come in with a problem at the end of the day, I encourage them to relax, sleep on it and talk to me in the morning. Oftentimes, what they thought was a crisis the night before is less grave come morning. Is someone standing across from you with a weight-of-the-world problem? They may very well be. But in many instances, encouraging them to walk around the block or take a few deep breaths doesn't hurt. What is really important here? (I direct you back to point No. 1.)

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