The biggest leadership 'don'ts' from 13 hospital execs

Sitting behind a desk all day — except when you are in seemingly never-ending meetings — is one way to make sure hospital leaders never see anything but a bird's-eye view of their operations. Failure to connect with your team is not only one way to guarantee a hospital executive doesn't have a finger on the pulse of the organization but, on a personal note, it's a lonely place to be.

"We spend too much time in meetings or projecting goals without spending the time co-creating with the front-line caregivers," Derek Anderson, executive director of Northwell Health's Northern Westchester Hospital in Mount Kisco, N.Y., told Becker's. 

Tracy Feiertag, executive director at New York City-based Lenox Health Greenwich Village, said leaders should never be afraid to share who they are with their team. "Real people respond to real people," she told Becker's. "I typically find putting barriers around your personality can lead to a lack of trust from your team which, in my opinion, hampers efficiency which is crucial in healthcare."

Becker's spoke with several leaders about their must-dos when running a hospital and their don'ts, and found that effective executives learn from their mistakes, never stop looking for ways to expand their knowledge and their personal connections, and always focus on their customers — the patients and their families.

Editor's note: The following responses have been edited for clarity and brevity.

Question: What will keep a hospital leader from attaining their goals?

Rhonda Abbott. Senior Vice President and Chief Executive Officer at TIRR Memorial Hermann (Houston): One of the biggest mistakes hospital leaders can make is neglecting the need for effective communication, collaboration and inclusion of diverse thoughts and perspectives as decisions are made. If leaders are unable to involve various stakeholders in discussions, clearly communicate with their healthcare teams, patients, families and visitors, they risk compromise for themselves and their organization. 

These risks could come in the form of medical errors, inefficient workflows, patient dissatisfaction, lack of team and physician engagement, and an inability to provide the best possible care. In addition, an unwillingness to collaborate could mean missed opportunities, not only for the care of the patient, but also for the betterment of the organization as a whole. 

Derek Anderson. Executive Director of Northwell Health's Northern Westchester Hospital (Mount Kisco, N.Y.): Ignore your customers — the community you serve and the staff who drive the outcomes. As leaders, we work for our team. The patients and team will tell you everything you need to know to deliver amazing healthcare.

Teresa Artz, MSN, RN. Director of Patient Safety and Quality at Hackensack Meridian Health's Old Bridge (N.J.) Medical Center and Raritan Bay Medical Center (Perth Amboy, N.J.): Hospital leaders should avoid the top-down approach. All team members have valuable insight into any decisions that need to be made toward reaching the hospital's goals. The top-down effect oftentimes will not take into consideration all aspects within the front-line environment. This can lead to a decrease in the effectiveness and sustainability related to that project, action plan or task.

Shared governance is the way to go because it gives each team member the ability to contribute to healthcare decisions for the hospital. It ultimately will promote accountability, equity and effectiveness.

Chanda Chacón. President and Chief Executive Officer of Children's Hospital & Medical Center (Omaha, Neb.): Don't forget your "why." Why you show up each day to lead in healthcare is personal, and your "why" helps motivate you on the challenging days.

Brian Donley, MD. Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer at NewYork-Presbyterian (New York City): I am grateful to be supporting a world-class academic healthcare system that cares for one of the world's most diverse patient populations. Striving for excellence — in patient care, education and groundbreaking research and innovation — is embedded in our team's DNA. However, it's equally important to never stop looking for ways to learn, grow and improve yourself and your craft. 

I have always believed that modeling authenticity means showing humility and vulnerability to your teams during your own moments of growth and learning, a guaranteed side effect of leading in an industry that weathers so much change and complexity on a daily basis.

Tracy Feiertag. Executive Director at Northwell Health's Lenox Health Greenwich Village (New York City): I don't need to tell any of you that success is built on relationships and relationships are built on give and take, trust and openness, feelings of safety and security, and vulnerability. You cannot achieve high-functioning, meaningful and fruitful relationships without being authentic. 

Everyday, I see leaders act two different ways — one way in their C-suite or office space and another when they are out with the front line. Of course, we do need to modulate based on the circumstance but, no matter where you are or who you are with, you should allow yourself to be genuinely you. 

Ismelda Garza. CIO of Cuero (Texas) Regional Health System: Don't try to be someone else; be yourself. You will come across a multitude of personalities as a hospital leader. Some will like you and some will not. Stay true to the decisions you make.

Warren Geller. President and CEO of Englewood (N.J.) Health: Avoid being overly directive in your approach to talent acquisition. Instead, bring aboard the best of the best from various industries and trust in their ability to apply their expertise. Understand that in order to attract and retain outstanding talent, it's crucial to cultivate a diverse and inclusive workplace environment, starting with your leadership team.

William Haugh. President of the Central Division of LifePoint Health (Brentwood, Tenn.): Don't go it alone. While you may have some short-term gains, you cannot be successful working alone long term. Instead, you should surround yourself with a team you trust and do everything in your power to support and lead them while working together to achieve common goals. 

I've always strived to create an environment where my team doesn't feel like I'm the only person in charge. And when you're 6'6" like me, you want to come across as approachable and not intimidating. For example, when I'm sharing difficult news with a team member, I typically sit down while they stand. This helps create a more comfortable and open environment to address issues. The strongest, most successful leaders foster collaboration and exhibit humility.

Elan Levy, MD. Medical Director of Northwell Health's Lenox Hill Hospital (New York City): Don't lose sight of culture and specifically don't forget about the importance of kindness. That can come in many forms — both verbal and nonverbal. Learn the names of everyone on your team and something personal about them, if they are open to sharing. Make yourself available to talk about a range of topics. Laugh often and try to imbue humor into your team meetings. When combined with authenticity, kindness can create deep ties with your teams and community and help build long-standing relationships.

Donna Moravick. Executor Director of Northwell Health's South Shore University Hospital (Bay Shore, N.Y.): There are many, many don'ts. First, never forget where you came from. No matter who you are, don't assume everyone is OK. 

There is a story I tell at new employee orientations about my family. My dad was a mechanic and he was between jobs. He hurt his hand and our insurance had lapsed. At the hospital, he was treated poorly and sent away to be treated at a "hospital that takes care of poor people." My family was horrified and embarrassed. No one deserves to be treated that way. I use the story to tell new employees that they must remember that our patients and their families come to us on the worst day of their lives. It's important to remember that. 

Secondly, take nothing for granted. It takes a village. Never rely on only one person — focus on processes. 

Finally, don't lose sight of quality. We are all here for our patients. 

Jon Sendach. Executive Director at North Shore University Hospital (Manhasset, N.Y.) and Deputy Regional Executive Director at Northwell Health's Central Region: Do not let the immediate get in the way of the important. As operators, many hospital leaders have spent the last few years managing day-to-day. Shifting one's focus further down the road is a must. In my practice, I try to maintain awareness of this trap and have developed this antidote for it: Schedule at least one purposeful meeting each month where the leadership team wrestles with or plans for something at least nine to 18 months out. 

Matt Timmons. Senior Vice President and Chief Operating Officer at Children's Hospital New Orleans, LCMC Health: Don't lead from the office desk. Be visible, interact with team members so you can see your hospital operations in person. Not only does this build stronger connections and engagement with employees, but it's also the best way to fully understand what really happens across the organization.

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