What health system CEOs need to tackle conflict, change

Health system CEOs are leaving behind ego-driven, top down leadership in favor of a trusting and a supportive culture to guide their organizations and transform healthcare delivery. Change is hard, but necessary, to grow.

"One of my greatest realizations is the importance of fostering a culture where every individual genuinely feels valued and supported," K. Craig Kent, MD, CEO of Charlottesville, VA.-based UVA Health and executive vice president of health affairs at the University of Virginia told Becker's. "Tough decisions are inevitable, and there are bound to be those who disagree or for whom these decisions produce an unfavorable outcome. But if a foundation of trust, transparency, and caring exists, these individuals will understand these decisions are being made in the best interests of their organization, the same organization that cares about their well-being and success."

Change is happening on many fronts. More care is exiting the hospital to be delivered at outpatient sites, in the home and through virtual connections. Patients are more actively participating in decision-making about their care, and digital technology makes it possible to personalize care more than ever before.

There are also big challenges, as expenses continue to rise faster than revenue. Experts predict labor costs will continue to rise at a fast clip and clinician shortages will exacerbate the issue. Hospitals struggling financially see little respite ahead without joining a larger system or taking on additional financial support.

Some hospitals are closing services or restructuring leadership roles, while others are leaning into incorporating artificial intelligence into workflows designed to boost productivity. There is often conflict during times of change, and the most effective leaders navigate decision-making stealthily to achieve the best results.

Focusing on trust, transparency and caring while fostering open communication shows team members they're valued, said Dr. Kent.

"Consistent practice of this philosophy increases the likelihood of team members' acceptance of difficult institutional decisions when challenging scenarios arise and builds higher employee and organizational satisfaction over time. If the overarching sentiment of empathy and concern resonates throughout the organization, team members will remain committed to the organization's mission," he said.

David Lubarsky, MD, CEO and vice chancellor of human and health sciences at UC Davis Health in Sacramento, Calif., has also focused on building trust with his teams. He cited Stephen Covey's The Speed of Trust as a helpful guide to modeling integrity and purpose-driven leadership.

"The key to success in healthcare initiatives is not found in careful planning, generous funding, or the wizardry of underlying technology," said Dr. Lubarsky. "Those are all necessary, but success is not possible without first having built up trusting relationships before embarking on a change management initiative."

Peter Banko, president and CEO of Springfield, Mass.-based Baystate Health, goes back to legendary Notre Dame football coach Lou Holtz's three rules for leadership to simplify complex decision-making: "Do the right thing, do the best you can, and always show people you care."

"Listen hard, talk straight, and trumpet your deepest values," said Mr. Banko. "Disagreements and tension make us better. Execute with courage, authenticity, and assertiveness. Finally, a healthy balance of ego and humility is absolutely essential in always getting it right versus needing to be right."

Greg Rosencrance, president and CEO of WVU Medicine Thomas Hospital in South Charleston, W.Va., also said listening is the key to healthcare leadership. But it's more than just listening; it's attentive listening to understand the other person's underlying concerns, needs and perspectives that differentiates good from great CEOs. The most effective leaders listen and foster trust with patients, staff and all other stakeholders to drive that culture of inclusion and accelerate much needed innovation.

"By actively listening to feedback, insights, and suggestions, leaders can identify areas for improvement, address challenges proactively, and make informed decisions that prioritize the well-being of both patients and employees," said Mr. Rosencrance. "Ultimately, prioritizing listening as a leadership skill creates a foundation for collaboration, innovation, and excellence in healthcare delivery."

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