Leaders must create a culture where staff can be 'habitually excellent'

Paul O'Neill

An organization that has a leader focused on striving for excellence is capable of obtaining any goal, said Paul O’Neill, former U.S. Secretary of Treasury and former CEO of ALCOA, to an audience Thursday at a Maine Health Management Coalition conference in Portland, Maine.

[See also: Clear leadership, empowered employees lead to organizational health]

“In an organization with a real leader everything is possible, and without real leadership, the status quo is probably inevitable,” said O’Neill.

O’Neil laid out a three-part strategy for successful leadership:

  1. Articulate aspirational goals. According to O’Neill, it is incumbent upon an organization’s leader to set the bar high and inspire employees to strive to reach it. “If the leader does not establish and articulate aggressive, unheard of aspirational goals for an institution, there is no one else do to it,” he said.
  2. Take away all the reasons why “we can’t do it.” A leader must eliminate the excuses an organization’s staff uses to prevent change and improvements. “If a leader doesn’t take them away, they will be there and the status quo will maintain itself,” he said.
  3. Create a culture that provides the possibility of an organization to become habitually excellent. “That means always, not occasionally, not in part of the institution, but an institutional characteristic of habitual excellence,” said O'Neill.

[See also: Q&A: Patrick Lencioni discusses leadership and organizational health]

In order for an organization to achieve excellence, O’Neill believes employees need to feel that they are treated with respect by everyone regardless of race, nationality, gender, title, pay grade or level of education.

“I have to tell you, there are not a lot of organizations where (this) is true,” he said. “It’s very unusual to find a healthcare institution where the people who clean the rooms are afforded the same dignity and respect as the surgeon.”

Leaders should also focus less on the bottom line and more on organizational health, said O’Neill.

“I know about the financial imperative, but if you are really good at everything you do, finance will take care of itself,” he said. “I believe finance should be a consequence, not an objective.”

Better leadership in healthcare would result in improved population health and substantial cost savings, O’Neill noted, as he implored the audience to strive for excellence.

“I urge you to set your sights on perfect. To get your leaders to set inspirational and aspirational goals,” he concluded. “We could save $1 trillion a year and vastly improve outcomes if we did everything in a culture of habitual excellence.”

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