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Essential skills for visionary healthcare leadership

Success depends on your ability to understand and deliver what your patients and their families, the marketplace and regulators expect.

What makes a medical practice unique is the direction that practice leaders set for it. As a leader, success depends on your ability to understand and deliver what your patients and their families, the marketplace and regulators expect.
But that’s not enough. Understanding the necessary capacity and capability of your workforce, business partners, and the suppliers of critical goods and services are key to visionary leadership.

When practice leaders do not clearly set direction, define performance expectations, create a patient focus, and demonstrate clear and visible practice values and ethics, physicians and other employees are likely to invent their own ideas as to what needs to be done and how to accomplish it. Imagine the inefficiencies and inconsistent clinical, financial and patient experience results if your practice staff is working at cross-purposes!

The following are 7.5 specific skills and attributes needed to be a systems thinker and visionary leader.  As you read each section, give yourself a score between 1 (needs serious help / improvement or someone else on your team to take that role) and 10 (outstanding, wouldn’t change a thing).

1 – I understand the difference between being a leader and being a boss.

A boss says, “GO staff!”  A leader says, “Let us go, team!” and leads the charge. The CEO or managing physician needs to clearly articulate the vision and mission of your practice. The practice administrator, with input from other key organizational stakeholders, creates the strategy to meet the practice vision and mission and, along with the rest of the team, execute that plan. A leader is able to help each team member understand the valuable part they play in achieving the organization’s goals and, ultimately, its vision and mission.

Your practice’s values, those guiding principles and behaviors that embody how your organization and staff are expected to operate, support and guide the decisions made by every workforce member and pave the right path to achieving the practice’s mission and vision. The example a leader sets will drive the action of their staff far better than words.

2 – I am a key part of a leadership system.

As a leader of a medical practice, HOW do you lead? We’re not talking about the behaviors you exhibit that “show” you are a leader. We’re talking about the process you follow to ensure you have the right plan and the right people and the right tools to have an exceptional practice. 

Although leadership systems can vary, most have some common steps. First, exceptional leaders set the direction for the organization. With the input of all of their stakeholders, exceptional leaders develop the strategies and plans to move the organization in that direction. They make sure they have the right people and processes to carry out their plans. They make sure their entire workforce and other key stakeholders (vendors, volunteers, the community, etc.) know the plan and the role they must play in its success. And exceptional leaders evaluate the achievement of the plan and the effectiveness of their leadership. 

3 – I manage for innovation and leading edge thinking in my practice.

You know the saying, “Think outside the box?” Nido Quebein, who has transformed North Carolina’s High Point University in the last few years, says to “throw the box outside of the window.” Are you asking your team for their input on improvements or is your own voice the loudest in the room? Are you reconnecting to share what will work, what won’t work and what’s missing? Often your front line team will be the best go-to people for insight on positive change that will impact business performance. How do you promote innovation, initiative and appropriate risk taking? Encourage your staff to challenge the status quo. Be agile and avoid long chains of command that require lengthy decision paths.

4 – I have a focus on the future of my medical practice.

Changes are rapidly occurring in how we deliver care, what resources are available, the expectations of our patients, new technology, new partnering opportunities, the economy, the needs of our workforce, regulatory requirements, strategic moves by competitors…the list goes on and on. Change is inevitable, but you can plan for it.

How do you rate yourself in your ability to focus on the future and deal with change? As you strategically plan, are you considering the key external and internal factors that will affect your practice and your market? Are you agile enough to modify your plans when circumstances warrant? Are you developing future leaders in your practice?

5 – I manage by fact.

Sales managers for Dale Carnegie Training often ask their instructors to share statements about the company that distinguish Dale Carnegie Training from its competitors. As instructors state what they believe to be distinguishing factors, the manager asks the group “Is this a fact or is it a claim?” Now apply that same way of thinking to your practice. If you say your practice delivers exceptional patient care on all of your advertising, yet your patient experience survey ratings or your clinical outcomes are in the tank, then your message is a claim, not a fact.

The monitoring and use of key performance data is critical to the success of any business. The operative word is “key,” meaning the essential few measures that are critical to achieving your practice’s intended outcomes. The amount of data available to every practice manager can be overwhelming. Find the measures that best represent improved healthcare outcomes, improved patient experience, improved financial performance, and other factors important to your practice. That data should then be analyzed to extract meaning to support the decisions you make, to drive improvement and innovation, and to plan for the future.

6 – I know the importance of taking intelligent risk.

Do you tolerate failure in your practice? You should. As long as taking a risk does not cause personal harm or irreversible loss to the organization, encouraging the exploration of different avenues of improvement can ultimately lead to finding ways to make your practice exceptional. Not all actions are going to achieve the desired outcomes. But if your practice is risk-averse, the ability to improve may be limited.

7 – I have a “systems perspective” in managing my practice.

The Malcolm Baldrige Health Care Criteria for Performance Excellence defines systems perspective as “managing your whole organization, as well as its components, to achieve sustainability.”

The work of a visionary leader is complex. You must drive exceptional results by building strategies based on key business environment factors, including the very important voice of your patients and their families. You must make certain you have the right people with the right training in the right roles.  You must be a motivational leader to ensure your staff is inspired to show up every day and do their best work. You must measure the right things and use this data to drive improvement. You must make sure all of your key processes are functioning smoothly and producing exceptional results. A systems thinker wraps their arms around all of these components and clearly sees their linkage.

7.5  - I show our patients and their families that I care about them as a person.

Smile, make eye contact, use the person’s name, don’t interrupt, be genuinely interested in them as a person, sit down next to them if possible, address everyone in the room, not just the patient, be willing to say, “I’m sorry” and remember, these are people, not just “the gallbladder in room 12.” 

Want to take an intelligent risk? Give them a hug, when appropriate, and follow a Mary Kay Ash principle – make them feel like the most important person in the world. These foundational skills can set you apart as a provider. People are much more forgiving and understanding when they feel you are being kind, patient, and caring. 

Want to take another intelligent risk? Make a commitment to put more CARE into healthcare by using these principles daily. These will enhance your leadership skills and ability to connect with your team in a meaningful way while making an impact in patient- and family-centered care.

Merikay Tillman works with healthcare organizations that want to create change to transform the patient experience. Founder of the Catalyst Methodology, she is also a member of NSCHBC. Sue Cumpston has managed and analyzed patient satisfaction data and helped drive focused improvement to the patient experience. She is also an Examiner for the North Carolina Awards for Excellence (NCAfE), the state equivalent of the national Baldrige Performance Excellence Program.

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