Tuesday, November 1, 2011

The Good Journey at ACPE


The journey is coming to an end. Next week I’ll be stepping down as CEO of ACPE to begin the next phase of my life. Let me share some of my experiences for those of you like me, who never quite imagined serving in a CEO role.

If you’re an employee in an organization now, you might be thinking to yourself that some decisions don’t make much sense or “I wouldn’t do it that way.” But you never know whether your instincts and judgment are correct because you don’t have the opportunity to do things differently. Or you might think, “How hard can it be to be CEO, anyway?”

It can be extremely hard.It’s pure joy when you and your team come up with the right decisions and implement them well. Nothing really prepares someone for the adjustment to being the ultimate decision-maker in an organization, except perhaps curiosity and focus on the task at hand.

Managing through the depths of the recession was very, very hard. Like many of life’s biggest challenges, it required living and appreciating one moment at a time. Worrying about six or twelve months into the future was an unnecessary distraction. I had to focus on the job to be done at the moment. Whenever I found my mind wandering to the uncertain future, I brought myself back to enjoying whatever I was doing at that time. In retrospect, that experience was a blessing for me and for ACPE staff. We learned what we could do together working as a team under the most challenging conditions.

Having watched several high-ranking executives during my career, I was determined to avoid what I consider the worst possible behavior of people in positions of authority: condescension toward others who aren’t perceived as important in the hierarchy or have jobs of low status. Maybe it was my upbringing in the prairie and hill country of Iowa and Wisconsin, or my years of living in the multicultural state of New Mexico, but I’ve always found men with grease under their fingernails and sweat-soaked caps and women who shovel snow and drive vehicles with manual transmissions to be very interesting, bright and resourceful people.

I judge other executives by how they treat these people. Some of the best-known leaders are humble and make everyone they encounter feel important and valuable. Several of your ACPE board chairs over the past few years exemplify those characteristics. It was easy to collaborate and form productive business relationships with these leaders and their organizations – in contrast to their opposites.

As physicians, we’re taught to give “orders”, expecting them to be carried out. We also tend to have a sense of urgency about, well, just about everything. We weren’t trained in group process or delegation of authority. Learning to listen, listen, listen and avoid being impatient with group decisions will serve you well. Remember that everyone’s opinion is valuable and deserves to be heard.

If you struggle and become frustrated with the personality or thinking style of someone on your staff, it often means you really need that person on your management team. If you have “yes men and women” on your team, many of you are redundant. Sit down with that person to know them better, and get his/her advice for how you can communicate better.

I’m excited about the next phase of my life. The turmoil and uncertainty about our American health system’s safety, cost and consumer/patient value seems like a great opportunity for those who are willing to try something different and enjoy the journey in the process. If I could appreciate the experience of being battered and splashed by those dangerous, unpredictable rapids on the Colorado River a couple of months ago, the next year or two in health care should be a similar experience.

You’ll also find me spending time with rocks, boulders, a stonemason’s hammer, and men and women with grease under their fingernails, or a snow shovel in their hands. Enjoying each moment as it comes.

Friday, October 28, 2011

My Ride


More than three years ago I began two projects, one personal and one professional. I started full-time work as ACPE’s first physician CEO, and I began restoring an old Toyota Land Cruiser. As my last day at ACPE approaches, I’m thinking about the similarities between those projects.

Both ACPE (1975) and the old Cruiser (1979) were born about the same time. In geologic time, both came into existence before Mt. Saint Helens erupted. In political history, both were new during the first oil crisis in the US in 1979.

The craftsmen and women who built these legendary entities had pride and vision for the future. The core components of each (physician leadership education; classic 4WD mechanical components and reliability) deserved to be retained. But after more than 30 years of change and progress, each required some remodeling to needs of today.

For the Cruiser, my son and I found a diesel engine to replace the old, inefficient gasoline engine, and decided to repair a few other things that needed attention. Little did we know that a LOT more parts needed an upgrade. The short version of the restoration is the cover story in the Winter Edition 2011 of the magazine 4x4 Garage.

Brake lines needed to be replaced. Damage from boulders hidden under layers of bondo required new sheet metal and welding. The transmission frequently popped out of first gear on steep downhill grades.

We found a Toyota diesel mated to a more modern 5-speed transmission from Australia. That nearly tripled the gas mileage, and the added turbo now makes for a quick old 4 x 4! We found a canvas top made only in Pakistan (by a company owned by Ehsan - a physician) that’s an exact replica of the original Toyota soft top. We had help from several people across the globe with far more expertise than either of us. We shared our mistakes, and admitted what we didn’t know. Actually, it was my son who did most of that on his build thread on the online forum IH8Mud.

The venture into social media meant the world was able to see what was happening in my New Mexico mountain shop. Those connections brought us into contact with many interesting, courageous and creative people.

Meanwhile, at ACPE, we began the process of imagining what a more modern College might look like for physicians with a passion for learning, leading, and innovating. We got rid of some old traditions, such as tuxedos and evening gowns for the Induction Ceremony. We switched from paper ballots to on-line voting for ACPE Board candidates. We made some changes to our board: adding ex-officio members with younger and different perspectives.

Our board, blessed with some very strong Chairs during my tenure, grappled with what author Jim Collins called the Hedgehog Concept: What are we passionate about? What can we be the best in the world at? What drives our economic engine?

On the day I signed my contract to become CEO, Lehman Brothers collapsed. The early months of the recession forced us to develop a more efficient engine. That modification continues to get high miles per gallon since the recession has eased, and will serve the College well in the years to come. Dr. Peter Angood, who will begin on November 15, will be able to install the turbo charger for the next phase at ACPE, and maybe change the sheet metal for the next model years!

Your staff and I had help from many of you in this “resto-mod”. Through the Board Task Forces, expanded networks, and feedback on surveys, we found new curriculum, faculty, and topics that led to lively sessions, and even a new certificate program (HIT).

The Physician Executive Journal of Medical Management became PEJ. The topic of physician leadership made it to the Wall Street Journal, New York Times and NPR, indicating greater relevance for the College and its members.

I’m going to write one more blog for ACPE before I leave for the next phase of my life after our Board meeting at the Fall Institute in Scottsdale next week. For those of you who find yourself in a CEO role someday, I want to share some of the important lessons I learned about the unique challenges inherent in “the corner office” – even though there are no corner offices in the cylindrical building that houses ACPE headquarters here in Tampa.

If you see the sky blue Cruiser with the Pakistani soft top somewhere in the U.S. over these next few years, wave to me and smile.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The Situation at Pumpkin Springs


On day seven of my raft trip down the Colorado River at the bottom of the Grand Canyon last week, our group came to a popular stopping point called Pumpkin Springs. The rocks just above the hot springs was a place to jump into the dangerous and exciting Colorado River for a cool, refreshing diversion from the hot sun of the mid-afternoon.

Our guides noted that the landing here would be difficult because it required landing just above rapids. They told all of us to disembark from the rafts with our life vests on, should we fall into the fast moving river just above the rapids.

No one wanted to go into Pumpkin Springs because of rumored high levels of arsenic. It didn’t smell very good, either. But some wanted to do the jump into the river – including me. What happened next surprised me, and taught me a few lessons about taking chances in a group.

We climbed to the rocks overlooking Pumpkin Springs. The guides pointed out the jumping spot and the water below, noting that the life vests caused you to pop right up out of the water, and the prevailing eddy current would actually pull you back upstream to a nook in the rocks – and a rope to climb back up. One of the guides jumped to demonstrate the deep water below, and the route to the rope.

Then came the question, “Who’s going to jump?” Several people announced quickly that they were not jumpers. I didn’t say anything. I was thinking about it. Then I uttered, “I think I will.”

I watched as my friend and fellow physician Howard leaped off the rock to the muddy water only about 12 feet below. He popped up just as predicted. His nose was bleeding. His fingernail caused a superficial laceration when he grabbed his nose to prevent water from going up his nostrils.

My turn. I’ve jumped before from similar heights – but that was about four decades ago. Standing on that rock, looking down at the swirling water only 12 feet below, I could not make the leap. Step up, look down, back off. Repeat sequence. I have no idea how many times I did that dance. My legs were shaking. I could feel the adrenaline rush that comes from fear.

Of course it didn’t help that others in the group were watching my agony. What if I got hurt on the landing? Hours away from any kind of rescue. One of my friends pointed out that I have good health insurance - the moral hazard reason to do something risky.

Another said he was beginning to question my manhood. That always comes up in a group of men – for just about any issue!

I just could not visualize myself in the air, landing feet first and entering the water straight. Then another member of the group decided she couldn’t wait any longer to jump. Watching her helped me visualize what I must do. I was finally committed. I jumped. Easy. Good landing. The current brought me back upstream to the rope, just as the guides mentioned.

Climbing back up to the rock, I jumped again with no hesitation. The cold water felt very refreshing. My agony of fear and indecision was over. Even my manhood was back!

Then I noticed that the eddy current on the first jump that pulled me back upstream – away from the rapids - was different. It was moving me downstream! I swam hard just to stay in place. Finally I made some headway and was able to get back to the rope. When I got back up to the rock, I asked Howard, who had jumped again, if he had the same problem with the current. Out of breath, he said the same thing happened to him. In the cold water longer than anticipated, he was getting cold. We decided not to jump again.

Commitment is important. If you’re not ready to do something, don’t announce that you’re “thinking about it”. It’s hard enough to understand what’s going on in your own mind when faced with a risky decision, and even harder for the group watching to understand what’s behind the indecision. Rumors and assumptions can be quite interesting! Actions do speak louder than words – to yourself, and to others.

Once you’ve taken that initial risk, sometimes everything goes as predicted – but sometimes it doesn’t. There are often unanticipated challenges and dangers. Don’t be afraid to talk about those unexpected events with others in your group. Base your next decisions on the “current conditions” you’re experiencing. Trust your instincts. Maybe my initial fear was justified after all.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Seeking -- And Finding -- Physician Leaders


One of the more interesting and active discussions in our ACPE Network is about “Why aren’t physicians leading?". You’ll find all sorts of opinions and insight. I want to submit the opposite hypothesis: that physicians ARE leading. And doing it very well!

Here are just some of the recent pieces of evidence that demonstrate the effectiveness of physicians when they are in leadership roles:

1. The New York Times' health blog picked up Amanda Goodall’s newly published research in the journal Social Science and Medicine, in which she looked at the credentials of CEOs at US News and World Report’s Top 100 Hospitals for Cancer, Heart, and GI care. Though the numbers of physician CEOs in American hospitals is low, there was a strong correlation with physician leadership in the top performers. In fact, quality scores were 25-33 percent higher in the physician led hospitals than their non-physician led peers. Like basketball teams and research universities that she’s studied, which show that former players and researchers get the best results when they are in charge, the experience of being a physician adds a powerful dimension to leadership and results in health care organizations. Read about it here.

2. The recent US News and World Report ranking of the nation’s top hospitals was released last week. Of the top ten, nine are led by physician CEOs. Going down the list of Honor Roll hospitals, eleven of the top seventeen are led by physicians.

3.The American Hospital Association recently announced it was forming a leadership forum for physicians. This effort, led by physicians John Combes (a CPE) and Bill Jessee (last year’s ACPE Distinguished Fellow), has twenty other physicians on the Advisory Board. As we read the list of names, we noted that at least 75 percent are ACPE Members, CPEs, former faculty, or use ACPE as partners in their organization’s leadership development programs. Long-time ACPE faculty member and internationally-known leader in quality and safety – David Nash – was the keynote speaker for the physician leadership forum. It’s too early to know where this initiative is heading, but knowing the integrity and experience of the group, their leadership gives me confidence that the right topics, discussions, and recommendations will be made.

4. Anecdotally, we’re hearing from recruiters that health system boards are changing their views of physicians as leaders. Ten years ago, a token physician CEO candidate was requested. Five years ago, a physician candidate would be given serious consideration. Now physicians are preferred.

I have no doubt the growing evidence of physician leaders’ effectiveness will ruffle some feathers in the health care industry. As Dr. Goodall points out in her research, there’s a strongly held belief that doctors can’t manage or lead. I believe it’s true that the vast majority of physicians do not aspire to be in the CEO’s chair of a health system. It’s darn hard work that requires a certain personality and multiple skill sets. But for those who do find themselves attracted to that role, isn’t it time that they be given a chance by governing boards, and/or groomed for the role by their current health system senior leaders?

I heard recently from a highly reliable source that most hospital CEOs do not have an internal succession plan for their replacement. Well-run businesses outside of health care consider promoting internal talent, and grooming potential successors, as a key to the long term success of the enterprise. Does health care fail to do this because the average tenure of a CEO is just under four years? Or because fifty-seven percent of hospital CEOs have been in their jobs less than five years? Do physician leaders at the top performing hospitals view training potential successors as a priority?

As we look more deeply at the characteristics that make physicians particularly good leaders, we’ll be asking questions like these, and searching for metrics to show the differences. We don’t know what we’ll find, but that’s what research is all about!

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Disruptive physician or threat to the hierarchy? Watch out for the Kool-Aid



No doubt you’ve been aware of the latest survey on the topic of disruptive behavior in health care. The results of our joint study with QuantiaMD are the same as our ACPE survey nearly two years ago. We physicians still have a lot of work to do in our own house to solve this patient safety issue. We’re making progress. But it’s time to look at another angle of how physicians become labeled as “disruptive”. Sometimes the label is just plain wrong. Like old Hollywood westerns, or Patrick Swayze movies, the hero is often bullied by powerful people and organizations who feel that their authority is threatened, or who perceive that the status quo might change.

Since this latest study was published, I’ve had lots of interesting discussions with physicians, and senior health system leaders. Some senior leaders who come from non-health care industries comment on the odd culture of health care compared to many other industries. They point out (it’s also my experience) that disagreement, rather than being viewed as a strong cultural attribute for innovation and change, is frequently considered a threat to the hierarchy. Sometimes decision-making is highly centralized in the C-suite, and leaders are very uncomfortable with questions or differing opinions. In these health systems, the organizational Kool-Aid demands “loyalty” to the leaders, rather than legitimate, truthful debate about the merits of strategy, policies, or procedures. More about “loyalty” later!

When faced with a physician who voices distaste with the Kool-Aid of mindless agreement, these leaders label her/him “disruptive” – not because of behavior, but because of disagreement! That can lead to all sorts of problems for the physician who must then answer to the official organizational procedures for dealing with the disruptive physician, such as medical staff or legal proceedings.

In my first health system leadership job, I remember asking the senior physician leader of the system what Dr. X thought of the strategy proposed.
“He disagrees with us, so we’ve removed him from the committee.”

Dr. X was a physician who was respected and admired by his peers, by the nurses, technicians, and support staff who dealt with him, and most importantly, loved and respected by his patients. At least he wasn’t officially labeled disruptive, and made to go through counseling or monitoring! His disagreement with the strategy was shown to be correct a few months later.

Another physician with the same excellent clinical and service reputation came to me looking for a job. He’d been fired from another system because he disagreed with administration, sometimes too aggressively and disrespectfully. After listening to my new management colleagues advise against hiring him, and sharing my obvious concerns with him about his behaviors around managers or executives, I hired him. His dedication to patients, and his remarkable creativity were the characteristics my physician group needed. Working with him to change his behavior when he became frustrated or angry, he gradually learned how to use more productive behaviors. He got his 5-year pin, and eventually was named physician of the year by a well known national health care organization.

Both of these physicians were labeled as cynics by those who didn’t appreciate their disagreement. The best definition of a cynic is “a passionate person who doesn’t want to be disappointed again.” (Benjamin Zander, conductor of Boston Philharmomic) I learned that disagreement, when respectful and done in the spirit of innovation and improvement, is good. It’s what I like about working with talented and passionate people. It should not be extinguished. It should be encouraged.

If you hear your senior leader ask for “loyalty” – watch out! It’s just another way to stifle honest disagreement, or can be viewed as bullying.

I’ve never forgotten what I was told by a senior legal counsel in one of my first health care jobs, “Sometimes loyalty is more important than telling the truth.” Not for me.

You can hear the word “loyalty” used when uncomfortable decisions are made without the input of experts, when leaders don’t want to be questioned, or in a complex situation with public relations implications is unfolding. I don’t believe that a leader should ask for loyalty from followers. Loyalty can only be given freely by those who choose to follow, not forced upon them by a leader. Maybe if you run a monarchy or dictatorship it’s OK to ask for loyalty.

This quote from Col. John Boyd helps me put the issue of loyalty in proper perspective:

“If your boss demands loyalty, give him integrity. But if he demands integrity, give him loyalty.”

What do you ask of your team?