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.