4 leadership strategies for young hospital CEOs

The pressures of overseeing a major healthcare organization are never-ending, but it's especially difficult when your direct reports have more experience than you do.

It's a situation hospital chief executive officers will increasingly face given high CEO turnover and the trend of organizations hiring senior executives who don't necessarily have healthcare experience.

Nicholas R. Tejeda, CEO of Doctors Hospital of Manteca (Calif.), a 73-bed facility affiliated with the Tenet Healthcare Corporation, (pictured right) knows this first-hand.

In an exclusive interview with FierceHealthcare prior to his presentation today at the American College of Healthcare Executives Congress, Tejeda said he's battled perceptions about his age and experience in every hospital management job he's had--beginning with his first stint as a supervisor, when a lab director said he'd quit before reporting to Tejeda.

"I told him, 'I can work the rest of my life and not be as experienced as you and I will never be as good a lab director as you. My job is to identify how we measure your success, hold you accountable to that success, listen when you need resources and, most importantly, to get you resources,'" Tejeda said.

Ultimately, he and the lab director formed a successful working relationship, but Tejeda said he made a mistake that contributed to the negative beginning by not proactively managing communication about the reporting structure.

"The COO just told him and I should have worked with the COO to manage the communication better as to why he wanted the lab director to report to me and why he trusted me. That didn't occur. As a result the [lab director] thought he'd lose respect among his peers because he was the first director not reporting directly to the COO."

Tejeda said he understood his employee's reaction--the director thought Tejeda would try to micromanage the department, even though he had no lab experience.

It wasn't the last time he had such an encounter in his career. Often, his youthful appearance made staff members jump to the conclusion that the hospital had given up on leadership and it was now a "training ground" for executives or that the hospital was about to sell the facility or merge with another organization.

To help young CEOs--or those who may be new to the healthcare industry--learn from his experience, Tejeda offers four pieces of advice:

1. Communication matters: Appearances do count, he said, which means you can't dress and act young. "You can't have spikey hair when you are young leader. Don't act like a kid. It's the message that matters."

2. Respect the past: Young CEOs need to learn from the past and integrate those lessons into future decisions, he said. "Often people want to dismiss the past and forget the shoulders they are standing on. Ask about the past but don't lose sight of the fact that you are supposed to translate those decisions to the future journey," Tejeda said.

3. But look to the future: "If people see you are doing things that benefit the organization in the long term, it will go a long way and they will begin to trust your decision-making and your willingness to work," he said. "Don't just do short-sighted things, like yelling, firing or making immediate cost-saving opportunities."

4. Express curiosity: To overcome negative assumptions that staff will make about you as a young leader, take advantage of some expectations that work in your favor. For example, many staff think of young leaders as full of energy and eager to prove themselves. "If they expect it, allow it to be a tool and allow more experienced employees to implement what they want to do if it makes good business sense," he said. Once staff see that you will take action and get organizational support for their projects, Tejeda said, even the youngest leader can quickly develop credibility and gain employees' trust.