ACHE 2015: 4 habits of highly effective healthcare leaders

Confronting the myriad challenges of running a healthcare organization requires creative thinking and talented leaders--three of whom shared their insights at the American College of Healthcare Executives' (ACHE) 2015 Congress.

Nancy Schlichting, CEO of Henry Ford Health System in Detroit, Mary Starmann-Harrison, CEO of Hospital Sisters Health System in Wisconsin and Illinois, and Richard Umbdenstock, president of the American Hospital Association, all of whom spoke to ACHE members in Chicago this week, each manage very different organizations but all share characteristics that have helped them become exceptional leaders.

Here's some of the advice these leaders shared with ACHE attendees:

Seek out challenges. Speaking at the Women Healthcare Executives Breakfast, Schlichting (pictured right) said she relishes difficult projects like engineering hospital turnarounds or trying to grow a health system in an economically struggling area. "When you're in Detroit, you have to lead with a lot of heart," she said. "It is not an easy place to be, but there is no place that's probably more rewarding." Through Schlichting's leadership, Henry Ford was able to grow even amid Detroit's shrinking population, and her health system has been a driver of social and economic revitalization in the region through community partnerships and initiatives like the "Live Midtown" program that provides incentives for Henry Ford employees to live in downtown Detroit. "It's important to champion the communities we serve," Schlichting said.

Embrace a broad scope of experiences. For healthcare leaders, "the more experience you can have on the physician side and the health plan side, the better positioned you will be for the future," Starmann-Harrison (pictured left) said during the lecture she and Umbdenstock conducted on the topic of executive leadership. Umbdenstock agreed, noting that he gained invaluable healthcare leadership experience during the time in his career when he was self-employed and when he worked for an HMO. Effective leaders also are able to turn what some may view as a negative situation into a positive learning experience, Starmann-Harrison said, adding, "Probably some of my best experience was when I was a mergee [in a health system acquisition] and thought the world was ending, and decided to embrace that opportunity."

Promote innovation. "Just adapting so quickly and trying to anticipate where things are going and being ahead of the game, I think is really a challenge for everyone," Starmann-Harrison told FierceHealthcare in an exclusive interview. Healthcare leaders should "always looking for the next better idea," she said, and shouldn't be afraid to adapt other systems' best practices to meet their needs. "You don't have to prove to the world that you're different--you can just take something and run with it. As an old colleague of mine used to say, 'steal shamelessly,' and from other industries, too. There's a lot of innovation in other industries that we can learn from." This type of forward thinking is key, Umbdenstock added during his lecture, because "we're changing and the world is changing, whether we like it or not."

Be transparent and fair. Umbdenstock (pictured right) encouraged healthcare leaders to lay all their cards out on the table whenever possible, adding that "people will choose the best option." For her part, Schlichting relayed what she learned by having to close three hospitals during her career. "If anyone has ever closed a hospital, you know it's the hardest thing you have to do," she said before explaining how in each case she endeavored to keep employees in the loop as well as lessen the impact on them, their families and the community. She also explained why she chose to include health system employees in Henry Ford's no-harm campaign, emphasizing that "we take care of people that take care of people."

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