ACHE16: Dos and don'ts for the CEO when moving to a new position, organization

CHICAGO -- The high rate of CEO turnover creates new opportunities for hospital and health system senior executives--but also comes with potential pitfalls.

No one knows that better than Michael H, Covert, who took over as president and CEO of CHI (Catholic Health Initiatives) St. Luke's Health in Houston 18 months ago, after spending 12 years as CEO at Palomar Health in San Diego.

Covert (right) has gone through nine transitions over the course of his career, which includes 35 years as a CEO and five years as a chief operating officer.

And his most recent move--joining the Catholic Health Initiatives, one of the nation's largest non-profit faith-based health systems--has involved learning and adapting to a new corporate culture, as well as getting to know its hospitals, its boards, region and people who work for the organization and within the community. 

"This is a journey," he told attendees Wednesday at the American College of Healthcare Executives Congress. "You have to be mindful of potential pitfalls. This is true more for senior leaders because there is pressure to justify your selection and you've got to do it early. But you have to explore what's around you."

There are still items on his orientation list that he has to complete. And the role is bigger than he imagined it would be when he took the position a year and a half ago. When he started, CHI St. Luke's had five hospitals and a joint venture with Baylor, an academic medical center. But since he took over, the system has grown to include 16 hospitals.

"So it was not in a steady state coming into the organization," he said.

His position also includes three roles: In addition to serving as the head of St. Luke's Health System, he also is the regional marked-based officer in Texas and senior vice president of operations for CHI in Denver, where he spends a third of his time.

Focus on the new, not the old

New responsibilities make it essential to break from your old position at your former organization so you can transition to the new, Covert said.

Co-speaker Michael J. Corey, a partner at recruiting firm Phillips DiPisa & Associates (left) who was involved in the executive search for Covert, warned attendees not to reference their old organizations in discussions with corporate, the leadership team or staff.

"You'd be surprised by the number of people who will say, 'That's not how we did it at Mayo or Cleveland Clinic.' You get to say that once. If you say it again and again, it's as if you never left. No one likes to have an old employer thrown in their face. You can think it, but don't say it."

Covert agreed, noting that he's heard that kind of comment from people he has hired. "Your people don't care. When you are new on the job, most things they care about are themselves and their relationship with you."

To help ease the transition, Covert advises senior leaders to develop an orientation system with their new employers and discuss what the schedule should include. Share the schedule with the leadership team and the boards so they know where you are on the journey. This will help you gain traction in the new organization, he said. Inevitably, people will compare you with your predecessor; the orientation can help you gain your rhythm and momentum.

And whatever you do, he advises, never criticize your predecessor. "It's never appropriate and never well-received," Covert said.

Talk to everyone but listen more

Corey said that when Covert came on board, St. Luke's developed an overview and position specification that included suggested goals and objectives that he should meet 12 months and 18 months later.

"This isn't just a roadmap," he said. "It became a report card a year later. Did the CEO do what we asked him to do? If so, how soon? How did he do it? Did he run over people or in a way to strengthen organization? If he didn't do it, why? Was it because of a lack of resources? Every search committee I deal with, I check back, how is she or he doing? They'll say 'good,' 'not so good' or 'they haven't addressed these things.' Communication is essential."

Covert described the transition period as an active learning process. Because the hospital used consultants for many projects, he asked for all the reports and read them before day one of the job. He had conversations with leaders, boards, physicians and vendors.

"I asked several questions. How did we think we were doing? What were their perceptions of our successes and failures? What did they see as opportunities and challenges? What would they change?"

Because the transition to any new position is stressful, Covert advised attendees to check in to evaluate their feelings at least once a day, even at the end of the day. Think about whether you'e excited, confident, feeling in control, what is bothering you and whether you missed any opportunities that day, he said.

And it's a balancing act. In Covert's case his teenage son is finishing high school in San Diego. So consider whether you'll have family support and involvement when you take on a new role. "Can you deal with the isolation when you make the transition?" he asked.

"The transition is a stressful time. How you handle it will make all difference in your career, family and friends," he said.

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