ACHE 2017: The ideal profile for an effective healthcare leader

 - Tom Olivo, ACHE 2017
Tom Olivo, founding partner of Healthcare Performance Solutions, speaking at ACHE 2017 in Chicago

Healthcare organizations traditionally pick managers and leaders by judging their tenure, experience and technical skill. The message from Healthcare Performance Solutions’ founding partner Tom Olivo: You’re doing it wrong.

Olivo’s presentation at the American College of Healthcare Executives (ACHE) Congress in Chicago offered a blunt assessment of how nonprofit healthcare organizations have failed to promote and groom the right people to be leaders. In his experience as a consultant, there’s no correlation between those three traditional criteria and consistent success in business. Furthermore, he said “99 percent of physicians” believe they’re in the top decile of leadership effectiveness, leaving a large gap in self-awareness about leadership qualities.

These assumptions—and particularly the thinking that successful clinicians make successful healthcare leaders—have led plenty of organizations to promote people who aren’t well-suited for those roles or have been given the right coaching to succeed in leadership.

“It doesn’t matter if you look at quality, safety, patient service, financial performance—everything is related to that person in charge,” Olivo said. “If you want to increase your chances of success, you have to statistically focus on getting that right because when you get the right person in the seat, everything is easy, and when you don’t, everything is hard.”

To illustrate this, Olivo presented a prototype profile of an effective healthcare leader. Those most well-suited for leadership tend to be:

  • Somewhat assertive
  • More outgoing and engaging
  • Somewhat impatient
  • More detail-oriented and methodical
  • More competitive
  • Bases decision on evidence and facts

Assertiveness, patience and competitive proved to be the most important behavioral factors out of the six, according to Olivo.

Identifying these traits can help better position people who would be the better fit for senior executive roles. Only 2 percent of people, Olivo said, are in the “sweet spot” on all six factors, which is where good coaching and training enters the picture.

“I don’t want to see coaching solely defined as a remedial intervention for the dysfunctional,” he said, “because all of your people need coaching.”

For example, he presented the profile of a health system CEO and physician who matched five of the six criteria for an ideal leader. The one area where they fell short was being more reserved and introverted. Olivo said this person would have to be coached on this trait so they could be “more comfortable being uncomfortable” while meeting with community members, board members, associations and going to plenty of social events.

Even though there is data on what makes an effective leader, Olivo said too few organizations are making use of it. Across all industries, he estimated 25 percent of people match the perfect alignment of their natural ability and their professional career. In healthcare, that disconnect can take many forms, from academic medical centers using a “next in line” mentality to promoting leaders to confusing clinical success with the ability to be an effective executive.

“You can’t operate in a vacuum where your bias has determined who gets into leadershipd because it just doesn’t work,” he said.