The great thing about my job is that I get to meet and talk with a wide range of current and former health system and hospital executives.

Most of the time these encounters occur at ACHE events or other conferences. Occasionally they are chance meetings in hotel lobbies or airports. I am struck by how often these serendipitous encounters occur even though our industry is modest in size. However, in the interest of fairness and full disclosure, I have the ability, I am told, to chat up a brick wall. About that I am certain that my colleagues, my friends and, most assuredly, my family will agree.

The latest case in point was yesterday in Chicago. This unsuspecting “encounter” (read: victim) is a former hospital CEO who moved from the “daily grind” of running a hospital to the weekly travel grind of healthcare consulting, advising hospital executives on “tough lessons learned,” a term he used more than once.

OK, I bit. I am a former newspaper reporter who morphed over 15 years into the founder of a boutique search consultancy. You simply cannot drop a statement like that and not expect me to pounce. So, I asked, tell me, what was your toughest lesson learned?

“My biggest disappointment,” he explained, “was my failure to come to grips – to really understand – the real importance of human capital issues and how those directly related to my success or failure as a hospital leader. So many CEOs talk in platitudes, or business-speak, about how important their employees are, but the number of hospital senior executives who really get it, with sufficient depth of understanding and passion as to make their employees a meaningful part of their market differentiation strategy, is miniscule.

“They talk a good game but their actions do not support the words in their mission statements, strategic plans, or annual reports,” he lamented. “I guess you can say that I am recovering from a dangerous malady from which far too many CEOs suffer: Do as I say, not as I do. I talked but I did not really understand. I always found more traditional or convenient reasons for my successes and failures.”

Today, as a Managing Director for a global consulting firm’s human capital practice, he spends most of his time trying to convert healthcare leaders to the reality that having the best, most engaged workforce is one of the single most important pillars for achieving sustainable success.

When I mentioned that I would like to use his comments in my blog, he asked that I not use his name to avoid any issues with his firm.

This healthcare leader said that he is continually amazed at CEOs who do not know how many of their hundreds or thousands of employees are A players, the best available talent for their respective positions. Or how many employees are Bs, those solid workers who are the heart and soul of any organization. Most alarming, he said, is the number of CEOs who do not have a clue how many of their employees are C players, those with whom you spend 80 percent of your time for a 20 percent return. These C employees, he maintains, crush productivity, foul up service and, in healthcare, contribute to an unsafe environment wherare patients are placed at risk.

“Listen, I think we are heading for some tough economic times… I am so busy and I hope that means that healthcare leaders are beginning to understand the importance of this issue. I really hope so because the upside is so great…This is truly not rocket science.

“You simply cannot be successful without focusing on the people, day in and day out,” this battle-tested former CEO said. “You may have gotten away with it in the past, but not anymore. If you are not zeroed in on your human capital issues, you cannot be the best in the market, and if you are number one, you will not stay as the market leader without an uncompromising focus on recruiting, training and retaining the best available senior leaders, managers, physicians, nurses and clinical support personnel – everyone, from the people who greet and register patients to the housekeeper polishing floors or cleaning patient rooms.

“For the sake of patient safety and to achieve enhanced operating performance, you have to elevate the performance of your workforce.”

I was amazed at his passion. I was impressed with his clarity of success. Before I realized it, my 90-minute wait for a flight to Dallas had passed. I was almost tempted to take a later flight to continue the conversation. As is the case with the best of leaders, he was so willing to share hard-earned insight.

Now, believe it or not, I have a homework assignment. He wants an essay outlining what a search consultant should tell a hospital CEO how to transform his or her annual report language on human capital into meaningful action.

Well maybe he was not serious about the essay, but I think I will give it a whirl. I think I will begin with the thesis that you do not have to be smartest or best paid CEO to embrace this maxim.