WESTPORT, Connecticut – The healthcare industry has entered a “new economy” that includes ongoing reductions in Medicare / Medicaid funding as well as mounting federal deficits that will continue to pressure providers to reduce their costs. These, as well as other daunting challenges, will force leaders to either adapt or fail.

Hospital, physician practice, and home health executives will face the toughest path because these changes will oblige CEOs and senior leaders to learn new skills and refocus their leadership styles to achieve success. There is an emerging body of evidence – mostly anecdotal at this point although graduate schools are already evaluating the facts – that the skills and style that made one a success in the 80s and 90s and early 2000s, probably will not work as well in this new economy.

One truth requires no study. In this unforgiving new climate, if you cannot learn from your mistakes, and adapt very quickly, you will not find much career security or fulfillment.

The following is a list of leadership beliefs and skills that successful healthcare executives of the future must have:

Talent Focused – “Our people are our most important asset.” The successful leaders of the future must finally move that altruistic language from their annual reports and occasional public pronouncements to one of their top strategic objectives. An organization may want to be number one in the market, to provide the highest quality of care, to enjoy leading patient and physician satisfaction scores, but until the board and the CEO engage their employees, until they move recruiting, developing and retaining the best talent to a priority status, they will not achieve their performance targets. You cannot engage your employees from the comfort of the executive suite.

Customer Focused – Until we shift to a consumer-driven healthcare delivery model, the PHYSICIAN will continue to be the prime customer. While there are some aspects of our delivery model where patients can make hospital or diagnostic choices, physicians still drive the patient flow bus. However, unlike the past 30 years, the physicians are now also the hospital’s competitors. Yes, this absolutely complicates – and frustrates — a hospital CEO’s commitment to being customer focused but it does not diminish the importance of this as a core strategy. It means adopting a physician-relationship strategy that anticipates outside competitive forces who want to pirate away one’s top admitters to some investor-owned diagnostic or treatment center. It means that one must be willing to adapt, not draw lines in the sand because these physicians threaten a heretofore secure revenue stream. The successful CEO of the future will face more of these types of challenges, not fewer. To have the strategic relationship skills necessary to manage this type of environment will be critical.

Quality and Safety Motivated – Without the best talent, achieving and sustaining quality of care and patient safety standards that are among the best in the nation is not possible. Everyone on the provider side is finally talking about this serious problem but far too few hospitals are moving in the right direction. This is not a nursing or physician issue. This is a crisis, and also a learning opportunity for the whole team. However, unless the board makes this a mission-critical priority, unless they back their actions with accountability for the CEO and the entire senior team, unless they reinforce their commitments by action, CEOs cannot succeed. While the board sets and reinforces policy, it is the CEO who must make improving quality and safety part of the organization’s culture, and who must make it a top priority each day.

Information Technology Literate / Communications Savvy – Years ago, an otherwise bright and successful CEO said that he shied away from involvement in information technology strategy and decision process because of the career risks. He didn’t use the phrase, but “plausible deniability” was clearly the intent. Perhaps in the past a CEO could skirt those thorny decisions, but not anymore. CEOs must now be engaged in the IT planning process, and while they may delegate key executives to advise on an organization-wide information system strategy, they cannot sit on the sidelines any longer knowing only how to turn their computers on and off and receive and send emails. The new healthcare economy will depend heavily – more than ever before – on sophisticated information management systems, and CEOs must get up to speed and remain there for their entire careers.

CEOs who rely on the old-school traditional top-down communications strategy will not survive a workforce of “Gen Xers” and “Gen-Yers”. Not only have the channels of communication changed but the entire concept and importance of having a monthly communications plan that is supported by daily and weekly goals is new to most healthcare leaders. In the past, this type of focus was reserved for big projects or the rollout of some new initiative. A targeted, objective-driven communications program cannot be turned on and off as necessary, nor can the CEO afford to be a silent partner in this process save for occasional comments in the company newsletter or department manager meetings.

Changes in communications channels have grown exponentially over the past three years. The successful leaders in this new economic climate will be those who quickly adapt and who are willing to embrace blogs and other web-based tools to engage the workforce. And, there is every indication that even newer forms of web-based communications will storm through our world over the next two to three years. Dismissing these major shifts in how we communicate and their importance in the leadership formula would be an unfortunate mistake for any leader.

Style — CEOs must be visible, great communicators and passionate about their organizations. Politics, conflict with the medical staff, ongoing reductions in reimbursement across the board, increasing threats for unionization in states that have in the past had only minimal organization activity – all these trends will demand that a CEO be the leader, not just the chief executive.

John G. Self is Chairman and Senior Client Advisor of JohnMarch Partners. He is Co-Founder of the Firm.

A former investigative reporter and crime writer with more than 30-years of healthcare leadership experience in public relations, national marketing, business development and as Chief Executive Officer of hospitals and consulting firms, Mr. Self is highly regarded for his keen insight into operations, business culture and for his ability to consistently select the right leaders.

John is a highly rated speaker on inspirational leadership, career brand management and the future of healthcare in America. To contact Mr. Self regarding a speaking date, contact him at JohnMarch Partners.

You can contact Mr. Self at 214.220.1234 or JGSelf@johnmarch.com. He is an active member of LinkedIn and a frequent editorial contributor.

Or, you can follow him on Twitter at Self_JohnMarch.

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