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Should a business hire an executive with an impressive record of accomplishment in improving operations and financial performance who is “high profile, charismatic  and dynamic”  even though reference reports suggest that he has a temper and that his personal assistants (PA) find him impossible: he had plowed through more than a dozen PA’s in two years?  Do the positives outweigh his negatives?

That was the question posed in a recent “Dear Lucy” column in the Financial Times, the globally focused daily business newspaper based in London.

Lucy’s example implied that the company in question was a public corporation, prompting one reader to respond that yes, the company should hire him since the executive “…has hit all the right numbers.  No PA (personal assistant) will be able to do that for you. Numbers speak for themselves.” The reader continued, “If he was truly an unreasonable bully then he wouldn’t have been able to achieve what he has.”  The reader concluded that the real problem was with the employment agency who clearly was not providing good PA candidates.

Another reader wrote, “If Napoleon, Montgomery or Churchill had been judged by their abilities to control their tempers, they would have never become leaders.”  This reader’s suggestion:  “If he is good, hire him and hire an ex-Marine or ex-professional rugby player as a PA.”  Another reader commented that while the board should hire that executive, they should tie his financial performance to his PA turnover rate.

While reader comments were surprisingly evenly divided as to whether the board should hire or pass on the candidate, Lucy offered what I thought was a unique perspective, one that the whole of the healthcare industry should take to heart. If the executive was running a hedge fund, making vast amounts of money for his investors and himself, while making sizeable donations to a wide array of charities with his personal profits, then his mammoth temper tantrums might be “just about OK” given the line of work he was in. “The world would have been a poorer place had his beastly PA habit barred his advance.”

But Lucy draws a line in hiring a volatile leader for other types of businesses.  “If your company makes ball bearings or sells groceries, I wouldn’t even consider him.  The job of a chief executive isn’t just to be dynamic, and charismatic and high profile.  It is to set the tone in the organization.  It is to recruit the right people and make them stay.”  She concludes that when there is a revolving door in the PA’s office, it is clear that the CEO has no idea how to begin to set the right tone for the enterprise.  I agree.

As financial pressures on healthcare organizations mount, and as some hospitals plunge into a dark abyss requiring an extraordinary executive to lead a rescue, boards must exercise great caution in vetting the performance of the CEO they choose. They must pay particular attention to the candidate’s reputation and leadership style.

While CEO bullies have succeeded in the past, we are entering a new era in healthcare, an era that will be characterized by changes in traditional relationships, financial incentives, and serious challenges that will be exacerbated by anticipated sharply lower rates of reimbursement.  This important shift requires a new type of executive with a leadership style that can bring sustainable change.

When a hospital is in trouble and its future is in the balance, it is tempting to hire the toughest turnaround leader available, regardless of their personality and/or reported prior bad behavior.  Health systems need leaders with a healthy attitude to achieve sustainable success.  That is something yelling bullies cannot do.   

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My post on Tuesday — the third in a series of articles — will focus on techniques for executives who have yet to master the fundamentals of professional networking.

Have a great weekend. I am off to the weekend home where I will attempt to achieve life balance:  completing the “honey dos”, getting caught on work, and R&R.

© 2011 John Gregory Self