Skyrocket Your Career! Subscribe to John’s “Got A Minute” video newsletter: SUBSCRIBE

From Anchorage Alaska

Hospital CEOs have their hands full. They face a boiling cauldron of operational, financial and competitive challenges – any of which could prove career limiting. Surprisingly, however, many CEOs fail not because they lacked knowledge or expertise in running a hospital or dealing with the myriad of threats. Rather the fastest-track to a severance agreement, or unceremoniously escorted from the building, can be found in five major failings.

The overarching principles on this subject are two-fold: First, CEOs and senior executives should know themselves. If they don’t know themselves, they should attend CEO advisor groups to get to know themselves through other people. Reflection can often be what a CEO needs – they live so much of their lives in a bubble at the top that they become inward-looking. Going to an advisor group can help to check yourself and learn from others mistakes. The second “first” rule is that CEOs should do no harm to the employees they lead or the customers they serve. CEOs who keep their eyes on these balls will typically do well, all other things equal – knowledge, talent, and expertise.

So why do CEOs get fired? More often than not it is style, or lack of political sensitivity, that will be a CEO’s undoing. In more than 30 years in healthcare leadership – 17 years in executive recruiting – I have seen senior executives run aground many times over because they lacked the sensitivity to read, understand and adjust to the shifting political and marketplace sands that exist in virtually every health system or hospital, from the governing board and medical staff to the hourly employees who do the really important work.

Here are the five sure-fire issues that will get a CEO fired.

  1. Micromanage your team – Micromanagers are like amateurs masquerading as “in-the-know” leaders. Let’s be honest, if you have to get that involved in the operations of the enterprise, you are not hiring the right people. When you micromanage, you destroy morale, and disrupt service. You show me a hospital CEO or COO who is a micromanager and I will show you an organization that is, or will, suffer quality and patient safety problems, and, eventually, poor financial performance.
  2. Be a Bully – There is no place in leadership for bullies/abusive leaders. If you have to use anger, intimidation, or abuse to achieve targeted results, or if you enjoy calling out subordinates and humiliating them in front of their peers, you might want to reconsider changing careers. Your employees — and your customers — will be delighted you have left. In short, if you think that approach to management is smart leadership, you do not belong in healthcare. Management and employee turnover is dangerous for your patients and it is very expensive. The only way a CEO with this particular mortal sin can hold on to their job is if they work for an incredibly toxic board or a ridiculously misguided corporate entity that equates this type of boorish behavior with “tough” leadership. There is no accounting for stupidity that manifest itself in this type of misguided and misinformed corporate or governing board oversight.
  3. Ignore Your Customers – That is perhaps one of the biggest – and most common – sins in healthcare today. Take care of your customers. They will take care of you (and your career). Steve Jobs and Apple blew past Microsoft in terms of market cap, not because they treated their customers with dismissive indifference, but because they were passionately focused on offering an extraordinary customer experience – exceptional quality and best-in-industry service. Day in and day out, Apple employees focus on their customers – meeting their needs with enthusiasm that is fueled by a belief that they are working for an outstanding company “that gets it.” Fighting with your customers (read: physicians) – even though they may also be your competitors at some point in the day – is a bad idea. It demonstrates, without equivocation, that you do not get it. As a savvy politician once said, never fight with a man who buys printer’s ink by the barrel. Taking a my-way-or-the-highway posture with the people who admit patients and generate revenue or the board members who evaluate your performance is a really bad idea. As CEO, you are supposed to be on top of the emerging trends. If your physicians are concerned with their revenue, be a partner, not an adversary. That point is not rocket science but you would be surprised how many CEO terminations can be traced to an arrogant belief that you can fight with your customers and still be a winner.
  4. Excel in self-importance – CEOs, you should (read: must) check your ego at the front door. It is not about you. It IS about the people you serve. In a crummy economy, the smart leaders are the ones who walk the floors and talk to their employees – on all shifts, all the time – looking for ways to improve quality and service, how they can make a meaningful difference in the lives of those who, day in and day out, actually do the work. CEOs should regularly visit their physicians – all of them – on their turf. Listen, learn. This is not for show. The employees and the physicians know when they are being taken seriously and they appreciate the effort. So many CEOs fail to build this reservoir of goodwill that will be essential to survive the inevitable crisis that will occur during a standard tenure of five to seven years. CEOs have all sorts of excuses why they can’t do this (I have heard most of them), but when the board makes the decisions to terminate, remember your lame excuses and then decide if you like the feeling of getting the boot.
  5. Be a Phantom CEO — You cannot lead from behind closed doors and a cadre of assistants who shield you from your customers and those who actually do the work that generates the revenue. Stop trying. In plain terms, do not build walls or a honking big silo of reinforced concrete around yourself. CEOs should not let their fears or insecurities make them a prisoner of the executive suite, venturing out only for the weekly manager’s meeting or occasional hospital-wide event. A CEO once told me, “I just do not feel comfortable interacting with the employees without others being with me.” Insecurity is the stuff that walls and silos are made of. Get a coach and get over it. Or get an outplacement adviser. You will need one

Bonus Reason: Avoid Accountability. Blame others for your failings. Your subordinates will really love you for that one. Do the opposite. Be accountable. No one likes a leader who is full of excuses, who dodges accountability. Revel in being responsible for the success of the organization. Take joy in the challenge. Talk about it constantly and hold others accountable. That is a powerful message. No one likes a dodger who is better at excuses than results

2011 John Gregory Self