Regardless of the gains we seem to make in health care organizations, executive teams live in a pressure cooker of insufficient performance, on-demand adaptation, and continuous exhaustion. We’ve tried getting bigger, consolidating and merging to gain big leverage. It’s working to create health care organizations that are harder to kill, but it’s not making health care simpler, more effective, and more economical.
And…it’s not making people healthier. Witt-Kieffer published a troubling study in January of this year: Over half the executives in health care would leave if they could.
As a physician and a CEO, I can attest to the pressure and weariness that comes with both those roles.
Is it possible to lead in these high-demand times in a way that is more effective, more sustainable, more meaningful?
Next to that question is the data on executive teams themselves—the prime movers—or stoppers—of entire organizations. According to research from the Center for Creative Leadership, 97% of CEOs felt that improved function of their executive team would have a positive impact on results.
And on the ground, whispered off the grid and after workshops and in coaching sessions, countless mid-level leaders and physicians observe, “Our exec level needs to work on this stuff.”
In the field of coaching, we’ve managed to move from the idea of coaching as pre-terminal heroics to “coaching is how high-potential people discover how to optimally leverage themselves,” but with executive teams, active development of the team’s powerful position to tap leading-edge technique and knowledge is largely off the radar until there is overt dysfunction.
This only-when-the-cracks-show approach is unfortunate, given that the executive teams of both large and small healthcare organizations are charged with creating reliable and fluid success in the largest and most complex sector of the American economy, in unbelievably complex and urgent circumstances. In these settings, executive team development is one of the highest forms of leverage for the forward-looking organization. Development has become the sina qua non of excellent executive teams, not remedial ones.
What work separates advantageous, effective development from “another thing that takes up our time?”
Given their internal relationships, dynamics, biodiversity of functions, and landscape pressures and volatility, healthcare organizations are signature examples of complex adaptive systems, structures so multi-faceted that no less a guru than Peter Drucker deemed them “almost unmanageable,” and that was back in 1993.
Conventional executive teams know they have plenty of competencies, well earned through years of experience. They also risk the trap of “we know,” when the deeper work is exploring what we’ve never done. These exec teams recognize the potential in individual and shared leadership acumen around them, but tend to see themselves as static—accomplished, finished, certain.
The best executive teams recognize the challenge of leading complex adaptive systems as an invitation to change the rules of leadership, and that’s where they spend their time.
Creating an organization which is simpler, more relationally connected, and more coordinated defines their development work. The fields of adult stage development; the neuroscience of performance, learning, and vitality; the network science of collective knowledge rising in fixed and ephemeral networks; the dual realities of intention and emergence, freedom and order; and the origin and diffusion (or extinction) of patterns occupy their learning and practice as they remodel the operating system under the countless tasks and process that define the organization’s success and identity.
We live in a world where we have to do things we’ve never done before as a clinical enterprise and as a disruption-adaptation business—so learning how to lead like we’ve never lead before is essential. The best executive teams trust their known skills, and they also explore, with discipline and curiosity, the unknown approach.
They understand that creating the impactful future is less about what we’ve done and more about doing together what we’ve never done before.
As one CEO I know puts it, “Every leader has to be an effective environmentalist.” She’s not talking about hugging trees or signing petitions.
This is not the work of beginning or remedial exec teams. It’s the work of the best, the bravest, and the most committed.