• Article
  • January 6, 2017

Must-have Traits for Children's Hospital Leaders

Independence is a trait to admire. But, interdependence is more essential.

By James U. King III

During a recent engagement to recruit the CEO of a major independent children's hospital, a trustee asked me: "Does our next CEO need to have a fiercely independent streak? Should we look for someone who, like the organization, values autonomy and self-sufficiency?"

It's an interesting question. And the answer is, "It depends." It got me thinking about the qualities that are most valued in children's hospital CEOs. For so long, the prototypical CEO has been one that is decisive, authoritative and, yes, an independent thinker. These qualities are still highly valued. Independence is a trait to admire. But one that is more essential is interdependence. Does a CEO have a fiercely collaborative streak? This applies to those who lead freestanding, independent organizations, as well as children's hospitals within adult hospitals or facilities within large provider networks and ACOs.

Leadership in the 21st century is different than at any time in our history, according to Harvard professor Barbara Kellerman in her book, "The End of Leadership". The balance of power has shifted from authoritarian leaders to those who value "followership" and prioritize collaboration. This is a pretty broad generalization, but there's something to it.

4 critical skills

Leadership development expert Herminia Ibarra says we are in an era of the collaborative leader, one who needs skills in four areas: connecting people; attracting diverse talent; modeling collaboration for others; and showing a strong hand to keep teams moving ahead. A CEO can show a strong hand, but he or she must also lead through constructive, respectful relationships with a host of parties, such as the board, executive team, physicians, other hospitals and donors. CEOs must give these stakeholders a lot of dedicated attention.

It takes a special CEO to manage so many demands—it's too much for one person, really, so teaming and partnering to get things done is essential. According to the position profile for one recent CEO role at an independent hospital, the ideal candidate is "a diplomat and collaborator." This is typical. It's clear that today's children's hospital CEOs must be "we" rather than "me" individuals. Independent is fine, but collaborative is critical.

Continue to learn

Developing a new leadership style is easier said than done. Change and uncertainty often cause leaders to fall back on what they know rather than to learn and innovate, Ibarra says. To begin thinking like leaders, we must first act: plunge ourselves into new projects and activities, interact with very different kinds of people, and experiment with new ways of getting things done.

Collaborating with various constituencies will only strengthen a CEO's leadership abilities over time. As Ibarra says, "Your leadership identity can and should change each time you move on to bigger and better things." The landscape for children's hospitals will continue to change dramatically. Collaborativeness is not a trait that comes naturally, but it is something CEOs and others can aspire to and develop.

James U. King III is a senior partner, chief quality officer and the leader of the Children's Hospitals Practice for Witt/Kieffer. Send questions or comments to magazine@childrenshospitals.org.