Career Resources

Do You Have to Be Outstanding to Stand Out?

Michael C. Kieffer

The reality of interviewing for a new position is that all of the other candidates are apt to have credentials similar to yours. How can you distinguish yourself from the rest of the candidates being interviewed? What special skills and qualities will the board of trustees and their search firm be looking for? The search firm will want to present candidates who are leaders, not just managers.

Leadership presupposes a number of qualities that are not, unfortunately, commonplace. Vision, though not the single most important quality, is a sine qua non. A CEO must have the ability to formulate a clear idea of what is likely to happen in the future that will affect the shape of the institution. No one is born a visionary. Being intuitive is the result of being inquisitive and genuinely interested in everything, being well rounded and well read, seeing the world in a macrosense.

In one instance, a CEO candidate demonstrated vision by anticipating the effects of oil embargoes on his rural health system. He understood that significant percent of outpatient revenue resulted from patients traveling 30 to 40 miles by car. Anticipating the problem, he recommended a solution to the board and purchased a local gas station well before shortages started. Once the availability got tight, the organization marketed the concept, “If you get here, we’ll ensure that you leave with a full tank of gas.” That saved the organization a net $1.5 million of potential revenue loss during a six-month period.

Another sought-after quality is to be politically astute—not only surviving in a complex, close-knit hospital community, but networking and exerting influence throughout the business community and with government agencies as well. The politically savvy CEO is poised in any arena, not only because of formal education and training, but also because of street smarts earned by dealing with and sometimes failing in tough situations.

As a consequence of being politically attuned to the various levels in which a healthcare executive operates, the CEO can develop a totally credible posture for the institution within the community. More than just being the business peer, the politically astute candidate has the potential to become a genuine business leader. Another benefit of political ability—and a logical extension of visionary ability—is the respect and strength that the CEO can develop with his or her own board. Credibility allows for successfully seeking out and influencing the selection of trustees whose particular strengths and experiences will help drive and fulfill the organization’s vision.

The true leader of a healthcare organization also has compassion and sensitivity to balance the tough, entrepreneurial drive that motivates vision and political abilities. It is the balance that is important. If a CEO’s compassion dominates, the hospital’s business is compromised; if business completely dominates, the hospital’s very reason for being is lost.

Signs of Leadership

There is often talk of a CEO’s particular style. Assuming this elusive attribute can be recognized and defined, the perceptive trustee is probably looking for someone without an absolute style. An eclectic approach allows the CEO to be and do what is right in any given situation.

One mark of leadership that will become more critical in the future is the ability to create a true partnership with the medical staff. Not just an opportunistic relationship, as in most joint ventures, but an alliance with both parties having an equal stake in the success or failure of the venture.

A CEO candidate can demonstrate the importance of hospital/physician relationships by describing how he or she has dealt with particularly tough sensitive medical staff issues. I’m amazed at the number of candidates who can’t answer substantively to such questions as, “What mistakes have you made in dealing with the medical staff?” And, “Have you learned from those mistakes?”

Similarly, more and more trustees will look for a CEO who has the instinct to spot entrepreneurial spirit within the organization—the courage not to be threatened by it, but to create opportunities to use it for the benefit of the hospital. On the verge of losing his MIS executive who was going to start his own business, one CEO was faced with this dilemma: While the MIS executive was brilliant, some members of the senior management team weren’t too disappointed because they thought Joe didn’t fit in. The CEO, however, recognized Joe’s talents. They talked. Joe is now president of his own company and the hospital is half-owner and a major purchaser of the service.

Finally, a perfect ingredient to blend all of the above, particularly given the dynamics of our industry, is a good sense of humor. The ability to project humanness in adversity and not to take oneself too seriously is a definite plus.

Filling a Need

There is no definitive list of leadership qualities or attributes that all boards seek in a candidate. Each organization’s needs are unique and each board defines them differently. A stable organization might value consensus-type management; an institution on the edge might value hands-on management that directs the organization with decisiveness.

The attributes noted here can be found among today’s top CEOs. This list is a reliable 7 for predicting the candidates toward which trustees will gravitate. Your own career growth can depend on being able to demonstrate some of these traits as well as your business and administrative abilities.

Michael C. Kieffer was president of Kieffer, Ford & Associates, a national senior-level management search firm for the healthcare industry.

This article is reprinted from Healthcare Executive.