BY: RHODA WEISS
Ms. Weiss is a Santa Monica, CA—based health care consultant and speaker.
On the very first day of my work in health care, more than 30 years ago, Samuel
Tibbitts, the late CEO of the Lutheran Hospital Society, called me into his
"What are you doing for us?" asked the leader of what was then a
large southern California health system.* "I'm working in public
relations," I said. "No," he replied. "When people ask what
you do for a living, you need to answer, 'I'm a health care executive specializing
in public relations.'"
*In 1988, the Lutheran Hospital Society merged with another
organization to form Unihealth. In 1996, Unihealth's health care facilities
became part of Catholic Healthcare West, San Francisco.
Sam's next question to me was, "Do you have automobile insurance?"
When I said yes, he advised me to "purchase career insurance" as well.
He suggested that each week I place a few dollars into a "career"
account at the bank and use those funds to attend professional development programs
attended by other executives. Although the organization was willing to cover
the costs of educational programs in my area of interest, Sam said, he encouraged
me to also participate in executive conferences at my own expense.
He was one wonderful first career mentor. Today a leadership icon, Sam Tibbitts
is largely credited with developing one of the nation's first integrated
delivery systems with the creation of a health plan known as PacifiCare—which
has become not only one of the nation's largest insurers but also one of
its biggest Medicare HMOs.
Sam continued to be my mentor throughout my tenure at Lutheran Hospital Society.
He provided me with a list of publications I should subscribe to, most of which
were targeted to executives not only in our industry but in other industries
as well. He also offered another suggestion, one that was unusual for the early
1970s. He told me to try to be on a first-name basis with board members and
"Coupled with your 'career insurance,' increasing knowledge
of the industry, and visibility at executive gatherings, getting to know such
people will do wonders for your future," he said.
I found my notes on Sam's advice recently in the box in which I keep my
treasured photos of loved ones; notes of advice that I've written down
in shorthand over the years; and selected letters and e-mails from mentors,
friends, students, and attendees at conferences and classes I've addressed.
When the next earthquakes hit my California community, this box will be the
possession I grab for first.
I'm grateful to Sam and the many other mentors who have taken the time
to guide me over the years. They gave me advice that has helped in a career
that has taken me to 49 states and to foreign countries, speaking, consulting,
teaching university students, and authoring articles.
Some Unforgettable Mentors
Kaye Daniels, RN, a past chairperson of the National Association for
Home Care, taught me to "stay ahead of the curve" and be an innovative
leader. She was one of the first in her field to build a network of hospitals
that collaborated to offer home health services; she was also an international
innovator in hospice care.
In the early 1970s, Kaye asked me to help create a marketing plan for a home
health agency, one of the first marketing efforts ever for a health care provider.
Doing so launched my own marketing career and taught me the importance of entrepreneurial
and transformational leadership.
James Block, MD, a former CEO of University Hospitals of Cleveland and
Johns Hopkins Hospital, Baltimore, understands the importance of encouraging,
mentoring, and tapping women and people of color for executive positions and
board slots. Jim implores others to identify non-traditional leaders, thereby
helping them reach their aspirations and realize their dreams, in the process
becoming a model for others. My success as a consultant and speaker in business
development is largely due to Jim's encouraging me to never give up on
my dream and to stretch beyond my limits, constantly exploring new areas in
which I might acquire expertise.
Starting early in my career, Sr. Marie Madeleine Shonka, SCL, president
of St. John's Health Center, Santa Monica, CA, has provided me with a wealth
of advice. She taught me to view those we serve not simply as patients with,
for example, broken hips, damaged hearts, cancerous tumors, or terminal diseases,
but rather as human beings to which we are connected in many subtle ways, including
our attitudes and emotions. Sr. Marie was ever mindful of a caregiver's
role as a healer of the spirit as well as the body.
James Walker is the CEO of a Glen Burnie, MD, facility that he recently
led through a name change. Formerly North Arundel Hospital, Jim's organization
is now Baltimore Washington Medical Center. Jim is the epitome of kindness and
caring toward every employee, no matter what their position or stature. From
him, I've learned that trust and mutually beneficial relationships are
crucial to success and change. Throughout the facility's name change, he
demonstrated that a leader is responsible for listening to constituents and
shaping the future in the best interest of all those served. Jim accomplished
this through inspiring words and deeds.
Sr. Beatrice Tom, OSF, CEO of St. Francis Healthcare System of Hawaii,
Honolulu, has been a mentor and spiritual adviser to me in my role as an associate
of the Sisters of St. Francis. For Sr. Bea, as she is known, our healing work
is always about fulfilling the needs of the community and of the poor. "Beyond
the concrete and steel framework of the hospital is the fragile, human thread
of life connected to us not only through medical and physical needs but through
psychological, social, and spiritual needs as well," she says. It is our
role, Sr. Bea believes, to continually identify unmet needs and find the means
to ensure they are met.
Tom Collins, EdD, the retired CEO of MemorialCare, a Long Beach, CA,
health care system, was a great mentor because he emphasized opportunities rather
than problems and demonstrated a dogged persistence in reaching strategic aims.
Tom stood as a model of the passion and enthusiasm needed to help an organization
achieve its goals, at the same time insisting on high-quality clinical care,
no matter what competitors might be doing. He taught me that leaders must be
accepted in the hearts and minds of all stakeholders and have the conviction
and tenacity to make change happen.
Rose Ann Poyzer, RN, recently retired as vice president, home care and
hospice, Healthcare Association of Hawaii, Honolulu. The most active person
I've ever met (she is now in her 80s), Rose Ann constantly promotes networking
and community connections. She knows that health care organizations cannot be
successful unless they have the knowledge, community support, and advocacy necessary
to provide the best possible care for their patients. Her inspiration has been
important to the work that I and others have done as members of community, statewide,
and national boards.
Chris Van Gorder, CEO of Scripps Health in San Diego County, CA, came
to hospital administration after an injury he sustained as a police officer
left him hospitalized for many months. That experience taught Chris that leaders
provide inspiration and listen intently to all viewpoints. He understands the
importance of energizing others; of making lifelong leadership learning a goal
for everyone in the organization; and of recognizing and rewarding employees,
physicians, and volunteers on a day-to-day basis, rather than once a year.
Gail Larson (with her husband and sons) has taught me that leaders need
balance in their work and personal lives; and that family, friends, and health
are paramount to our existence. The CEO of Providence Health System-Everett,
WA, Gail is a seasoned administrator who knows that clear, consistent, transparent
communications and uncompromising integrity concerning all stakeholders is critical
to leadership. She consistently reminds me that, as leaders, we must embody
our organizations' mission, vision, values, and beliefs.
I am currently enrolled in the PhD Program in Leadership and Change at Antioch
University, Los Angeles, and my professors there have taught me the importance
of being a "reflective leader," a scholar and researcher who values
both theory and practice. I've learned that a reflective leader thinks
deeply about his or her own work in a context of inclusive, ethical decision
making and scholarly fields of study. A reflective scholar thinks deeply about
the intellectual content of his or her subject and seeks to achieve mastery
of relevant fields of knowledge while, at the same time, engaging others in
dialogue and public forums. A reflective researcher explores knowledge in his
or her field of expertise and thinks critically about the methods of inquiry
involved in that field.
I'm grateful to these mentors, all of whom are reflective leaders.
A Few Words of Advice
Now that I've mentioned certain mentors and some advice they've given
me, let me share a few of my own thoughts on leadership, many of which I've
adapted and expanded upon after receiving them from mentors.
Make People Feel Welcome Create a sense of belonging among all members
of your health care team—employees, physicians, volunteers, vendors, and
board members. A physician once told me that the main reason doctors leave a
hospital to practice elsewhere is because they didn't feel welcome at the
Every new member of your health care team should receive a personal call or
note welcoming them to the organization. Executives should attend every orientation,
no matter how brief the appearance. They should encourage managers to place
new team members on committees, task forces, and other groups, thereby giving
the newcomers an opportunity to share their knowledge, expertise, and gifts.
Managers and executives should leave their desks frequently to meet and greet
team members on all shifts; they should make a point of eating meals in the
cafeteria, sitting with people they don't know. Jim Walker's success
in changing his hospital's name had much to do with the fact that he knows
every employee, physician, and volunteer in his hospital; they know him and
hold him in great respect.
Pay Attention to Detail Sweat the small stuff. Most leadership books
try to discourage executives from worrying too much about details. In health
care, however, it's inattention to those details that can cause confusion
and mistakes and can make the difference between success and failure. Although
leaders may not need to worry about details themselves, it's their job
to ensure that someone is focusing on them.
Take Care Be afraid of making too many mistakes. My father, who at 88
remains the "king of common sense," often takes a look at the textbooks
and articles that I'm reading on leadership and change. He has never been
able to understand the concept of "encouraging mistakes." "What
would happen," he asks, "if doctors were taught that it's okay
to make mistakes?" Again, we need not always listen to what leadership
gurus have to say. Your parents, like mine, were often right.
Be Friendly and Approachable Always talk to strangers (assuming,
of course, that you're an adult and conversation is appropriate). That
advice comes from my 80-year-old mother. She says that you never know who you'll
meet sitting on an airplane, lifting weights in the gym, standing in line at
the grocery store, or debating an issue at the city council. Yes, Mom is right.
I've learned some great life lessons and management theories and have heard
both heart-breaking stories and eminently practical advice (including how to
get rid of mold)—just by speaking to strangers.
My own advice is: Never sit next to anyone you know at a meeting, gathering,
or social event. We can learn something from everyone we meet, and doing so
will make one both a better leader and, of course, a better person.
Keep Learning Invest in lifelong learning for both yourself and your
employees. To prepare managers and supervisors for executive positions, create
in-house leadership institutes and academies. Establish professional development
programs for all staff members, regardless of their position in the organization.
Development programs can range from collaborating with public schools to helping
employees complete their high school equivalency certificates to partnering
with colleges and universities to help employees attain associate, bachelor's,
and master's degrees. I grew up in a Detroit community from which no more
than a handful of high school students went on to college. Where would I be
without mentors and family members encouraging me to pursue a PhD?
Follow Dreams, but Be Practical Learn to turn the vision of visionaries
into the realities of realists. Although all of us in health care dream for
a better future for those we serve ("don't give up on your dreams
or you'll wake up cranky"), our dreams must be balanced with what
is possible and sustainable.
Don't Fear Change Good leaders lead "from the heart,"
rallying their followers to move toward a better future and encouraging experimentation
and change. Dynamic environments, like those involving contemporary health care,
call for leaders with passion and charisma that excites and engages all members
of the organization.
Concerning leadership, my favorite quote is from Horace Mann (1796-1859), Antioch
University's first president and the first great American advocate of public
education. When the university opened in 1836, Mann gave an inaugural address.
He told his audience, "Be afraid to die until you have won some victory
What have you done lately for the humanity of your organization, your community,
and society at large?
For more information, contact Rhoda Weiss at 310-393-5183.
Copyright © 2005 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States
For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3477.