Ronald Reagan mastered the concept of wholesale leadership. Some would argue he was THE master.
Reagan understood the value of television — he could, using his skills as an actor, reach out in a compelling manner and influence millions of voters through his beautifully scripted presentations. Even his opponents respected his ability to shape public opinion. He wasn’t bad in one-on-one meetings, but his ace in the toolbox was his ability to use television in such an effective manner.
Last week I began a new search for a Chief Executive Officer for a small southwest Texas Critical Access Hospital, one of the best in the nation. It is special in so many ways. So, we are looking for a special leader who is the master of retail, not in sales but in leadership. We will only present those candidates who can demonstrate their skill in building the one-on-one relationships with the 75 employees, the seven board members, four primary physicians and the three mid-level professionals, and the important community stakeholders.
We are not interested in a candidate who prefers to sit in a glassed-in office, blinds closed, writing policies and sending email memos.
This is such an important leadership characteristic that we will not be satisfied only by a candidate’s assurances that they are retail kings. The follow-up question will be, “As evidenced by…” I am not from Missouri, but I am a big devotee of their state motto, “Show me!”
We will also be prowling their careers with other specific questions about their ability to succeed in this special type of environment. As I said earlier, this hospital is special — they are one of the best equipped CAH’s in the state, including a state-of-the-art MRI, the latest CT scan technology, a full-service lab, and an array of outpatient diagnostic capabilities. The physicians are well trained and respected in the community and, most importantly, they have substantial financial reserves. CEO candidates will have to prove they have the special skills for a special place.
In the interest of fair warning, candidates will be asked to list the three reasons they feel they are special leaders, providing the evidence that will support their claim. Knowing the name of each employee is a base line — nothing special. The successful retail leader can answer these questions:
For CEOs who do not understand, or who are uncomfortable with the retail leadership approach, this is probably not the place for you.
Increasingly, small and community hospital CEOs must be master’s of one-on-one relationship leadership.
© 2014 John Gregory Self
Are your customers — your patients and their physicians — loyal to your health system or hospital because they want to be? Or, are they there because they feel there is no real choice in the marketplace?
Do you want your customers coming back because they feel they have to, or because you have created a bond of trust and have made them feel valued? A cautionary note: being efficient in registering patients, and highly effective in collecting their money, is not the point I want to make regarding customer loyalty and trust.
Aside from my healthcare references, I could be talking about the highly siloed, bureaucratic behemoth AT&T, or perhaps the customer service tail dragger, the notorious Time-Warner Cable.
Let me share a brief story about AT&T’s poor customer service that destroyed our Firm’s sense of trust and the value of our relationship as a customer.
I have been a loyal AT&T customer for more than 20 years — business lines, RingCentral Office@Hand (a virtual PBX and voice mail service), wireless, and U-Verse, which provides internet cable for our office suite. Since 2010, our business has continued to expand, and managing incoming telephone calls with our multi-line phones was not providing our clients with a professional experience. So I asked if we could take our unused fax line and bundle that and two others in a rotating system. The line numbers were, after all, in sequential order. Apparently that was not technically possible so the helpful AT&T representative referred us to the AT&T RingCentral subsidiary, which we were already using for routing to our offices elsewhere in the DFW area and in Houston. Instead of using conventional lines, AT&T’s innovative RingCentral service uses the Internet. This seemed like a better option than buying a new $15,000 telephone system for the office, plus it helped us improve our virtual networking.
I was pleased that “my business partner,” AT&T, helped us resolve the problem. Today, that solution is in place and working like a charm. But wait, sadly there is more to this story.
My pleasure with AT&T soured when I got a nasty collection letter informing me that because I had broken my AT&T business telephone line contract when I shifted to their subsidiary, I would be obligated to pay a $500 penalty. After talking to non-responsive customer “service” representatives who refused to help, and refused to allow us to speak to a supervisor, we reluctantly paid the penalty. And then we received another collection letter that said we owed an additional $186. Again, customer service, while more polite in this round, refused to hear our complaints. Rules are rules, after all.
To summarize, the AT&T business “service” group could not help us solve our problem and actually referred us to their sister division which could, and did, help. We just transferred our business from one business AT&T unit to another.
The point I want to make is that AT&T hit us with penalties because they could, not because it was the right thing to do. When a certain Fort Worth-based airline repeatedly treated me badly, I walked away. Today, I use them only when I have to, not because I want to. At one point I was a “valued” frequent flyer. With AT&T, I don’t feel like I have a choice. I am not switching to Verizon wireless because their network does not allow my iPhone functionality to work at 100 percent, and I have received too many calls from customers of Verizon, Sprint and the other guys with poor quality sound. When you are trying to conduct an interview and a cell is the only phone the candidate has, the word nuisance comes to mind. When it comes to cable internet service, my previous Time Warner experience with service reliability in the central business district and their crack billing team convinced me they are, not now nor ever will be in the future, a realistic option. Our building does not permit satellite antenna so that leaves out that option. So there you go. Unless I am missing something, I am stuck.
I was once a proud and loyal AT&T customer. I told people that AT&T was great for small businesses like mine, because they offered an array of innovative solutions. I just never dreamed that I would have my hand slapped if I took advantage of one of those solutions.
As I look out the window of my 24th floor suite, I can see the impressive office tower that houses AT&T’s CEO, a mere three blocks away. But because of their “we will because we can” approach to customer service, I am less enthralled with the idea that they helped me grow my business. When I watch the sun set behind the AT&T tower, I am now ambivalent, not pleased, that I feel forced to do business with them.
There is an important lesson here for healthcare organizations.
As healthcare leaders work to navigate their organizations through reform, when what hospitals and other providers are paid for the services they offer will decline, in some cases significantly, they face a tough challenge of sustaining the trust and confidence of their customers while maintaining financial viability.
Health systems, and hospitals can and will spend heavily on marketing, telling their stories in glitzy newspaper inserts or slick television ads. But that won’t be enough. How healthcare organizations deal with customers day in and day out on all matters will determine whether they can sustain trust and confidence; whether customers come back because they want to, or because they feel they have no other choice.
© 2014 John Gregory Self
Edward Koch, the often brash and eclectic former Mayor of the City of New York was famous for asking residents (voters) “How’m I doin’?” From construction workers and ordinary people of the street, to well-heeled financial supporters on the upper East Side, you could almost bet the farm that Koch would blurt out his famous question at the start or finish of a conversation.
He was not by any standard an insecure politician seeking feel-good support. No, the honorable Mr. Koch, who died last year and who served as mayor for three terms beginning in 1977, was determined not to be an out-of-touch leader trapped in the bubble, that state where an important public servant or corporate executive is isolated by rings of erstwhile aides determined to be helpful by protecting the boss and, to be honest, restrict access to the source of power.
Koch would have none of that and, as a result, I believe, he will go down as one New York’s great iconic mayors.
Being isolated — by choice or by structure — is not a very good place for a leader to be.
Here is a test to measure yourself against the Koch standard:
If leaders are squeamish perhaps they should ask themselves if regularly seeking feedback from employees and physicians is a sign of insecurity? Are you worried they will view you as a weak leader desperately seeking praise?
The truth is, if you take legitimate feedback and act on it, it will make a very favorable impression on your team, especially when you follow up with them.
This is not rocket science stuff. More importantly, it really works.
Too bad many executives are so uncomfortable that they find themselves inside the bubble, the first step to ineffectiveness in a transformational business climate.
© 2014 John Gregory Self