Leadership in Health Care: Insights from GW’s Alumni Experts

Students attending the first MHA@GW immersion had plenty of opportunities to learn from faculty and from one another, but Saturday’s panel also allowed students to hear directly from alumni who have become leaders in the field of health administration. The panel, moderated by MHA@GW Program Director Leonard Friedman, discussed relationship building, the importance of strong mentorship programs and common problems encountered by non-clinical professionals working in clinical settings.

So what does good leadership look like in the health care field? Here’s what our experts had to say.

About the Panelists

Fred L. Brown, Chairman, Fred L. Brown & Associates LLC: Brown’s health care career spans 50 years. A noted advocate for America’s hospitals and health care organizations, he has served in many prominent leadership roles. He currently serves as chairman of Fred L. Brown & Associates LLC, an international consulting company, and chair of the Advisory Council for Santa Rosa Holdings Inc. He was past chair of the Board of Commissioners of The Joint Commission, past chairman of the National Kidney Foundation and past chairman of the American Hospital Association. He was inducted into Modern Healthcare’s Health Care Hall of Fame in 2014. He holds an MBA from the George Washington University.

Kerry Ann Hayon, Manager, Physician Practice Resource Center, Massachusetts Medical Society: Hayon, who holds a master’s degree in health care administration from the George Washington University, brings more than 10 years of consulting, hospital administration and physician practice management experience to the Medical Society, which provides information, support and resources for physicians and practice administrators. Hayon also serves as the co-founder and vice president of Tomorrow’s Women TODAY: The Boston Women’s Leadership Council, a professional networking group focused on providing mentoring opportunities for women who have been identified as future leaders within their professions.

Rex Holloway, Regional Vice President, Hammes Company: As a consulting leader with more than 10 years at Hammes Company, Holloway has focused on creating and implementing growth strategies for health systems — providing leadership on market strategy, facility and clinical service planning, physician alignment, business feasibility and turnkey implementation for hospital and ambulatory projects and new service line initiatives. Throughout his 30-year career, he has gained vast experience within the industry, leading health care systems, providing strategic consulting for hospitals and physician groups and driving solution development efforts.

The Discussion

Relationships, Relationships, Relationships

Panelists agreed that health care necessitates a unique breed of leadership that is based on an ability to navigate and manage relationships. “You really have to know who you are and what kind of person you are,” said Brown, who became president of the 708-bed Christian Hospital Northeast-Northwest in St. Louis when he was still in his 30s. “When you’re dealing with a person across the table, you need to understand that they bring value, and you need to respect that,” Brown explained.

“Managing and leadership is all about the relationships,” Hayon agreed. “We’re not in a day and age where there’s a lot of layers [in the health care workplace] … most people are in other departments that you have no control over. So how do you do that? You manage relationships.”

Holloway, who has worked for three major health care systems, credits his ability to forge and manage relationships between people as a key component of his success. “My job was always being a connector: connecting the right people at the right times to get things done,” Holloway said.

Stay Flexible and Innovative in the Face of Conflict

The panelists all reported having dealt with individuals, organizations and entire communities who resisted collaboration and sometimes outright resented their presence.

Hayon recalled a specific experience with a cardiovascular surgeon who was unwilling to work with her. “I had to figure out how I was going to work with him when he wanted nothing to do with me. I had to be pretty good at thinking outside of the box,” she recalled. She ultimately succeeded by generating trust and support for her initiative from his colleagues.

Holloway recounted working with a hospital to improve patient-satisfaction scores, albeit much to the chagrin of its leadership: The CEO was hands-off and the vice presidents were combative. “There was very little decision making,” Holloway recalled. Like Hayon, Holloway found that a bottom-up approach was much more successful and that it took the support of hospital employees to convince leadership of Holloway’s methods.

Remember the Patient First

“Well, you’re not a doctor” is a common refrain recognized by students, faculty and alumni alike. The inherent difficulties of advising, collaborating with or overseeing clinicians as a non-clinician resonated with many in attendance. “Physician battles are the toughest battles by and large,” Holloway said. “To me, these are real battles that are getting magnified in the coming years as we have fewer physicians available. Understanding how to resolve clinical differences is key. As long as you keep coming back to patient care, you might have a shot.”

The panelists had all gained support by explaining the ramifications and benefits of a given initiative. Holloway has used scenario planning with the people who were at odds, talking through each alternative to demonstrate how each one will play out in that specific clinical environment.

“In the end, it gets down to what’s right for the human being, what’s right for the patient.” — Fred L. Brown

Hayon has found that understanding data and using it to formulate a compelling case that appeals to clinicians’ biggest concerns and interests has been a major boon for her when it comes to interacting with physicians. “I’m not a clinician, but I do love data,” she said. “It’s not just about presenting the data, but telling a story. It’s important to talk about the process and what the numbers mean.”

Find a Mentor

The panelists urged students to identify mentors, both within and outside of their organizations, and to take advantage of opportunities to mentor others. “I had a great opportunity to work with two female senior consultants, one of whom told me that I was too nice,” recalled Hayon, whose niceness ultimately proved to be a strength.

Strong, honest mentors aren’t just helpful in navigating a current position, she continued; they can — and should — help you determine whether it’s time for you to pursue the next step in your career. “If someone moves through my organization and has a great new opportunity, that means that I’ve done something right. Especially if I can’t provide that next step,” Hayon said.

But these one-on-one mentor/mentee relationships are just the first step, said Holloway. Ensuring that colleagues and future employees have access to similar resources is the second. “If your organization doesn’t have a formal mentorship program, take charge and create one,” Holloway advised.

Moving Forward

Inter-organization outreach and collaboration will be important when it comes to improving community health.

“One positive [aspect] of the Affordable Care Act is that it helps communities and organizations work together,” Brown noted. “There has to be movement. You’ve got to look at all your different resources.”

Although the structure of health care is shifting away from a traditional hospital model and toward more community-based health models (such as patient-centered medical homes and accountable care organizations), positive change won’t continue without pressure from strong, capable leaders. “It will happen,” Brown said. “But it’s got to be pushed on all sides.”

The alumni panel was just one component of a busy immersion weekend for the MHA@GW students. Immersion experiences, which are held on the George Washington University campus and at other esteemed health organizations, allow students to interact in person with other accomplished health care professionals, faculty and alumni. Check out our full recap of the first immersion here.