When Ron Strachan accepted the role of CIO at Community Health Network last spring, the organization had just selected a vendor for a major IT implementation — a project that was not going to be led by IT. It’s not exactly the scenario most CIOs envision when starting a new position, but Strachan viewed it as an opportunity. A year later, the rollout has begun at the constantly-expanding 7-hospital system, and Strachan is enjoying every minute of his job. In this interview, he talks about what it’s like to take on a non-traditional CIO role, having to repair IT’s reputation after a failed implementation, and the importance of setting the right expectations and not overcommitting yourself or your team. He also discusses the organization’s big push for business intelligence, what he’s learned from working different roles, and how being a CIO is a constant education.
- The benefits of a diverse background
- Learning while teaching
- Being in the right place at the right time
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I’ve learned never to say, “Well, when I was at ____, this is how we did it,” because a lot of people really don’t care where you’ve been; what you’ve done and especially when it’s specific to another company or organization.
… for anyone who has that opportunity, I would say, absolutely take it; and even if you’ve never lectured before, you’ll do fine; you’ll rely on your experience and your expertise and you can put those ideas together in a very cogent way …
… we’ve picked an industry that is going through massive change, as it should, and is at a crossroads, and it’s great to think how invigorating and exciting it is to get up in the morning …
Gamble: I was looking at your LinkedIn page, and it seems that you have a pretty broad range of experience; you worked as a consultant, system analyst, etc. Do you think that having those different experiences has helped shape how you approach the role of CIO?
Strachan: Yes I really do. I’ve been very, very fortunate in my career, between good timing and a bit of dumb luck and being able to make decisions to go after the next thing. I’ve been very, very fortunate in the positions and the organizations where I’ve worked.
I don’t know if I would ever say that one route is better than the other, because I met so many people in the business that have varied background, and they’ve been very successful in their own right, so I’m not sure if there’s one way that’s better than the other. For me, personally, I say that I’m glad I’ve come up the ranks and worked as a system analyst, project leader; I’ve worked in consulting a couple different times; I worked for a ‘for-profit’ organization, one of which was publicly traded, and that certainly was a different experience. Every one of those experiences have delivered more than what I was hoping for. For me, that’s been very helpful, it’s been extremely helpful, and I wouldn’t trade out any one of those steps of my career for anything. I especially enjoyed moving around the country a little bit. There are things you learn that are unique to a geography, there are things that you learn that are unique, of course, to an organization; but it’s kind of fun to bring that combination of experience to yet another organization. There’s a bit of an art there too; and I’ve learned never to say, “Well, when I was at ____, this is how we did it,” because a lot of people really don’t care where you’ve been; what you’ve done and especially when it’s specific to another company or organization. So there is a bit of an art to, I think, bringing that experience forward without jamming it down peoples’ throats because people don’t want to hear that, and especially if you’re going to an organization where, like many healthcare companies, people have a lot of longevity — you do have people who’ve been within the same four walls for 15, 20, 25 sometimes 30 years; so the way they look at things is a little bit different than perhaps what I do.
But I bide my time and when I ask, “What do you think about this; and other places you’ve been; what had you seen?” that’s when you’re able to bring that out directly but, indirectly, you just have to be kind of solo about it and just be very sensitive to not being the proverbial bull in the China shop and coming across like, “I’ve got all these varied experiences; therefore, I must be smarter than you,” and that’s not the case at all, it’s just a different perspective.
Gamble: I agree. It’s all in how you present it.
Gamble: And then one other area I wanted to just touch on was the work that you’ve done serving as a guest faculty for a business school and for an IT program, I just want to see how this benefits you, and how important you think it is that, for the future of the industry, CIOs get out there and talk about their experience?
Strachan: I have been very fortunate that anytime I’ve had an opportunity present itself to get involved with specific programs, I always take up whoever’s contacted me on the offer. I think it’s challenging because it really forces you take a look at and do an acid test as to what you’re going to deliver, if it’s relevant, and if it’s current, and if it’s going to help someone, especially because you don’t want to send undergrad or grad students off in the wrong direction.
So by being closer to new ideas and those kinds of discussions, I’ve always found that I’ve learned through giving a guest lecture, I come out of that with way more to think about and new ideas than what I think students have received, and that’s through the questions that they ask and the subsequent discussions that those questions spark, and for anyone who has that opportunity, I would say, absolutely take it; and even if you’ve never lectured before, you’ll do fine; you’ll rely on your experience and your expertise and you can put those ideas together in a very cogent way, and it will be fine because the students are there to learn, they’re always ready with their questions and really want to explore. This is true especially when you’re in front of the group of students and you’ve got 15-20-25 years of experience for them to tap into, and it’s a lot of fun. I mean, I’ve been able to do it when I was working in Georgia, I did it on a pretty regular basis for the Georgia Tech Graduate School of business. I did a little bit of it in Minnesota, and it’s great fun; it’s very rewarding. I think it’s pretty important as a CIO that you do get that challenge and it forces you to think outside your model or paradigm. Of course, it also helps to prepare, in many cases, the workforce of the future; so if you can influence and talk to these students, as far as what you think they need to focus on in their development, it helps you, because if you have people coming out of these programs that are better prepared to come into the organization, that’s a win-win for everyone.
Gamble: And I’m sure it’s interesting to hear the perspectives of people who are just getting into the industry or just thinking about it or learning about it. I’m sure it’s a whole different perspective.
Strachan: It is, it is between undergrad and grad school, I think when you’re in front of an undergrad class, this is something they’re choosing to pursue as their career, and they may or may not have work in healthcare. Most of the time with a graduate school class, most of them have worked in healthcare, but not in IT, and so their perspective is a little bit different and we’ve had very, very rigorous discussion around what’s ailing healthcare today and where it’s headed.
Gamble: Would you say that being CIO, you’re just constantly getting educated one way or the other?
Strachan: I think that would be very fair to say.
Gamble: Is there anything else you want to touch on, before I let you go?
Strachan: Well, I’ve often made the comment to a lot of the folks that I’ve worked with how fortunate and lucky we are to have worked in information technology in our careers and how that is constantly changing and there’s never a dull moment. Add to that we’ve picked an industry that is going through massive change, as it should, and is at a crossroads, and it’s great to think how invigorating and exciting it is to get up in the morning, you just think, “Okay, what can I get accomplished today?” And it’s just a great place to be, and I think that all of us who work in this industry are just blessed to have the opportunity.
Gamble: Yes, this has been really great. I really enjoyed hearing your perspectives and hearing everything you’re up to, and I think that the other readers and listeners are definitely going to find it interesting.
Strachan: I hope so, because I’ve got a number of friends, and I could probably name them to a person, who are going to give me the business about this interview.
Gamble: I think we’re good. Thank you so much for your time; I really appreciate it.
Strachan: My pleasure.