In today’s health IT industry, there’s a lot of talk about the need for knowledge sharing among leaders, particularly CIOs. But for Tim Zoph, who was recently named chair of KLAS’ Interoperability Measurement Advisory Team, it’s more than just talk. When he was asked to share some of the most valuable lessons learned during his 30-year-career (which includes 22 years as CIO at Northwestern Memorial Hospital), he was happy to oblige. In this interview, Zoph offers perspective on the areas of utmost importance to health IT leaders, including talent management, operational excellence, work/life balance, and being a partner in the industry. He also discusses the new expectations of the CIO role — a hybrid of change agent, senior leader, and innovator; why teaching CHIME Boot Camp has been so rewarding for him; and what’s next in his journey.
- “The next 5-10 years are going to be even more challenging.”
- Senior leader/change agent/innovator
- “Real-world stories” at Boot Camp
- Work/life balance
- “We need to do more to prepare future leaders.”
- The next chapter
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It’s important to recognize that everything that you’ve done to get to this early phase of adoption of technology — those are important skills, but they’re not the skills of the future.
Part of this is how we prepare CIOs — how we can better train them, how they can better place talent underneath them, how we can work with senior teams of leaders to really understand what the role of the CIO is and what the role of the rest of the senior team is as healthcare becomes a solely digital business.
It’s a little disconcerting to think we’re going to change the pathway to leadership. But if you look to other industries, they’re looking for senior leader, change agent, innovator first, and technologist second.
Part of it is what we teach, but part of it is environment that we create, the relationships we build, the experiences we share, and I love that kind of environment. I love being a part of creating it. I love to participate in it. I love to engage with the students.
Your life gets so regimented when you have these corporate roles that it’s really important to teach yourself to do something different and to actually put some perspective on it.
Gamble: This is a big question, but we’ve seen how much the role has evolved. How do you think the CIO role is going to continue to evolve in the coming years to continue to be that leader?
Zoph: That’s a great question, and this gets back to some of the research that I’ve recently done for CHIME. But I’d summarize it this way. I think that the skills that have gotten CIOs to where they are today are not necessarily the skillset of the future. I think it’s important to recognize that everything that you’ve done to get to this early phase of adoption of technology — those are important skills, but they’re not the skills of the future.
What we’ve also seen is that forces for change in healthcare are really significant. The pressures on healthcare are only going to grow. We think this has been a challenging period, but the next five to 10 years are going to be even more challenging. Consolidation, security, consumer choice on healthcare, changing regulatory payment system, you know all those things, so the challenges are only going to get greater.
What we’ve seen is in terms of the expectations for the CIO role, there’s always been a gap with the CIO role between what the CIO sees their responsibilities are versus the leadership team, and we’re always chasing that gap. In other words, the role lags with the expectation of our peers and with the CEOs. I’m very anxious about closing this gap and making sure that in fact we can move CIOs beyond just what they have to do in the day-to-day operations of IT and executing projects and responding to regulatory compliance and incentives. Because they’re needed to really drive technology value in a demonstrable way, that is, how is technology really going to be used to change the business; its quality, its efficiency; how are we going to connect the healthcare systems with the interoperability challenges that are out there, and how we’re going to really be innovators and use the technology we would put in place to drive knowledge, to drive efficiency, to take on third-party solutions that are coming in from the consumer side.
We’re going to have to be a true senior leader, a true innovator, a true change agent in healthcare, and those expectations on the role are only going to grow. I think we know what’s expected. I think we can look inside of healthcare and outside of healthcare to see how the CIO role was changed, but those leadership challenges are only going to be more significant as time goes on.
I think part of this is how we prepare CIOs — how we can better train them, how they can better place talent underneath them, how we can work with senior teams of leaders to really understand what the role of the CIO is and what the role of the rest of the senior team is as healthcare becomes a solely digital business. But getting this talent right and this expectation of leadership role is a critical success factor for those organizations that will come out the other side of this next set of changes successfully. You’re going to need the right leader in place and the right team in place, and having the right talent and the right expectations of talent, including the CIO, is one of the more important preparations that healthcare systems can make for the future of healthcare.
Zoph: And what’s interesting is a lot of this with change agents, senior leaders, and even innovators doesn’t have to do with innate knowledge of technology. A lot of this is really just the kind of leader that organizations expect. In many ways, you can hire the chief technology officer, you could hire your core technology staff, and they’re really looking for a leader that can bring more leadership to the table than simply understanding the technology, and it’s becoming even more important.
Gamble: Something I’ve definitely noticed in speaking to people is the background that so many CIOs have now. There’s so much diversity, and they’re not just coming from necessarily IT or even the healthcare industry, so I think it’s going to be interesting to see how that continues to shake out.
Zoph: I do think we’re looking outside of healthcare and looking to other service industries and seeing how the role has changed. Even with manufacturing now, I think [CEO] Jeff Immelt will tell you that GE is now a digital business, and I think you’ll see the CIO leadership coming from many different domains. I transitioned my CIO leadership role initially to the vice president of quality. So again, with senior leaders, change agents, and innovators, you can have those leadership attributes and not necessarily come out of a vertical domain of rising up through the technology ranks.
But I do think you’re going to see, like you’re seeing in other industries, more diverse paths to CIO leadership. As the role is becoming more important, they’re going to want to make sure they have a trusted leader in place. And so, in some ways, it’s a little disconcerting to think, ‘oh gosh, we’re going to change the pathway to leadership.’ But if you look to other industries, I think they’re looking for senior leader, change agent, innovator first, and sort of technologist second. They’d love to have it all, but it’s difficult to find just that person that carries all those attributes.
Gamble: We’ve talked a lot about talent development, and one of the things I definitely wanted to touch on was the long amount of time that you spend with CHIME Boot Camp. I would imagine that that was probably just as insightful for you at times as it was for the students, as far as getting these different perspectives and seeing how the next wave of leaders is really thinking?
Zoph: I’ll be honest with you and tell you it’s the most rewarding thing I’ve done. I think outside of my core leadership role of developing talent while working at Northwestern, it has been one of the most meaningful things I’ve done. You have an opportunity to train over 925 students over a decade twice a year, and hugely rewarding to see how those leaders have grown and to be in the classroom with them.
I have a couple of perspectives on the CIO boot camp, just to give you some insight into it. There were a couple of things that were really important. One is that the sessions that we provided for those students had to be practical, actionable and really applicable to their own real-world challenges, and they really be taught authentically by respected leaders in healthcare. People really wanted to hear the real-world stories. And I think part of the reason to have those real-world stories is that we created this trusted environment for students so they could not only learn from the faculty, but they could learn from one another. I like to think that what people got out of the Boot Camp they got as much from really understanding the challenges that their peers in the industry think. Sometimes it’s really helpful to know that your peers have similar challenges, and that you can connect with other people in the industry and you can share information and you can solve problems together. In some ways, we created this leadership environment for them so they can understand that they weren’t alone, and they can understand that sharing is really helpful and they could have an open and trusted conversation with one another about the issues they face.
The final point was with life balance; people were very challenged on having a life, and they needed some tools. I think we realized that it was important to put it on the table and talk about life balance as an essential element to career development as well as authentic leadership.
So there was always a reward. We always said if we create the right environment, we talk authentically about how it is that we’re experiencing and solving problems, and we put these like-minded students together, that something really good would come out of it.
When we first started this, we looked at how many people might attend and we thought maybe after two or three years, we might be teaching everyone we need to teach. And it sells out every time, 50 to 60 students every session. And I think part of it is what we teach, but part of it is environment that we create, the relationships we build, the experiences we share, and I love that kind of environment. I love being a part of creating it. I love to participate in it. I love to engage with the students. And as I said, it’s been really rewarding to see how those careers have grown, and to see how many people now are in leadership roles and how they look back on that boot camp as an important experience.
And this comes back to our earlier discussion that we just need to figure out how to do more to prepare our future leaders. People need help, they need that environment, and they need to be able to share with one another. It’s a very challenging career. I think CHIME is in an important role because they can be a convener of these leaders and have them recognize that they individually, but collectively, can work together to solve these growing challenges we have in healthcare.
Gamble: Right. It seems like it was almost like a downstream effect of the boot camp that there does seem to be a good amount of knowledge sharing going on now, and that’s something that really seems like there’s a huge necessity for.
Zoph: That’s one of the things that I feel is unique to healthcare. I’ve talked to CIOs in other industries, and we really openly share what we do and how we do it. We’ll complete in local environments, but we’re very open about sharing what we’ve done and how we’ve done it, and sharing the successes and the failures. I think culturally it’s a great thing about healthcare, and maybe it’s because it’s a not-for-profit world primarily or maybe it’s just the nature of our caregiving experience, but we openly share with one another. With the peers I had over the years, I would take every call and I’d respond honestly. If I had something that was useful, I’d provide it, and that’s a great culture. I think sustaining that culture now for this next-generation leaders will be really important as well.
Gamble: Now, in terms of you and your career, what are you focused on right now?
Zoph: Well, it’s interesting you asked. Right now, I’m actually just taking some time just to gather my thoughts and understand where it is I want to go next. After at least 22 years at Northwestern and then another nine years before that in a full-time role, I’ve had a full-time role for over 30 years, and so I thought it was important to step back and maybe create some muscle memory that says I don’t have to go in to this large corporate job every day.
For me, I’ve come to a couple of conclusions. One is that I’ve got knowledge and experience that I want to continue to share and put to work in the industry, so it’s going to be a combination of teaching, probably some consulting, and some combination of leadership development. I’m really anxious to continue to stay engaged in the industry and put together a formula that will work for me. So, I’m certainly not going away, this is kind of like saying I’ll be back. I’m just figuring out how to put the right formula together so that I can engage the industry in a really impactful way so that I can take what I’ve learned, share that with others, and help the industry over the next decade with the challenges that lie ahead.
I call it my chapter two. I’m looking for a little more flexibility. Maybe a little bit different style. I’m not back into a CIO role; I really want to have a different career this time around. I’m daunted by the challenges but I’m excited to work on them and roll up my sleeves and be a part of the solution.
Right now I’m just having a lot of conversations trying to figure out where I can use my talents and skills most effectively. I’m still teaching at Kellogg. I’m working with CHIME on some of those leadership development opportunities. I’m on two advisory boards. I’m on the advisory board for KLAS and also on the advisory board for a startup company called MD Insider. So I’m enjoying some of my time without having totally walked away. I’ve got some things here that I’m working on, but I’m still trying to figure out what the formula is for the next chapter of my career.
Gamble: Right, and certainly keeping busy in the meantime. I’m sure that it provides a really interesting perspective having a little bit of distance from the day-to-day grind.
Zoph: People have told me that’s important to do, and I didn’t realize how important this was. Your life gets so regimented when you have these corporate roles that it’s really important to teach yourself to do something different and to actually put some perspective on it.
That’s why I like this interview I have with you today. It gave me a chance to say, what did you learn from all this? What did you learn about yourself, and what can you now do to take what you’ve learned to have the next chapter be even more meaningful than the first? Those are the questions I’m really working on asking myself everyday right now. And so, I love the industry, I love working in healthcare technology, and I love leadership development. So I’m really working on now to come up with the right formula, and trying not to react to the first thing, but try and be really thoughtful about how I put this together.
Gamble: Right. You talked about leadership development, I think that there’s a huge demand for that, so we’ll certainly keep in touch to see where exactly you are going to be putting that to use. In the meantime, I want to thank you so much. This is really fantastic for others to be able to look at some of the things you’ve been through, some of your lessons, and apply them. And it speaks to what you were talking about with the shared knowledge and helping others to benefit, so I really appreciate your time.
Zoph: You’re welcome, Kate. I’ve always enjoyed talking with you, and I hope that we get a chance to stay in touch.
Gamble: Yes, definitely. I’d love that.
Zoph: And if there’s another subject, feel free to reach out to me. I’m always pleased to talk with you.
Kate: I will. Thanks so much, and I look forward to seeing you at future events.
Zoph: Okay, thank you, Kate.