McKinsey Quarterly recently published a compelling study which found that the link between organizational health and performance is much clearer and much larger than previously thought. Healthy companies generated total returns three times higher than those of unhealthy ones.
In his best-selling book, “The Advantage: Why Organizational Health Trumps Everything,” Patrick Lencioni makes an overwhelming case that organizational health will surpass all other disciplines as the greatest opportunity for improvement and competitive advantage. Lencioni reveals four actionable steps to gaining the advantage: building a cohesive team, creating clarity, reinforcing clarity, and over communicating clarity.
Organizational health matters. Above all else, leaders first bear a burden to ensure healthy organizations: the type of organizations which attract and grow talent critical to creating a better future.
If we miss this, we miss what matters most. Adding talent to unhealthy organizations adds value to no one. In the words of W. Edwards Deming, “A bad system will beat a good person every time.”
Learning From The Past
As physicians care for the health of patients, so leaders care for the health of organizations. Though there are many distinct differences, there is one compelling similarity: ensuring health. Deeply rooted in the healthcare tradition is a commitment to do no harm.
Consider this quote: The physician must be able to tell the antecedents, know the present, and foretell the future — must mediate these things, and have two special objects in view with regard to disease, namely, to do good or to do no harm.
A Shared Model for Ensuring Health
Though originally intended for physicians as an ethical commitment in caring for the health of patients, the spirit and intent of this oath is a model we can adopt for all leaders. Replace the term “physician” with “leader” and the term “disease” with “the organization.” The leader must be able to tell the antecedents, know the present, and foretell the future — must mediate these things, and have two special objects in view with regard to the organization; namely, to do good or to do no harm.
- Tell the antecedents: a leader must understand and respect legacy. Holding with respect that which has come before and those commitments which have created outcomes enjoyed today. At the same time, a leader must possess courage to change those things now leading to harm. What is celebrated, what is done, and what is ignored all impact organizational health. Both healthy and unhealthy systems do not happen by chance. As a leader: tell the antecedents.
- Know the present: a leader must be grounded in current reality and fully vested in knowing and understanding present state. Pretending certain things do not exist, or ignoring facts to shape perceived reality, are not healthy postures. A leader who is working to build a healthy organization will be open to difficult fact, constructive debate, and differing opinion. All these work to present a clearer picture of the whole. As a leader: know the present.
- Foretell the future: a leader must relentlessly, with clarity and persistent communication, cast a compelling vision of the future. An effective leader will role model the connection between future benefit and present choices. Organizations, like people, do not become what they wish to be: they become by choices made. As a leader: foretell the future.
Adopting the above model will ensure a leader is stewarding and connecting (to mediate these things) an organization’s past, present, and future, to do good and to do no harm. As applied to leadership, these commitments provide a firm foundation on which to build organizational health.
Gaining Personal Clarity: A Lens Toward Action
As healthcare leaders, it is critical to pay attention to first things first: the health of the entities served. To do good; to do no harm. In the midst of transformative change, organizational health must be a sustained focus. It should be the overarching priority of all healthcare leaders, and a leader must start with self. Healthy organizations are envisioned and sustained by healthy leaders. One cannot give something away that one does not first possess.
As a starting point, here are a few practical questions written from a posture of self-reflection: a lens providing clarity toward concrete action. Beginning with these questions will help shape an understanding and commitment toward leading for organizational health.
- Am I fully engaged in improving my own capability as a leader? How does my answer square with daily patterns, schedules, and energy management? What practical change can I make today to move in a better direction?
- In what ways do I build future leaders? How is this effort seen and measured by those individuals? How do I seek their feedback and apply what I hear?
- In what ways do I integrate individual leaders into a high performing team? How do I seek the team’s feedback and respond positively? Do I function from a posture of command, control, and compartmentalizing; or do I ensure transparency, collaboration, and integration?
- From a broader perspective, what is our organization’s definition of “health?” If we don’t have a shared definition how can I assist in creating one?
- Do those to whom I am accountable understand the necessity and value of organizational health (whether another executive or Board)? How can I help educate and enlist their support in focusing time and energy on the most important things? How do I help them do the same?
- Where do we find evidence of our organizational health? What system measures and feedback loops do we use and what do we hear?
- How can we best celebrate progress and sustain the wins?
What do Leaders Owe?
One of my favorite authors, Max DePree, in his book Leadership is an Art, asks a question; “What do leaders owe?” He quotes a good friend who characterizes leaders simply like this: “Leaders don’t inflict pain; they bear pain.”
As stewards of an industry in flux, we would do well to diligently and purposely build organizational health. This is our number one priority and our responsibility to bear.
There will always be something in the way. There will always be a burning platform. There will always be disruptive change and other pressing priorities. Positive, purposeful, and sustainable action is the only meaningful strategy for what matters most. To do good; to do no harm.
This piece was originally published on LinkedIn by Robert Sundelius, Senior Vice President, Practice Group and System Business Development at Memorial Healthcare, a not-for-profit hospital based in Owosso, Mich. To follow him on Twitter, click here.