“Another promotion?” I wrote to my friend after seeing his updated status on LinkedIn.
“For some reason, they felt it was a good decision to put me in charge of an $85 million product line (the biggest one the organization has),” he wrote back. “We’ll see how this one goes.”
First off, you know you’ve reached a new phase of life when people you’ve played hide-and-seek with 35 years ago are running $85 million product lines.
A few days later, Jim called me to relate some other news. After a while, we touched on his promotion.
“You’re going to knock it out of the ballpark,” I said encouragingly.
“Well, I hope so, but I’m going to need some time to learn everything that’s going on in my product line. I’ve never worked with some of those products and services before, so I’m going to take a crash course in learning them. I’m going to actually take those classes and certification courses so I know what it is I’m managing.”
I was impressed. As someone who considers himself a student of leadership, this sounded right on. You can’t improve what you can’t measure, and you can’t manage what you don’t know. This is one of the benefits of coming up through the ranks — you know the ins and outs of the actual work, and so you can not only improve inefficiencies, but call “nonsense” on grousing that is out of bounds.
But though coming up in an organization is a good way to prepare for leading it, it isn’t the only way, as my friend will prove, and as many others have in the past. In fact, President Obama recently appointed someone with no public health experience, Ron Klain, to be his Ebola Czar. (One wonders why the term “Czar” has become so popular considering both the effectiveness and fate of the last one.)
Anyway, Klain likely got the job because, though he is an outsider to healthcare, he is an insider to the ways of Washington and, as John Halamka, MD, CIO at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center recently pointed out, that is the most important quality in anyone who must function there.
But if you are going to take the road less traveled, the road from outside, you must do what my friend’s instincts are telling him to do. You must either go, or send a trusted lieutenant, to Gemba, and you must understand the nuances of that which are leading. It will give you knowledge, and the mere act of visiting will give you respect among the, well, Gembese.
In healthcare, where most CIOs have come up through the technology ranks, it is critical to walk the walk by walking the floor, to become well-rounded by doing rounds, to go to Gemba and really understand what happens there — both in a general sense and as it relates to interactions with your technology.
Want to almost guarantee success? Make the trip so often they consider you one of their own, do it until everyone knows your first name and you theirs. Invest the time to truly understand what you’re dealing with, and you’ve got a shot at making the grade, no matter how large the product line.