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.
- A legacy of talent development
- Connecting IT “to the mission of the organization”
- Need for collaboration — “The work is too hard not to share what we’ve learned.”
- Operational excellence
- Teaching work/life balance at CHIME Boot Camp
- Delivering on a promise vs. promising to deliver
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I understood that ultimately as I grew in the organization, it became more important for me not to manage the technology but to manage leaders, and the legacy I’ve left behind are the people that are there running it today.
I’m a little bit concerned that there’s finger pointing back and forth about who’s doing what and who’s not doing what. We really need to support one another and be respectful of another. The work is too hard not to share that we’ve learned.
At times we forget that making sure that we run the business in a simple, in-control and predictable manner is really important. Oftentimes we can get too hung up on strategy and projects and forget that we’re really required to run the business in an excellent way.
If you want to be a leader of others, you have to demonstrate that those things are important. If you don’t model that behavior, people won’t believe that you value that in them. What people want is authentic leadership.
You start off thinking it’s about the technology, and you really realize it’s about the talent. You think people want you there simply as a technologist, when what they want is really a whole leader.
Zoph: Looking back, the key to success for all of this was talent development — putting teams in place, growing your future leaders. It has the most lasting and probably the most rewarding impact of anything you’re going to do. And so if I had to talk to you about one subject that was critical to my success, it was that I developed future leaders. I paid attention to people. And in fact, I understood that ultimately as I grew in the organization, it became more important for me not to manage the technology but to manage leaders, and the legacy I’ve left behind are the people that are there running it today. I have been able to train and develop six or seven CIO leaders that are in the industry today. There are many directors that are a part of my organization that started as analysts — that’s my legacy. I built the talent, I put the people in place, and they have grown their careers both in and outside of Northwestern.
The second is being a leader beyond your technology domain. I think it’s really important that you demonstrate that you learn the business beyond technology, and that you engage your team directly in patient care. The most rewarding experiences our team ever had were the times when we had big system changes — those were often the times we worked people the hardest. I had my highest levels of engagement scores when I worked people the hardest, like when we opened new buildings. The year after we opened the new Prentice Women’s Hospital, we had worked people so hard and they were so committed to building or bringing this new million-square-foot building to life, is when I had my lowest level of turnover.
I went back and looked at it and I said to myself, ‘why is that?’ And I think it’s because we connected people to caregivers; we connected them to the mission of the organization, and they felt a part of Northwestern. So that was a lesson learned — it’s important for me to understand and know why it is we do what we do, but it was really important for my team to understand that as well. Being a leader outside the organization creates this set of permissions where everyone that works for you knows it’s important that we stay connected to patient care. And the lesson learned is they’re there for a reason, and that reason is ultimately because we are a value-based business that takes care of patients every day, and that’s why people show up at work.
The third would be this notion of being a partner in the industry. I’ve found it was incredibly valuable to learn from my peers and to be a good partner; to share what we know, to talk about it, to teach it, and actually be a good partner to our vendors as well. We’re kind of in this era where I’m a little bit concerned that there’s finger pointing back and forth about who’s doing what and who’s not doing what. We really need to support one another and be respectful of another. The work is too hard not to share that we’ve learned. So one thing that was a lesson for me is that I couldn’t simply operate in isolation, I needed to build relationships, not burn bridges. It’s a very small world in healthcare IT and I felt like our organization has been a good partner in moving the industry along.
Another area is operational excellence. I think at times we forget that making sure that we run the business in a simple, in-control and predictable manner is really important. Oftentimes we can get too hung up on strategy and projects and forget that we’re really required to run the business in an excellent way. So I spent a lot of time over those two decades making sure that as important as information technology was and that we embedded it in our core clinical processes, I recognized how important it was to make sure that it ran and that it operated. I always wanted to be an organization that was recognized not just for what it did but how it did it. So we constantly look to improve our own performance, run our own process improvement internally, and constantly get better at how we run it.
And finally, one of the things I learned over time as a senior leader is that it’s really important to have your own life in balance. It’s really easy to lose yourself in your work. By learning to figure out how to take care of myself, I became a better leader because I was more authentic, I was more empathetic, and I became someone who modeled the behavior that I would want other future leaders to have. So as time went on, I really recognized that I have to make sure I have my own act together so that in fact I’m modeling that behavior that will actually cause people not to burn out and to have a more complete life other than just life at Northwestern. And that was one that I learned, but learned a little in my career. I wish I’d learn it earlier.
Gamble: I think that that’s a really important point, and something that’s only going to get more important. As the workloads get heavier and there are so many demands on CIOs and other leaders, I think that that’s a really important lesson to be able to have your own life in balance.
Zoph: Yeah, and I think it’s not only important for you and how you will manage the quality of your own life, but if you want to be a leader of others, you have to demonstrate that those things are important. If you don’t model that behavior, people won’t believe that you value that in them. What people want is authentic leadership. They want to know that the qualities that they see in you are the qualities that they ought to want in themselves, and unless you’re willing to walk the talk, give permission, live your life in a way that people recognize that in fact you value your whole life, not just your life at work — it’s very difficult for you to be that kind of leader that people ultimately want to work for.
So when the day is done, I think it’s important for the people that work for you, but it’s important for your own leadership growth. That was kind of my ‘aha moment’ in this, and we actually close every session now at the CIO Boot Camp with a work/life balance session. And that’s not something we had in there at the start of the Boot Camp, but we always would ask people what are we not talking about that we should talk about and this was a topic that kept coming back to us, and so we finally put it into a model and we finally put it into the core curriculum. And it’s one of those things that kept coming back to us, that these leaders were interested in the CIO role, but what they’re not willing to do is sacrifice more of their life to have it. And without giving people the tools and not really talking about it openly and figuring out a way to give them permission to think about this in terms of their own leadership capacity, it just wasn’t happening.
Gamble: It’s understandable though because if you think about all the things that people need to do to get to that point, to get to a leadership position, there’s a lot of pressure. There’s the feeling that you need to be doing all these things and you need to put in the time, but it’s really important to also be told that you have to take care of your own life. And if you don’t do this, the people you work for won’t realize that it’s okay to do it. I think that’s a really great point you made that people are going to emulate what they see.
Zoph: We had students — and I don’t know what the percentage this was of the class — but there were people that were talented and capable who were going to walk away from future leadership including a CIO role because they were concerned that it was further going to rule their life. So if we didn’t actually deal with this, we weren’t going to do the leader development we needed to, because people were not going to take these jobs if it meant that their life — which was already challenged — was going to be more challenged. What they saw in CIOs were people trying to do this job as best as they could, but making all kinds of sacrifices that in their minds may not be worth it. And so we recognized we’ve got to figure out a different way to lead, a different way to provide the tools, a different way to talk about the role in order to have people wanting to aspire to future leadership.
Gamble: When you talk about things like talent development, being a partner in the industry, and operational excellence, it tells me that this really shows just in your time how the role has evolved. And it’s really interesting because you start off one way but I imagine that through the years, you saw how the role had been changing and how it did take on different facets.
Zoph: You start off thinking it’s about the technology, and you really realize it’s about the talent. You think people want you there simply as a technologist, when what they want is really a whole leader. And this notion of being a part of the industry, I think it’s so important. Given how challenging technology is, if you want to be a leading organization and a leader, it’s important that you share and give back. And I never really realized those things all the way up front. I think operational excellence is table stakes; I still think that there’s a lot of work to do, security being at the top of the list where we simply have to do a better job.
What makes or breaks a lot of long-term longevity with CIOs is not really the result of their last project, it’s how they run technology every day. If you can be someone who demonstrates that in fact you have a strong performance scorecard, you’re not going to be gone simply because a technology initiative failed or a project came in over budget or there’s a particular issue. It’s really demonstrating that in fact you have the capability to lead every day.
Michael Earl, a professor who came in and talked to us at the CHIME/HIMSS forum, studied CIO leadership around the world, and he found that the most successful CIOs did what he called delivering a promise versus promising to deliver; that is, those who recognized that their performance ultimately was sealed on how well they did day-to-day, and that if they were trusted to run it day to day, you could make those bigger promises. Those are the ones that stay around.
That always caught me early on, that when the day is done, yes, I’ve got my project work, but I’ve got something really important that now I have put in the hands of caregivers to take care of patients that I’ve got to make sure it’s there every day, because now the business doesn’t run the same way if it’s not. And so, that scale of responsibility around the operational excellence I think just increases as we further drive technology into the core business.