So much of what IT organizations do – what leaders do to help remove barriers – is about processes. In fact, it’s second nature for IT folks to look at things in a consequential matter. Much of troubleshooting is rooted in knowing what steps to take to remedy a certain situation.
“Everything we do is a process,” says Nicholas Szymanski, who recently took on the CIO role at Richmond University Medical Center. That mindset enables teams to break a problem down, take a step back, and ask why it’s happening.
It’s a philosophy that has served him well, both with his current organization and in past lives. But it can’t happen unless leadership has established a rapport with individuals at all levels, and built trust. In this interview, Szymanski talks about how his team is working toward the ultimate goal of a unified platform, what they do instead of saying ‘no,’ and why he hates the word ‘interface.’ He also discusses what it was like to be RUMC’s first CIO, the importance of transparency, and why he’ll always be a sponge.
- Creating relationships – “It’s probably the most important thing you need to do.”
- Credibility in leadership
- “When you say you’re going to do something, do it.”
- Background in finance and network engineering
- Process improvement & the importance of “fine-tuning each little piece.”
- Answering the most important question: why
- Value of listening: “You start to see why they feel so passionately.”
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If you don’t have solid relationships with the rest of the team, you’re not going to be able to do much. In this role, the output you’re able to generate is much different than if you were an analyst or a tech specialist. I need buy-in from people.
When you say you’re going to do something, make sure you do it. If you do that, you’ll gain credibility immediately.
I think it comes naturally to most folks in IT, because we look at things in that manner. We look at things as a process: ‘I know if I do A, B is going to happen, and if B happens, C should happen.’ We do that with troubleshooting. Everything we do is a process.
It’s not one big swipe of the magic wand. It’s being able to look at something in a different way. I think it takes a certain type of person and a certain type of training to be able to sit back and dissect something into the core components and then say, ‘Okay, this is where the focus should be.’
There are going to be times where you might just have a difference in opinion, and that’s fine. Sometimes those are the healthiest conversations.
Gamble: You talked about the CIO’s role in clearing hurdles. That lends into another area, which is establishing relationships with other leaders. How did you approach that when you started the role, and how has it evolved?
Szymanski: Yes. This is probably my favorite topic to talk about. I would tell anyone new to the role that establishing relationships is probably the most important thing you need to do. The reason I say this is, if you don’t have solid relationships with the rest of the team, you’re not going to be able to do much. In this role, the output you’re able to generate is much different than if you were an analyst or a tech specialist. I need buy-in from people, because we’re ultimately trying to complete some type of strategic initiative or major implementation, which I’m obviously now going to do myself.
If you don’t have those relationships, that’s not going to happen. Instead, you’re going to be viewed as a poor leader, and ultimately you’re just not going to be part of the team. Now the organization suffers as well because a team member is out of the loop.
This is where I was fortunate having worked here prior. I knew the players. I didn’t work with them at the same level or converse with them at the same level I do now, but that relationship — or at least, the foundational pieces of it — was already there. We had talked. They knew who I was, and so it didn’t take much to build on it.
I will say this, though. In order to build those relationships, it goes back to a few things I mentioned. One is being transparent and managing expectations. And I can’t stress this enough — when you say you’re going to do something, make sure you do it. If you do that, you’ll gain credibility immediately. In the very early stages, meaning the first few months, it’s critical that you do these things well; when you do, people develop trust in you, and that helps build strong relationships. Otherwise, you’re not going to go anywhere. If you have half the team against you, and they don’t buy into what you say, you’re not going to get anywhere.
My position was unique in that I had previous relationships with the folks here, and although it was on a different level, it was easy to build from there. I knew the culture; the do’s and don’ts.
Gamble: That certainly helps, I’m sure. Now, when you started with the organization, you were a financial analyst.
Szymanski: Yes, supporting the financial component of the EMR.
Gamble: I can imagine that experience and that knowledge has paid off.
Szymanski: Yes, definitely. I was very fortunate, now that I look back on it, to have come up that path, because even at that point, I knew the basics of the financial department — what they look at and what’s important to them. Early on, I really tried to be a sponge, and I continue to do that. It’s about asking questions, listening, and trying to understand why we’re looking at this; what’s the impact if X is compared with Y. I did that early on, and got a good basic understanding of what the department was looking at, and tied it into my schooling. I studied network engineering in college and learned the technical components and the fundamentals, and so the financial analyst role was a good blend for me.
And as I moved along in my career, my lens of IT and the business widened. I didn’t just know infrastructure and nothing else; I was able to get a good grasp of a lot of areas, which has been very beneficial. The lesson there, and I’ll say this to anyone who will listen, is to be an absolute sponge and ask a million questions. I was fortunate enough to have people that were willing to answer my questions. It’s very important.
Gamble: Sure. I also wanted to talk about something I saw on your LinkedIn profile, which is process improvement. It’s interesting to me, because it seems like an area where you’re not necessarily making sweeping changes; you’re making seemingly small changes that can make a difference. Can you talk about what you’ve learned in that area?
Szymanski: I could probably spend a week on this topic. It’s very interesting to me, because when I speak with family and friends about IT, they’ll say, ‘wow, that’s got to be so challenging.’ Obviously it is, but a lot of what we do on a daily basis are processes. That’s grossly simplifying it, but I think it comes naturally to most folks in IT, because we look at things in that manner. We look at things as a process: ‘I know if I do A, B is going to happen, and if B happens, C should happen.’ We do that with troubleshooting. Everything we do is a process, and we know what the expected output should be.
Having that viewpoint ingrained in your own behavior and in how you approach things, especially coming from IT, actually pays a lot of dividends and benefits in jumping into other areas. In my experience, because the CIO wasn’t really defined, I was afforded the opportunity to bounce into other areas.
One of those is a length of stay committee, which is also a process. A patient is discharged, then there’s a new admission. That patient has to go up on the floor, the bed has to be cleared — there are all these steps. Having that viewpoint to be able to break things down to the basics and then tie them together really allows you to take a step back and ask, ‘Why is this taking so long’ or ‘Why is there such a gap between steps 3 and 4,’ and dive right into that. Let’s look at this — why is it happening?
To your point, it’s not a sweeping change where you’re throwing the whole process upside down. You’re fine-tuning each little piece, and at the end of the day, that might translate into a big outcome. But it’s not one big swipe of the magic wand. It’s being able to look at something in a different way. I think it takes a certain type of person and a certain type of training to be able to sit back and dissect something into the core components and then say, ‘Okay, this is where the focus should be.’
And we do that daily in IT, right? We have SLAs on almost everything. How long does it take to close our tickets? We monitor that. We have KPIs for everything. With the switchboard, for example, how long does it take to answer calls? How many abandoned calls do we have, and why? And that’s the natural question: why? If we see a spike, why is that happening? So much of what we do — almost everything that we do, I feel — is a process. That’s the executive summary, from my standpoint.
Gamble: Very interesting. The last thing I would ask is, having gone through what you did, what type of advice would you offer to someone who is started the CIO role? Is there anything you wish you would’ve known?
Szymanski: Yes, actually. I’ve been fortunate to have some friends who are new to the role themselves, and it goes right back to building relationships. I came into it knowing that was something I wanted to do. In my head I had said, ‘That’s really important,’ obviously not experiencing it. But being in the role for that year and a half has really solidified just how important that is. That is what’s most important.
Would I have done something totally different? No, but it really reaffirmed just how important that is. It is so critical to build the trust with the team — and not just the executive team, but your own team. You need to build that trust and maintain it. It’s not as though you establish that relationship and you’re going to knock out of the park for however long you’re there. You’ve got to maintain it, and that comes with struggles.
The other piece I’ve learned is that it’s okay to have a tough conversation with someone. If you have someone saying, ‘I don’t want to do this and you’re not going to convince me otherwise,’ you have to stick to your beliefs and explain what happens if we don’t do that. You have to be a translator of IT. Leaders from other departments don’t know protocols, and they shouldn’t. That’s no their role. It’s my role to know that, and to be able to convey it into, ‘If we don’t do X, Y, Z, here’s the impact to you. Here’s why it’s important.’
You have to have those tough discussions, and you can’t take it personally. There’s going to be a time when you’re not going to see eye-to-eye on certain things, and so you have to know how to pick your spots. You have to know when to really go full throttle for something, and when to say, ‘Okay, I’ll back off on this one, but if there comes a time where I need X, Y, Z, I’m going to need your support.’ That’s been a big piece that I’ve learned.
Gamble: Right. I think the instinct for many people when starting a new role — especially a leadership role — is not to have to rely on others. You want to go in there and show that you’re capable, but I think it’s so important to be able to lean on other people and really establish that trust right from the start.
Szymanski: For sure. Those relationships help you facilitate what you’re trying to carry out, and also what other teams may be carrying out. But again, there are going to be times where you might just have a difference in opinion, and that’s fine. Sometimes those are the healthiest conversations. Obviously everyone has a different style, but I’ve learned so much by just sitting there and listening to people argue why we should or shouldn’t do something. When you listen, you can see why they feel so passionately, and you start to understand where they’re coming from and why they might get defensive. They don’t see that A, B, C would actually solve that.’
A subset of that would be to not act so instinctively and say, ‘You have to listen to me on this.’ Sit back. Be the calm, cool, collected one. Listen, hear, and understand where they’re coming from, because they actually might be giving you the answer that you need in order to get to where you want to go. That’s really big. We’ve all seen people who react very quickly, but if you sit back and listen, you can find a middle ground.
Gamble: Definitely. Well, I could certainly talk to you for longer but I think that about wraps things up. Thank you so much for your time. I really appreciate it.
Szymanski: Thank you for the opportunity. It was a pleasure speaking with you.
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