“You can’t understand someone until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes.”
It’s a saying that’s been quoted and revised so many times that it’s not attributable anymore. It is, however, applicable, particularly in healthcare.
For John Henderson, it wasn’t a particular individual, but rather an entire department that drew criticism from him until he achieved a better understanding of what they did. “I was tough on infrastructure teams when I didn’t have responsibility for them,” he said during a recent interview. Once he had the opportunity to run the team, Henderson developed “a completely different appreciation for what they do and how challenging and difficult it is.”
That humility and awareness has served Henderson well during his career, particularly since he assumed the CIO role at CHOC Children’s more than three years ago. In this interview, he talks about how his team is working to deliver the “Disneyland experience” across the enterprise, how they’ve adjusted to the challenges stemming from Covid-19, what he learned from Myra Davis, and the question leaders should constantly be asking.
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- When he began as CIO at CHOC Children’s, John Henderson made it a point to sit down and meet with physician leadership, executive teams, and direct reports on what they believe IT is doing well, and what needs improvement.
- Having the opportunity to run day-to-day operations of the IT department at Texas Children’s put Henderson “in a position to be successful no matter where I went,” something he credits to his mentor, Myra Davis.
- A critical lesson learned: don’t underestimate the value of infrastructure teams, and the myriad challenges they face in dealing with such “nuanced” systems.
- Now more than ever, rounding is so critical. “A lot of times from an IT perspective you can get disconnected from the mission, what you’re actually here to do.”
Q&A with John Henderson, Part 2 [Click here for Part 1]
Gamble: When you stepped into the role, what was your approach in getting to know the people and the organization, and looking at priorities?
Henderson: My approach was to sit down and meet with all of physician leadership, all of the executive team, and even some of their direct reports to get a sense of what they thought was important. How do they perceive IT at CHOC? What are the positives? And if there are things that you feel do not work and have not been working, I definitely want to hear that. I said, ‘don’t feel like you have to sugarcoat those things.’ I think getting that input was really important.
From a priority perspective, CHOC has a fairly solid strategic planning process. I had a pretty clear understanding of what the top-line priorities were; what wasn’t as clear were the underlying initiatives that supported them. And so, having those meetings help me understand what each executive was thinking about, and what they felt was important in supporting some of those strategies.
The other part of the process was meeting with each member of the IT organization. That was really important because it allowed me to marry what leadership was saying across the organization, with what the folks who do day-to-day support were saying, and tie together any common themes and/or see the disconnects.
Gamble: I can’t imagine it was easy stepping into your first CIO role. Was there anyone you reached out to for advice?
Henderson: Yes, Myra Davis, the CIO who I reported to when I was with Texas Children’s Hospital. We have a fantastic relationship. I like to say that I had the best possible experience to transition to a CIO role. The way Myra allowed me to run the day-to-day operations of IT put me in a position to be successful no matter where I went. Because she gave me the opportunity to run the day-to-day, coming into this role felt natural. I didn’t feel overwhelmed by it. It felt natural. It felt like an extension of what I was doing in Texas. We had agreed that we would talk every other Thursday once I accepted the position here, and we still do that. Any time I have questions or need advice on how to approach a scenario, we have that scheduled time to through those things.
Gamble: During your time at Texas Children’s, you held a few different roles. Do you believe the experience you had helped prepare you for the role?
Henderson: Absolutely. I was fortunate to serve in a variety of roles. Having the ability to lead just about every single group within an IT organization gives you so much perspective; not the perspective of the outside looking in, but the real perspective. I’ll tell you quite candidly, I was extremely hard on infrastructure teams when I didn’t have responsibility for them. Once I had the opportunity to run the infrastructure teams, I had a completely different appreciation for what those teams do and how challenging it is. It didn’t change my expectations, because I always have high expectations. But my appreciation completely changed; not quite a 180, but pretty close to it.
From an IT perspective, one thing missing in a lot of scenarios is that you don’t get the opportunity to move around and run different organizations in order to really get a good understanding. The fact that I was able to do that positioned me well to lead an organization.
Gamble: I’m sure that could be said for a lot of different areas, especially infrastructure. It’s a pretty nuanced as far as the skillset and what needs to be done.
Henderson: Absolutely. The people who are responsible for keeping your networks up and running have to understand not only the equipment and the gear, but also the code involved.
Things are better now, but in a lot of infrastructure areas, there was still a lot of command line language and programming being done. I’m not talking about 15, 20 years ago; I’m talking about last few years. There’s still a few where you still have to do some of that. That’s a lot of pressure that those guys have to bear because a simple keying mistake can bring the entire network down.
When you think about application delivery, you can build custom applications all day long. If you’re mature, you’re going to go through a rigorous process of developing code and testing it before you move it into production. And you might have some performance problems or something might not work quite right, but it’s not going to bring the entire application down and render your whole organization unavailable. It’s a very different impact.
There are all these different things that folks who run and support the infrastructure have to deal with. It’s very nuanced, and in a lot of cases, very complicated. Most people don’t see what actually has to be done to keep your infrastructure up and running to make things available and resilient.
Gamble: Right. It seems like that was great experience. Are there other things you think are important to those who are looking to step into leadership roles?
Henderson: Sure. If you’re thinking about moving into a leadership role, one of the most important things to consider is how you engage and communicate with the people you currently work with — whether that’s your peers or people who are at a higher level — and thinking about that from the context of what you understand and know about these individuals, their styles, and their personalities. That’s going to help you communicate with them in a way that they’re going to hear and in a way that’s going to resonate.
That element is so important and critical. I don’t know that there’s a lot of education around that aspect of leadership. I think that’s critically important for anyone thinking about it.
I was a substitute teacher before I graduated, and it was the hardest job I’ve ever had my life. It was a middle school, and what that taught me is those kids are all different. I taught at two primary schools. One was one of the most affluent schools in Houston, and the other was one of the most economically disenfranchised schools in the district. The one common denominator is that all of the kids wanted to learn. They all wanted to learn, but the environment was very different, and everyone’s personality was not the same. What I took away from that and is I had to talk to them each individually and I had to recognize who could take very stern feedback versus who could not. That really helped me as I moved into leadership roles, and it has helped drive my philosophy. You treat everyone fairly, but everyone isn’t the same — their personalities and what motivates them are not the same. And so you have to take the opportunity to understand those things and understanding how they like to be communicated with so that you can effectively engage with them.
That’s one of the most important things when you’re trying to get people to buy off on your strategy. No matter who the individual is, you have to take the time to understand that if you want to be really effective, and if you want people to follow your vision, gravitate toward it, and feel connected to it.
Gamble: One thing we consistently hear is that it’s so important to be able to tie the mission of IS to patient care. How are you approaching that at CHOC?
Henderson: As a leadership team, we created a signature which is focused on, how do we want people to experience us? How do we want our patients, our clinicians, and our IT workforce to experience us? We want that experience to focus on excellence, service and value. If people walked away from us and someone asked them about their experience, we want them to be evoke those three elements. From a pediatrics’ perspective, I feel like it’s so easy to get behind the mission of pediatrics — who doesn’t want to serve children and help them get healthy and well? That’s important.
The other key element to that is rounding. One thing we do, from a philosophy perspective, is have our teams round in the hospital. Now, we can’t do it in the way that we have grown accustomed to in the pandemic. So what we’re doing, at least from a physician and nursing perspective, is virtual rounds. We have virtual tech talks with physicians. We have designated office hours, and then can come in if they have questions about anything or if they need help. We have a team of folks on those virtual calls to help them.
We’re doing that aspect of it, but the rounding piece is so critical. A lot of times from an IT perspective you can get disconnected from the mission, what we’re actually here to do. I think also because we don’t have the ability to round in-person today, we do what we call ‘mission moments’ where members of the leadership team try to articulate a story about some work we’re doing in a particular area — what the impact is to the patient and how it’s either going to help the patient or help the care delivery process to keep those connections to the mission and to the patients we’re serving so we don’t lose that.
Gamble: Great. Well, that covers what I wanted to ask. I really appreciate your time. Thanks so much!
Henderson: My pleasure.