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Leadership

CEOs, top executives share best leadership advice they ever received

Be mindful of where to allocate energy, decide what you can and cannot do and be ready for personal worst-case scenarios — those are just some pieces of advice CEOs and executives say stuck with them over time.

Tom Sullivan | February 18, 2020

“Write a plan for what to do when you get fired.” 

Whereas that may come across as fatalistic, one Executive Vice President of a major payer cited it as the most insightful advice anyone ever shared with her.  

“I worked for a Governor at the time and you could get fired for a headline,” she says. “Often, that made people hesitant to make decisions. So the point the Governor made was ‘okay, now that you have a plan to take action in the event that you get fired, go do your job.’”  

Leadership is about people 
Health Evolution asked more than a dozen leaders about the best advice they ever received. Let’s take a look at the highlights.   

Premier CEO Susan DeVore points to an Ernst & Young partner’s wisdom about how to tell if someone was going to be successful.  

“He said successful people bring energy into the room. They don’t suck air out of it. They don’t dominate the room and they don’t negatively impact the group,’” DeVore says. “I thought that was really good advice and a great skill to have.” 

[See also: CEOs talk top priorities for the next 3-5 years.]  

Leaders including Nancy Schlichting, former CEO of Henry Ford Health System, CareJourney President Aneesh Chopra and CareMore CEO Sachin Jain, MD, credited the individual sources of their inspiration.  

Schlichting, for instance, cites Sam Tibbitts, who was at the American Hospital Association at the time, with words that made an impact.  

“Sam asked why I was in this work. I came up with some ridiculous answer about being interested in health care, and he said ‘No, Nancy, it’s all about the people,’” Schlichting recounts. “That became my mantra throughout my entire career — and that means the people in your organization and patients and caregivers. That was the best advice and it shifted my thinking.” 

Chopra points to Advisory Board Company founder David Bradley for instilling in him a set of values. Chief among those: a spirit of generosity.  

“It brings to life leadership where you hope the person you’re engaging with actually gets more out of the interaction than you do in any experience,” Chopra says. “It speaks to the broader notion of humility and earning the trust and support to lead. I got a lot out of that. The heart of my collaboration model comes from that; the collective body gets better.”  

Jain, meanwhile, names Rick Gilfillan, formerly director of CMMI at CMS and CEO of Trinity Health.  

“Rick used to say every day ‘you have to stay close to your business.’ A lot of people live in this world of strict delegation, but to be an executive the details matter a lot,” Jain says. “I love the big picture, but I’m equally interested in the details because it creates differentiation in outcomes and experience.” 

Simple advice can stay true over time 
The guidance Ochsner CEO Warner Thomas considers imperative?  

“The CEO’s key job is to lead the development of culture, strategy and talent management,” Thomas says.  

David Feinberg, Vice President of Health at Google and former Geisinger Health System CEO, adds that focus and prioritization are key learnings passed along to him as well.  

“The best advice was to focus on very, very few things. One or two at most and drive those. Otherwise you get scattered,” Feinberg says. “That served me well at all of my organizations. It’s been very helpful.”  

Carilion Clinic CEO Nancy Howell Agee considers two distinct but related thoughts among the most personally-influential she has received.  

“The best advice is to say yes to the opportunities, lean in, raise your hand,” Agee explains. “And there’s a difference between doing what’s easy and doing the right thing. Sometimes the right things are hard.” 

Indeed, just knowing the right things to do can be hard in and of itself.  

“The best advice was that ‘when people tell you that you can’t do something what they really mean is they can’t do it,’” says Rushika Fernandopulle, MD, of Iora Health. “You need to decide for yourself if you can do it or not.”  

Don’t be the smartest one on your team   
Most of the executives we interviewed point to the ability to practice humility and servant leadership as keys critical to their success.  

“Remain vulnerable and make sure you’re never the smartest person in the room,” says Robert Sundelius, COO of Ascension Medical Group in the Michigan Market.  

Serving other people, in fact, is what being a top executive is all about, according to ProMedica CEO Randy Oostra.   

“We’re always going to be incomplete leaders. We’ve all gotten opportunities,” Oostra said. “Never feel it’s something we deserve, we’re very fortunate in life.”  

About that plan for getting fired …  
In addition to servant leadership, listening to others, appreciating the responsibility and pressures that accompany the CEO post, knowing where best to focus and understanding your own strengths and limitations, it’s also important to recognize that there are no guarantees the job itself will last as long as you hope.    

The payer EVP said that crafting a plan for what to do when you get fired came in handy recently.  

“It just so happens I needed it myself. I was terminated so I had to use my own advice — and it has been very helpful as I followed my plan,” she says. “It was priceless. It’s kept me confident in my skills, calm in my heart and reasoned in my head and approach.”  

The personal strategy should include the following elements: How long can you survive on the money you have without a salary? How long will you allow yourself to be upset? Who or how will you update your resume and social media channels in the meantime so they are ready when it happens? And who is the first person you will call when it does?    

“Know your story,” she adds, “document it well and concisely.” 

Health Evolution Senior Manager of Digital Content Gabriel Perna contributed to this article. 

 

About the Author

Tom Sullivan, EVP & Editor-in-Chief of Digital Content

Tom Sullivan brings more than two decades in editing and journalism experience to Health Evolution. Sullivan most recently served as Editor-in-Chief at HIMSS, leading Healthcare IT News, Health Finance, MobiHealthNews. Prior to HIMSS Media, Sullivan was News Editor of IDG’s InfoWorld, directing a dozen reporters’ coverage for the weekly print publication and daily website.