It is a truth universally acknowledged among clinical professionals that neuro- and cardiac surgeons will likely be egomaniacs and narcissists. How ironic then, that the key to successful leadership in healthcare services businesses is a perfect balance of head and heart.
Healthcare operators and managers are often denounced as lacking in commerciality – all heart and no head – and their home-grown leaders as replicating that approach on a dangerously large scale. We regularly see new brooms brought in from outside sector, only to find that their relative lack of empathy and hard-nosed commerciality make for organ rejection (last one, I promise) by their healthcare lifer colleagues.
So, is the reputation of the healthcare services sector as uncommercial and slow-moving justified? Is it truly hamstrung by clinician ego; disregard for cost in the interests of outstanding regulatory and clinical standards; and a lack of savviness around customer service as opposed to patient need? And if yes, can anything be done to save the sector?
Well, to an extent, yes, the reputation is justified. And, on reflection, we should not be surprised. This is a sector often motivated by vocation, filled with people who engage because they have a deep sense of purpose and of duty, a compulsion to use their skills to save and enhance the lives of others. Their teaching and training from the very beginning puts caring first. Further, the vast majority of medics and their support staff, in the UK especially, have been trained in the NHS; their intrinsic attitudes and behaviours have been forged in an organisation that, whilst noble in its aims and of extreme value to the nation, is non-profit making, and – for many years now – has been sinking further into deficit. In terms of the focus on clinical quality over peripheral customer service or balancing the books, it is inevitable and – let’s face it – we wouldn’t want our clinical specialists to come at their jobs from any other perspective. But we do need to create systems and commercial support structures, both in terms of human capital and technology, that allow clinicians to do their best work within commercial parameters.
The finest leaders I have seen in the healthcare services sector – and there are many, and that number is growing, especially as healthcare organisations invest in their HR functions, in better organisational design, succession planning, and development – do certainly have a sense of vocation, an empathy, and a humility about the organisations they are joining and the people they are there to enable. They respect absolutely the clinical and support staff who do jobs that the rest of us could not or would not do. But they are mindful of the bottom line, flexible and long term in their thinking, and they create a clear commercial framework to inform day to day financial and operational decisions within a compelling, vocational message. They communicate clearly and effectively that care will be better and more sustainable if it is delivered in an efficient and cost-effective way. The message is not that we want to spend less and cut corners, but that we want to spend wisely and make what we have go further.
How do we save the healthcare services sector from too much heart, or – if as the costs continue to mount – the resulting swing towards too much head? We invest in the leaders who demonstrate both. They are out there, and they are our best hope of changing the system, and of saving lives. It’s actually not brain surgery.