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At iHT2-Seattle: Leadership, Culture as Keys to the Success of IT and Innovation

August 18, 2016
by Mark Hagland
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Suzanne Anderson and Sajid Ahmed offered their perspectives on the relationship between leadership and IT and organizational innovation

Technology is important, but the bottom line when it comes to success in any strategic IT endeavor really boils down to culture and leadership, two senior provider executives told their audience on August 17 at the Health IT Summit in Seattle, sponsored by the Institute for Health Technology Transformation (iHT2—a sister organization to Healthcare Informatics under the Vendome Group, LLC umbrella).

Suzanne Anderson, president of the Virginia Mason Health System (VMHS, Seattle), and Sajid Ahmed, chief information and innovation officer (CIIO) at the Martin Luther King Jr. Los Angeles Healthcare Corporation, both presented on topics related to leadership and innovation on Wednesday, at the Seattle Marriott Waterfront Hotel.

Anderson, who became the Virginia Mason Health System’s president on June 1, after serving as CIO and CFO of that academic medical center, spoke first, on the topic, “A Leadership Journey: Different Paths to Different Levels.”

“There are two different ways people get into senior leadership positions,” Anderson said. “One is that you take on a variety of positions and eventually are promoted. The other way is, in the IT world, you work your way up in a very technical way, through technical positions. I was CIO before president,” she said. “But am not technical. I started with a B.A. in English. So that tells you exactly how I ended up in IT, right?” she chuckled. “I got an MBA. Then I ended up in consulting. I knew that I wanted to continue to learn and move around. So I answered an ad in a paper, and joined a consulting firm. My mom was a nurse; that had been my only healthcare connection.” But, over the years, she said, she inevitably did learn a great deal about health IT, from the strategic, implementational, and process standpoints. And it was that broader understanding of systems of processes in hospital operations that led her to be a strong CIO and CFO before ascending to the president position, she emphasized; indeed, it was her strategic background and experience that led VMHS chairman and CEO Gary Kaplan, M.D. to bring her into the president role in the organization.

After asking for shows of hands from the audience of who was in technical IT positions and who wanted to ascend to organization-wide leadership positions, Anderson said that anyone who has a technical background in IT and wants to reach the CIO position or a similar position, needs to develop broader leadership and interpersonal skills, and above all must be able to convey what may be technical information, in very broadly understandable ways that can persuade diverse audiences within their organization.

Suzanne Anderson speaking at iHT2-Seattle on Wednesday

In that context, Anderson offered ten pieces of career advice. Among them, she said, “Learn to hate the interview question, ‘What do you want to be doing in five years’! I hated this!” she exclaimed. Speaking of the early years of her career, she said, “II knew I wanted to do meaningful work, but didn’t have my career path prescribed for the next 20 years. Be more flexible. I think particularly in the IT world, where our technology is changing so rapidly, that as people change careers, and as you mentor people, flexibility is so important,” she said. “I never imagined that this is where I would be, 30 years ago. But I kind of like my circuitous route,” she added.

The key point, Anderson emphasized, is that it is the broader skills that will get an individual to the higher end of the professional ladder with a patient care organization, not the technical ones. In that regard, she said, “Understand how IT fits into whatever your organizational culture is. We spend 5 or 6 percent of our budget on IT, which is a lot. So, understanding how IT fits, but also how we can balance our IT needs with the other needs of the organization”—both of those are essential capabilities of anyone moving into senior IT leadership positions in patient care organizations she said.

Indeed, in that regard, Anderson said, “This one’s really important: what gets you to a middle management role in the IT world is not what gets you to senior management overall; it’s necessary but not sufficient.” In fact, she said, “I have conversations every day with leaders who are no longer middle management, but not quite senior management. And I say, you do a great technical job; a great job getting your teams aligned, and working out budgetary issues, etc. But what I really need for you to do in this case is to think about the organization as a whole, not your area; to think about how your words are perceived by your peers, because you have to work with others on this project; and for you to really understand those more general leadership competencies. Unfortunately in IT, we’re such a technical field that this isn’t necessarily what people have been educated on, or what you’ve worked on in your career, because you’ve been rewarded for layers of technical competence,” she said.

In the end, Anderson said, some of the traits most important to senior leadership in healthcare organizations have nothing to do with more technical competence and skills. Those skill sets related to potential success in executive leadership, she said, include “people and relationships; vision with an executable plan; balancing competing priorities; and, yes, keeping calm under pressure. One of the first things I really look for in people” who might be equipped to assume senior executive roles, she said, “is how good they are in people relationships, as well as not only how much strategy they have, but how they can execute on that strategy.”