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The Secrets of Successful CIOs

October 1, 2006
by root
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Top CIOs talk about what it takes to lead so others want to follow.

The secret's out. Leading healthcare CIOs don't just rise to the top because of luck. They do so through effective management and skilled communication. And while savvy CIOs make huge decisions about implementing technology, technical savvy is not enough.

"The days of the bits and bytes person are gone," says Judy Kirby, president and owner of Snelling Executive Search in Altamonte Springs, Fla. "They have to understand technology, but they need to rise above it." In addition to basic IT know-how, healthcare CIOs need business, clinical, leadership, administrative and, most importantly, communication skills.

For healthcare CIOs to distinguish themselves, they need to be "people who kind of 'get it' from the business of IT — from the budgeting, the measurement, the communication skills," says Glenn Galloway, CEO and co-founder of Healthia Consulting in Minneapolis. "You know, the up, the down, the all-around."Stephanie reel

According to Stephanie Reel, CIO and vice provost for IT at Baltimore's Johns Hopkins University and vice president for IS for Johns Hopkins Medicine, it's really not complicated. "It all boils down to basic behaviors," she says. "The one single thing that seems to rise above the rest is communication." After all, "You can teach people the technical aspects of the job, but if they don't have the core, that's what matters." For Reel, that core means making sure people are talking to each other and listening to customers.

Breaking in and breaking bread

When Reel first joined Johns Hopkins, she learned of a group of physicians that held a monthly dinner to discuss the department. Interested in being included, Reel asked if she could join them. However, instead of an, "Of course, we'd be delighted," Reel got more of a, "Sorry, no."Tim stettheimer

Reel didn't give up. She proposed an exchange: a dinner invitation for her picking up the tab. Twelve years later, the rest is history. When it comes to strategic planning, Reel says she doesn't have a silver bullet. What she does have, though, is a monthly Tuesday night dinner group headed by the chair of anesthesiology to help. "We talk about what's important. We review ideas about new technology, and we walk out with a great sense of what the institution needs."Drexel deford

For Vincent Caponi, CEO of St. Vincent Health in Indianapolis, Ind., communication comes more in the form of interpretation and translation. "At least in healthcare, a CIO has to be pretty diverse and play both sides of the equation," he says, emphasizing the CIO spot as being a conduit at the healthcare table. A successful executive, he says, is the "face that sits down with all these clinical people and understands what they need."

At St. Vincent's Hospital in Birmingham, Ala., that face is Tim Stettheimer's. To Stettheimer, who came to IT after leaving a Ph.D. clinical psychology program, communication is scalable and must be adjusted accordingly. It's not for only one type of venue, he says. Communication needs to be for the "one-on-one, the crowds, the board room." It's even important at the Pentagon where Drexel DeFord worked prior to becoming CIO of San Diego-based Scripps Health. DeFord insists that CIOs must be excellent storytellers, armed with insightful analogies, as they are the "interface between the briefcases and the pocket-protectors."

Jane Maskus, CIO of Lawrence Memorial Hospital, Lawrence, Kan., is focused on linguistic style. So much so, that she insists staff "lose the technical jargon" before they speak to other departments, like clinical or financial. Maskus is quick not to let employees hide behind language or specialization. She says she doesn't "let clinical say, 'Oh, that's too technical,' or technical say, 'Oh, that's too clinical.’” By inviting departments into meetings when initiatives are affecting them, Maskus fosters an environment conducive to conversation. Simply put, she says, "I make them all sit in the same room together."

Comfortable shoes

Galloway has an on-foot approach to management and communication that he used when he was acting, through a consulting firm, as CIO at Children's Hospitals and Clinics in Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minn. There, he managed the workings of the hospital by making sure he was out in it. He says he misses seeing kids being hauled around in wagons, walking past the statue of Big Bird, and doing rounds with doctors and nurses. "Eventually, people get to know you and eventually learn that you're not just living in the IT glass house."

DeFord, too, manages out in the field. DeFord, who served in the Air Force for two decades, spends a lot of time walking around Scripps Health during off-hours. Since the number of people DeFord can speak to during daytime working hours is limited, he walks around the hospital at 1 a.m., asking nurses about their IT problems and concerns. "Dropping by the data center and the nursing stations in the middle of the night, you find out a lot of things that are going on that you wouldn't otherwise know about," he says. "You'll find out about changes in staff, new leadership and projects. Sometimes, it's an early warning system."