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Voice of Reason

August 31, 2009
by Tim Tolan
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Honest communication can help keep staff grounded, focused and inspired through difficult times

Many candidates that have contacted me over the past few months seem to have a lot in common. Each sounds a lot like the last; I hear a universal tone of fear that projects loudly over the phone. Usually, in 30 seconds or less, I can tell which direction the conversation will take. The candidates all share the same concerns about their future, their job and their families. They are establishing a safety net by calling me, just in case the other shoe drops. Why? The reasons vary for each individual situation.

One common thread is they don't know what's happening in their organization. In many cases, their leader is radio silent about the state of the company. That's dangerous. Without information, people develop their own version of reality. This problem is replayed daily in the HIT marketplace, and every other vertical across the country, paralyzing the workforce and killing the organization's productivity.

As CIO, you can't change the current economic situation, but you can make choices on how to communicate with the troops and provide the leadership they need and deserve. Here are a few key suggestions on how to demonstrate your leadership in tough times:

Stay positive - I don't mean you have to sell sunshine every day. However, your team listens to every word you speak, and if your message is fear-based or negative, you will send the entire team in a downward spiral. Fear will spread like wildfire and you will spend more time trying to calm the storm and less time leading and delivering value to your employees and the organization. Develop ways to communicate good news on projects that have been completed or share news when something good has happened. You shouldn't have to look far to find good news to share.

Be honest - Don't make promises you can't keep, and be honest with your team. This includes explaining why certain cost reduction measures have been taken. Everyone is trimming their own personal budgets until the market turns, and in most cases your employees will understand. If you are uncertain about the need to reduce headcount, don't promise there won't be additional cuts in staff or reduced hours. Once you lose their trust, it's game over. Your word means everything.

Communicate - In a world full of unknowns, this is not the time to limit communications with your team members. They are hungry for feedback and assurance. If you don't communicate enough, implement a plan today to do so. Schedule weekly meetings to talk openly with your staff about what's on their minds. Ask team leaders to participate in meetings and give them a chance to provide updates on major projects. Share good news.

Take the team to a ball game, invite them to a weekend cookout or sponsor some event outside of work to let them blow off steam. Start an informal group lunch every few weeks to spend more time one-on-one with your employees. In a couple of months you will learn more about what is going on in each of their lives, and they will get to know you much better as well. Have an agenda that mostly involves listening to what's on their minds.

Lead by example - Like it or not, your team watches every single move you make. Leave early, show up late for meetings or other critical appointments, and the rumor mills instantly kick into high gear. Instead, make sure you never miss a planned meeting or important activity with your team. Spring into action and roll up your sleeves. Engage in a few projects with your team so that members can see you in battle. Let others drive the project while you help provide feedback, ideas, inspiration and leadership. They need inspiration in these times, and they need you.

This is the time when great leaders demonstrate real leadership. This is your time to lead.

Tim Tolan is senior partner at Sanford Rose Associates Healthcare IT Practice. Tolan can be reached at, or at 843-579-3077, x 301. His blog can be found at /contributors/tim-tolan.
Healthcare Informatics 2009 September;26(9):54