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“Be Nice”: Who Knew??

May 16, 2012
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Drex DeFord’s words to live by include some very motivational thoughts
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Last Tuesday, May 8, Drexel DeFord offered Healthcare Informatics Executive Summit attendees a refreshingly self-effacing, totally engaged statement of his philosophy, in his closing keynote address. DeFord, the senior vice president and CIO at Seattle Children’s Hospital, and the current chairman of the board of CHIME (the Ann Arbor, Mich.-based College of Healthcare Information Management Executives).

Under the overall title, “What I Believe,” DeFord shared his philosophy of management and leadership with the assembled audience. When Drex very graciously accepted my offer to be our closing keynote speaker, he asked me what our audience might like to hear from him. I told him to talk about what moved him most. And as it turns out, motivating people to do the right things moves him most. Drex shared with the audience some of his early experiences as a college student and as an Air Force officer, in a style of presentation that was disarmingly humble and straightforward. And what really caught my attention was this statement, made very early on in his address: “’Be nice’ is the first rule, and the second rule is, if you have to be ‘not-nice,’ make sure to keep it from becoming personal, and don’t escalate.”

Drex DeFord

Now, how many public speakers have you heard who have said something like that? I haven’t heard many. Sure, some speakers talk about being collaborative, about marshalling multidisciplinary teams. But Drex really does believe in the power of niceness—not in the sense of being a rubber-like, squishy pushover, of course, but rather, in the sense of offering one’s goodwill and sincere effort to all those front-line clinicians and staff members, clinician leaders, and executives with whom every IT professional needs to interact regularly. In other words, it’s not about being fierce; rather, it’s about how one engages.

What’s more, Drex told his audience, “I tell my staff all the time, less Superman, more Clark Kent.” In other words, it’s not so much the occasional moments of “heroic rescue” that will get all your organization’s stakeholders to embrace your IT team, but rather, the day-in-day-out display of cool competence and skilled professionalism that will turn those stakeholders into partners—and allies.

What was very clear to me is that Drex naturally embodies the characteristics of the type of senior executive who is desperately needed in today’s healthcare, and who has been called—by now, in rather an overdone way—the “servant-leader.” What’s great is that Drex avoids such clichés, and instead focuses on what he believes is most important.

I was particularly taken with this statement of his: “Be prepared to get comfortable with your ‘uncomfortable-ness.’ The only way to grow professionally and personally is to get outside your comfort zone as often as you can.” Charmingly, he added, “I believe ‘Semper Gumby’—always flexible—is the unwritten motto of every excellent information services organization.” In fact, Drex revealed, he hands out green Gumby figures to IS team members whom he judges to be particularly flexible.

Importantly, Drex not only talks the talk on all this, he walks the walk. “Amazing efforts have to go into gathering, analyzing, reporting, and visualizing data,” Drex told his audience. And, “After a career built on the belief that ‘centralization’ is the best model to drive standardization, I do believe decentralization is the best approach to date.” He said that, “At first, I thought giving data to end-users was like handing loaded Uzis to a bus-full of monkeys, but I’ve changed my mind.” In other words, engaging the stakeholders of IT services means trusting them enough to bring them into the data management process in a meaningful way.

What Drex sees clearly is a future in which all those working for and in patient care organizations will need to work very hard in a very sustained and collaborative way in order to bring patients and communities the highest-quality, safest, most efficient, most cost-effective patient care possible, and to provide the purchasers and payers of healthcare with the most transparent and accountable results. Getting stakeholders fully engaged, and keeping them fully engaged, will be essential to the success of every CIO and healthcare IT leader. And yes, it all begins with being nice.