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GUEST BLOG: Top Three Skills Healthcare Leaders Will Need in 2014

January 15, 2014
by Pamela Dixon and Steve Nilsen
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‘Synaptic leaders,’ those who understand how to embrace and lead change will be in the greatest demand in 2014

One thing became clear in 2013: all leaders across the health system have been challenged to keep pace with change, and the best of them have been driving change.  In a year of active mergers and acquisitions, most of our clients voiced a need for leadership that can facilitate change across complex organizations. At the same time, all organizations are keenly aware of the M&A climate, and that awareness is part of what is fueling a demand for a new type of leadership.

We were struck by how key healthcare leadership roles have changed, from the chief information officer to the chief medical officer. We have seen new leadership dyads emerge, such as the chief information officer and chief medical information officer; and we have seen new roles emerge, such as the chief accountable care officer and the chief data officer. We have also seen some of the greatest turnover in the industry, including the highest CEO turnover in a decade. Each leader in the healthcare system has had to learn how to help their organization deal with change.   

This drives our list: the ability to lead change more effectively, dynamically, and more quickly.  In fact, we have boiled our annual Top 10 Skills List down to a Top Three Skills List.  Rather than listing 10 items, we believe that what permeates each healthcare leader’s list of objectives for 2014 will be the ability to lead change. The concept leads us to create a new term—“synaptic leadership”—for what we believe will be needed most. The brain relies on synapses to exchange information. This exchange of information is at the heart of leading change; that is, leaders who know how to engage themselves in the flow of information to lead and foster change: synaptic leadership.

Here are the top three skills all healthcare leaders will need in 2014:

  1. Interconnectivity: Going beyond organizational intelligence, we need leaders who understand how to engage themselves at the synapse or the flow of information. Time is at such a premium and the amount of information so vast, that leaders can no longer act in a linear fashion. Nimble leaders who engage with their organizations in a non-linear and inclusive fashion will be most successful. Healthcare is too important, and healthcare organizations increasingly complex, that the time for synaptic leadership is here.
  2. Innovation: All healthcare leaders will be challenged to think in new ways to adjust to change and to lead change while carving out new models of care. The term innovation began to surface in our client’s list of leadership needs in 2013, and we believe that those leaders will become vitally important in 2014. While the concept has been around for a long time, and with a growing number of chief innovation officers in place to prove it, innovation is recognized as a critical element of success. Last year we conducted a series of interviews with healthcare innovation leaders, many carrying the title of chief innovation officer, to better understand the role. That made it clear to us that innovation as an element of healthcare’s overall strategy is beginning to solidify.  The phrase “innovate or die” has a new ring of truth to it.
  3. Communication: This is not a new skill, but it has found new meaning when it is coupled with “interconnectivity” and the race for information. Finding new and better ways to communicate larger amounts of data and information will become increasingly important. Great leaders have always needed to rely on strong communication skills.  Moving to a data-driven culture will create new demands on a healthcare leader’s communication skills. Where the past emphasized the form and style of communication, today’s accelerated availability of data has made the decision regarding what is useful and what to communicate as important as how to communicate it.

In summary, the successful combination of these three skills is synaptic leadership.  Synaptic leadership is a term that describes the ability to manage and consolidate information that is being sent and received simultaneously across complex organizations, and needed by multiple individuals for a wide variety of purposes.  We introduced the term in 2013, borrowing it from neurobiology, and we believe it summarizes the concept that is driving a new breed of leadership.

Leading change at the vortex of information, creating agile, systematic response mechanisms, and communicating vast amounts of information and building organizations with the ability to act on that information—that will be the Holy Grail of leadership in 2014.

Pamela Dixon is managing partner and Steve Nilsen is general manager of SSi-SEARCH.


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