Joanne Conroy, MD


Entering into a new organization as a leader. Advice to myself.

I had the opportunity this summer to enter a well-regarded academic health care organization as its new leader. This is not my first institutional leadership role….and you get better at figuring things out quickly. However, every organization has its own culture, and a big part of a being a successful leader is getting the transition right for that organization.

Get to know your board

I had 4 weeks between leaving one job and starting the other. Aside from taking the time to visit with family and begin the process of relocation, I took the time to interview every single member of the board to which I was going to report. I know that for many, the first impulse is to get your nose under the hood of the organization and gather as much data, so you can make your assessment. The data will be much richer than anything provided up front in the interview and selection process. However, resist that impulse and get to know your board. Your primary objective will be to understand specifically what they expect of you — their fears and concerns about a new leader and to begin building your relationships. No matter what the job description says, they all have an expectation of what they think needs to be fixed in your first 6 months. It will inform the pace with which you make changes.

By the way, when you are interviewing people, take notes. I once asked a former board member for advice. He was very generous with his time. We talked for over an hour, and it was very informative. He commented, however, to another board member that he was shocked that I did not take any notes. I have a great memory and did send him a note of thanks with a summary of the conversation, but now I always take notes. If you are asking people for advice, taking notes is a sign of respectful listening.

First impressions matter

The first day….I can still remember parking out front, in the visitor lot since I did not have a staff parking decal. I had a big heavy box of pictures and diplomas, which I dropped in one of the wheelchairs lined up near the front entrance. I wheeled it up to the administrative suite, passing a few people who I know recognized me but were surprised that I was toting my own stuff. Remember you are building authentic relationships and setting the tone from the first day that you enter the organization. People can sense when you’re not being “real,” so just be yourself.

I knew that the organization wanted its new leader to be more present…they wanted greater connectedness. I chose to go to the cafeteria every day for lunch to meet people. The first day, I sat down with 5 people from the Microbiology Lab. I did not have a badge yet, so I just introduced myself and asked if I could join them. I did not tell them that I was their new CEO. They probably thought I was a wayward family member of one of the patients. However, they were gracious and happily shared how long they had worked at the organization and a little bit about their roles. I continue to randomly sit down with employees at lunch and am getting better each time at gathering some key insights. I usually ask employees what they love about the organization, what they would like to change and if they have any advice for me. Some of the best?

  • Stop hiring Vice Presidents and firing housekeepers (There is a general sense the organization is too top heavy).
  • Continue to be present (Remember a lot of leadership is just showing up).
  • Communicate important things before we read it in the newspapers.
  • We want to love our jobs again.

Listen a lot and strike the right balance between confidence and humility

You have been brought into the organization to bring about change. This organization had some financial challenges in 2016 that shook them to their core. They did not hire me to maintain the status quo. However, a new leader still has to honor the organization’s legacy, and to do that, you need to understand the strengths and culture that already exists. I spent a lot of my time listening for the first month. No matter what the organizational chart says, you have to understand how things actually get done. I have spent the first month understanding how and where decisions get made.

I am learning about my senior leadership team, appreciating their talents and where we may have gaps. I have observed where we give people autonomy to get their jobs done, and where we place too many controls and unnecessary obstacles. I have noted where the reporting relationships work and where they just add unnecessary layers. Some days it feels like I am peeling an onion …and every layer has more questions than answers! However, I remain impressed with the unwavering commitment of the clinical and administrative staff to the organization and to each other.

Next Post: When you know the Honeymoon is over  – Beginning to make changes

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