Tips to help CIOs 'survive the madness'

Also, how to avoid the 'most frequently heard complaints about CIOs'
By Mike Miliard
06:50 AM
CIO and doctors

Here are some quotes from anonymous hospital CIOs that may sound familiar: "Morale is really bad; folks are burned out." "ICD-10 will never happen, we'll just keep spending money on it." "Doing more with less can only go so far."

[See also: The words CIOs don't want to hear]

Those complaints were highlighted by Mary Anne Leach, senior vice president and chief information officer of Children's Hospital Colorado, and Linda Hodges, senior vice president and IT practice leader at Witt/Kieffer, as they offered a session titled, "Surviving the Madness: How CIOs can Thrive in this Decade of Uncertainty," at the CHIME Fall CIO Forum in San Antonio.

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CIOs are beset by "challenges from every angle," said Leach. Technology is evolving at a blinding pace, and seismic changes to how care is delivered, regulated and paid for are coming just as fast. It's no wonder IT professionals are feeling overwhelmed.

[See also: CIO: No longer just 'the IT guy']

But at the same time, there's some really cool stuff going on out there, as leading-edge tech and a proliferation of data and analytics means huge strides can be made in improving care and lowering costs. For those CIOs able to keep pace – synthesizing these new tools while navigating the financial, organizational and personnel challenges that could stand in the way – there are rewarding changes on the way in the coming years, she said.

Leach offered tips for helping CIOs rethink and redesign workflow, keep their staffs motivated and engaged, optimize their capabilities, all while ensuring they're still "doing the basics well." Among her advice:

  • Manage your energy, not your time. "We're consummate time and calendar managers," said Leach, "but this is about your soul." Most CIOs "have to-do lists that are a mile and a half long," but it's critical to prioritize and delegate in order to conserve energy for the important things. "You can't go into an important business meeting burnt-out" from dealing with the previous day's challenges, she said.
  • Good governance is key. "Cultivate and nurture your champions and advocates," said Leach.
  • Embrace "shadow IT." Using Gartner's term for IT tools that are used within an organization without necessarily having an explicit organizational OK, Leach said CIOs should embrace team members willing to think outside the box. "We cannot do it all," she said. "Embrace digital leaders asking the right questions," and "empower them" to make decisions on specific technologies and then integrate them into the bigger picture where appropriate. Still, she said, it's critical to "know what's out there" and "manage the risk" where these tools are deployed.
  • Don't stress over email. "My inbox is never at zero," said Leach – adding: "It's just email … people will find you if it's important."
  • Find the joy. "What we do is really exciting," she reminded the roomful of CIOs. "Be humble, be grateful, stay hungry and know that you are making a difference."

Some tough love

In her experience at Witt/Kieffer, one of healthcare's leading executive search firms, Hodges has had an up-close look at how CIOs are viewed by other members of the C-suite. And in the spirit of constructive criticism, she offered her list of the "most frequently heard complaints abut CIOs."

Top of the list? That they're "poor communicators," said Hodges.

The good news is that, "while this is the biggest complaint, it's one thing you can work on," she said – emphasizing that CIOs should be as clear in their writing style as they are in their expectations of their colleagues.

Other, related gripes: CIOs are "not transparent" and are "more directive than collaborative," said Hodges, pointing specifically to the words clinicians are loathe to hear: "We're going to tell you what you're getting, and you're gonna like it."

Indeed, that CIOs "lack understanding of operations and clinical areas," is another common criticism, she said; she suggested that CIOs spend much more time speaking with and observing nurses, pharmacists and clinical end-users.

"Spend time with the docs," added Leach. "Go to lunch with them. They will tell you what they need; they like to be heard."

Hodges made the point that some hospital executives complain that CIOs "haven't moved on beyond the implementation phase," and are "not adding value beyond IT."

As members of the C-suite themselves, CIOs, are expected to "participate and solve problems that go across the board," she said. "What people are looking for now, is value. They've spent millions of dollars (on IT systems), now they want analytics, things like that that will make their businesses better."

No doubt the next few years will be challenging, said Hodges. Healthcare is undergoing  "very rapid change, and I think we're going to see it accelerate."

Add to that the fact that, given the trend toward mergers and acquisitions, "there are not going to be as many CIO positions in the future," she said. "It's just math."

So it's critical for CIOs to stay agile, stay positive, and stay "current with the industry," said Hodges. "Don't assume because something has worked in the past, that it will work in the future."

Among her other advice: Continue amassing education and certifications, since many organizations are now requiring advance degrees. Ensure you have the right team in place, since "without the right structure, you're going to have a hard time dealing with the change."

And pay attention to politics. "Before I started doing this, I was an elementary school teacher," said Hodges, who noted there's often "not much difference" between playground power plays and those at the executive level of a hospital.