Top 3 skills healthcare leaders need now

‘Synaptic leaders,’ those who understand how to embrace and lead change will be in the greatest demand in 2014
By Pamela Dixon
06:45 AM
Top 3 skills healthcare leaders need now

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, we noted that 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 the chief medical information officer, and we have seen new roles emerge, such as chief accountable care officer and 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 his or her organization deal with change. 

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This drives our list: the ability to lead change more effectively, dynamically, and more quickly. In fact, we have boiled our annual top 10 list down to a top 3 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 lead us to create a new term for what we believe will be needed most, “synaptic leadership”.  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:

First is 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.

Second is 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. It 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.  

Third is communication. This is not a new skill, but it has new meaning when it is coupled with “interconnectivity” and the race for information. Finding new and better ways to communicate greater 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. Whereas the past emphasized the form and style of communication, the accelerated availability of data has rendered the decision of what is useful and what to communicate as important as how to communicate it.

In summary, the successful combination of these three skills would be “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 from neurobiology, and we believe it summarizes the concept that is driving a new breed of leadership.

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Leading change at the vortex of information, creating agile, systematic response mechanisms, 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.

SSI-SEARCH is a national, retained exexcutive search firm that partners with leading healthcare organizations to identify and recruit transformational healthcare leadership at the intersection of strategy and technology.