The ones that get the most attention are financial, capital investment, quality outputs, supply chain, market share and personnel — often referred to as the "hard issues." All are extremely important, of course, but there is another side of the business that deserves equal attention — and are key to organizational success, especially in health care. These are referred to as the "soft issues."
Soft skills provide a necessary complement to the knowledge and talent that employees bring to their jobs, and ensure that the many individuals involved in a patient's care are able to communicate and interact effectively. Though some make the mistake of thinking that an organization's success is based on the financial bottom line, it is a series of more qualitative, intangible measures that truly determines success or failure.
Here's my take on the four most important soft skills for leaders to prioritize within their organization.
Trust should not be regarded an abstract concept without real-world consequences, but instead as a fulcrum that promotes productivity and reduces the risk of dissention. If employees do not trust their supervisors, they are less likely to take direction or work to the best of their abilities. Mistrust deflates employee morale and decreases engagement. If employees feel coworkers or management cannot be trusted, productivity suffers.
When leaders of hospitals or health systems attempt to secure funding from financiers, the strength of their word is often as important as the data they present. Unless money managers trust that leaders are responsible financial stewards, they will be skeptical of the information they are given.
Trust and credibility are powerful factors in any relationship. Leaders must also prioritize trust when hiring or promoting individuals to maintain credibility with colleagues at every level of management.
People often mistake loyalty as obedience to a particular individual. The kind of loyalty that I emphasize is not blind loyalty to the potentially misguided actions of a superior, but to the greater mission of an organization. It is vital for leaders to clearly establish that employees' greatest priority is a commitment to the organization. Creating a culture that discourages petty office politics comes from the top down, because without the right kind of loyalty, departments run the risk of becoming siloed and leadership teams can become splintered. Like players on a successful sports team, every employee must be loyal to the goal of winning — not the team's captain or coach.
In our field, the overarching goal is obviously to ensure the best patient outcomes and experience. In the end, our collective loyalty must be to the patients and their families.
3. Interpersonal relationships
Delivering and paying for health care is unbelievably complex and requires the cooperation of many different parties. To make the process as effective and seamless as possible, everyone in a health care organization must have excellent relationship skills — from the parking attendants to the physicians and nurses. Unless people know how to properly interact with people inside and outside the organization, they will create friction and negatively impact the experience of our employees, patients and their families.
People with what I call sandpaper personalities will always rub others the wrong way. In a people business like ours where forging new partnerships is essential to an organization's success, it is imperative for leaders to recruit those with this attribute and focus on continually developing the relationship skills of all their employees.
Simply put, health care is a team sport. No one member of the care delivery team can succeed without the partnership of others. We hammer this point home by including all frontline staff during simulation trainings conducted at our corporate university. When we simulate a surgery, a baby’s delivery or a medical emergency, the surgeon, nurses and all other support staff involved in caring for patients in those situations need to be active participants in the training to make sure we get it right.
Without everyone working together to the best of their abilities, we cannot deliver the most effective care. Whenever our chair of cardiac surgery speaks at a news conference or presents to our board or other leadership, the first thing he does is thank his fellow physicians, nurses, perioperative staff and other members of the surgical team — and underscore the fact that without their hard work and dedication, success would not have been possible. It is a CEO's duty to instill this belief among employees and avoid the ego-boosting that can sometimes fester in our field. If employees do not observe a collaborative and generous spirit among their leaders, they will have no incentive to practice it themselves.
Every Monday morning, I meet with about 150 new Northwell employees and spend the majority of my time emphasizing that they do not work alone. From the moment they begin their first shift, they are part of a team. Working as a team not only means supporting each other, but also ensuring there is enough respect and professionalism to speak frankly and perhaps critically when needed. This freedom to share views and influence the behavior of others only comes when there is trust and loyalty among team members. It all helps support our mission to improve the health of the communities we serve.
So as much as we value the knowledge and technical skills of individuals in our workforce, hospitals and health systems need to place a high priority on the importance of soft skills. Organizations that promote trust, loyalty, relationships and teamwork among their leaders and other employees are more successful over time and can survive periods of instability because of the strong foundation of comradery they've built. It is also critical to promoting a culture of innovation, continuous learning and transformation. To learn more about this topic, I encourage you to read, The Soft Edge: Where Companies Find Lasting Success, authored by Rich Karlgaard.
This op-ed appeared in Becker's Hospital Review.