Collaboration is the new buzz word in health and human services. With mergers and acquisitions all around, many board and executive teams are looking for an alternative – and partnerships and collaboration are the strategic path of choice.
At next week’s 2016 OPEN MINDS Executive Leadership Retreat, we’ll focus on the many elements of creating successful extra-organizational collaborations and the meta-leadership skills that are needed to make them happen (see Meta-Leadership – A New & Tall Order). Leading off the second day of the retreat is an executive who has made this happen – Suzanne F. Clifford, Senior Vice President of Integrated Primary Care, Community Health Network (CHNw). CHNw is a non-profit health system with over 200 sites of care and affiliates throughout Central Indiana; and in her role, Ms. Clifford oversees strategy and operations for several ambulatory services, including behavioral health, primary care, pediatrics, women’s health, post-acute, employer health, employee health, med-checks, and retail clinics.
In addition, she was asked last year to head a mental health task force by the mayor of Fisher, Indiana (see Fisher’s Mental Health Task Force) after city officials identified mental health as a top priority and wanted to form a collaboration between behavioral health, police, the fire department, and the school systems when it came to mental health awareness and treatment.
I had a chance to catch up with Ms. Clifford about her work – and her perspectives on the meta-leadership challenge. She had some great tips for other executives.
What are the biggest challenges in getting organizations to collaborate and work together towards a common goal?
Ms. Clifford noted that speaking the language of the different groups is a challenge whether you work in a private organization, a government body, or a non-profit. The key is openness to a lot of different perspectives, and understanding what each stakeholder needs is critical. After that, you can begin to learn the “language” you need to continue a sustainable and strategic relationship – Ms. Clifford explained:
Behavioral health speaks one language, primary care speaks a whole other language – you realize later that the same words have different meanings. It is really important to deeply understand the different perspectives and what people are trying to achieve. Take the emergency department (ED) – you have to truly understand how they are measured, what their challenges are, and how we can support them better. Having a very disruptive patient of any kind in their waiting room is a challenge. How do you help teach them to deescalate the situation? Can you embed a staff member in the ED to help address a patient that is hallucinating and having delusions or help one with a significant addiction problem that needs treatment? Some consumers need a lot of social support, more time than the traditional primary care model, and specialists are frustrated if they can’t get people referred easily. Understanding what physicians need and what their challenges are helps you build a system that addresses those needs.
Government, payer, hospital, and health care systems can benefit by leveraging the expertise of behavioral health and social services. It’s up to us to explain how we can help and make a compelling business case. We need to be able to speak their language and express it to them in this way – if I could help you move a patient more effectively through your system faster, or if I have somebody who can take over when a patient is taking a lot of time, then you will be able to continue to see patients, stay on time, and meet the expectations of your other patients. The business case is better clinical outcomes, higher patient satisfaction, better provider engagement and affordable health care. You need to build that business case and show the value, rather than just “try to convince them.” The numbers are very powerful.
How can leaders gain the external perspective they need to be a successful meta-leader?
To gain perspective, Ms. Clifford suggested volunteering at various organizations to understand where they are coming from, or serving on a non-profit board, an advocacy group, or on a government task force where you can learn how things get done and how to influence public policy. Pursuing outside training, such as classes on business skills, are also important, as is engaging with mentors. Ms. Clifford explained:
Fortunately, I had a lot of mentors who taught me the clinical pieces of this job, because we have to understand a lot of clinical and evidence-based practices. Don’t be afraid to try something new to broaden your perspective. Having different experiences in the private sector, government, and non-profit organizations was very useful in helping me understand different perspectives.
One of the most important skills is trying to understand another organization’s perspective. Rather than pushing your agenda, how do you truly understand the challenges your partner is experiencing and how are you problem solving to address their issues? I love problem solving and creative solutions. The more you practice those skills, the stronger they can become. So, it really is seeking to understand the problems that another organization is trying to solve, and then trying innovative solutions to address their needs. Figuring out a solution with a “win-win” is not simple, but it is important that the overall partnership benefit all parties or it will not be sustainable. In some ways, community collaboration is not dissimilar to a group therapy session, making sure that people’s perspectives are heard, using good listening and group facilitating skills – all skills that behavioral health clinicians practice. These are transferable skills that are all very useful when it comes to putting together a community collaboration.
Today’s complex market requires a whole new set of executive leadership skills if organizations are to survive and thrive in the market. For more, stay tuned to our coverage next week at The 2016 OPEN MINDS Executive Leadership Retreat, where Ms. Clifford will present, “Optimizing Your Strategy Through Collaboration: Building Systems That Work Through Partnerships.” Look for our daily briefings, live from the event and follow our coverage on Twitter @openmindscircle – #OMleadership.