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By James Stewart, Executive Vice President/Chief Administrative Officer, Grafton Integrated Health Network & OPEN MINDS Advisory Board

James Stewart

I thought the articles of the past two weeks on leadership and developing an effective leadership team (see Hiring A New Exec? Promote From Within Or Go Outside? and Why It’s So Hard To Fill Those Executive Positions At Behavioral Health & Social Services Provider Organizations) were right on the mark. The topic of “c-suite characteristics” is especially critical to me as I have moved from one C-level chair to another. And, as I plan my next move, I have come to realize the importance of “mentorship” to me – and for anyone who has “moved up the ladder” (or is planning to).

I have been blessed to work with intelligent, well-respected leaders who were willing to share some of the elements of what made them effective leaders. And, even better for me, each had some unique leadership attributes that I have added to my own leadership style. What were the important lessons they shared with me?

Customer service is critical – My first mentor was a partner in a CPA firm. He had excellent customer service skills. Whether the CEOs he was working with or our firm’s line staff, his communication skills were impeccable. He could blend in and communicate with “the bankers and the barge workers.” From him, I learned that a C-suite executive must be willing and able to cross boundaries and communicate to all levels of the organization that they lead and the organizations with which they work.

Working within a system is a must – Understanding where your organization “fits” in the larger system, such as state government, is the key to building strong relationships. In business school parlance, they would call this understanding the economic “value chain” (see The Shifting Health & Human Service Value Chain – The Strategic Earthquake). When I worked for Pathways, I got to see our leaders do this through building trust with the leaders at the department level in state government and with key legislators who took special interest in behavioral health. Today, those relationships can be strengthened by providing something others cannot – data. (Data is the big word these days, but really it is the courage to use the data and the vision to place yourself strategically that leverages that data).

Embrace change to thrive – This executive skill is more than just “building a bicycle while riding.” It is also having the courage and conviction to make a decision even though you may not have all the data. (For more on leadership courage, see Courage As The Leadership Differentiator). My mentor at Centerstone described this as the 80/20 rule. I felt the need to have almost all the answers before making a decision – but soon learned that is not always possible. Effective leaders need to gather all the information they can but also understand the importance of timing in making strategic decisions. A C-suite executive must have the courage to make decisions, sometimes on incomplete data, and do so while leading the organization in a positive and confident manner.

Look outside your industry for new ideas – Vision is critical to effective leadership, and some people are born with more vision than others. But this is something you can harness by constantly reading and listening to others and more importantly, looking at other industries for new strategies and models. My leader at Grafton Integrated Health Network consistently finds resources from other industries areas of interest and applies them to our business. It is hubris (and leadership folly) to think that your industry or your organization has all the answers and the “leading edge” management practices.

As I make the transition from the C-Administration seat to the C-Executive Officer seat, these are some of the guiding principles I have learned from great mentors – and will continue to use. The characteristics that these talented mentors have in common is their ability and willingness to listen to others, learn, adapt, and grow. These are characteristics that I think will serve me well in my own executive growth.

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