What does it take to be a successful CEO at your organization? pie chart illustration

Traditionally, many healthcare organizations have been led by clinician leaders – doctors who rose through the ranks of their departments up to executive offices or by professionally-trained administrators in more public systems. But as the nature of care has evolved from a provider-centric model towards a digitally enabled, customer-centric approach, so too has the profile of the CEO fit for the future of care. Data from the 2021 Healthcare CEO Future Pulse suggests that the skillsets they possess, the priorities they focus on, and the ways they’re being measured for success are evolving.

So, what are the skillsets healthcare CEOs need in their leadership toolbox? When asked to identify the most important trait for successful leadership in their organizations, CEOs were most likely to cite clinical excellence. But not by much. In fact, responses were more or less evenly distributed across four executive qualities – including technology visionaries, community leaders and well-rounded individuals.

When looking at this question through the lens of self-identified organizational transformation personas, you would expect the innovators to be the ones prizing the tech visionary skillset, yet they by far hold the more traditional view that clinical experience is key to leading healthcare organizations. The multifaceted leader theme plays out further in these results, showing that self-identified innovative organizations believe that they will be clinically led; even though innovators recognize they need broader growth in leading workforces, technology implementation – suggesting they need to surround themselves with that support. Both innovators and early adopters rate technology as their second most important skillset but this is not the case for the early majority and late majority/laggards who put broad leadership in second place. This may denote that they prefer generalist rather than specialty skills in their leaders.

Successful CEO attributes by transformation persona, line graph illustration

Accompanying the shifting skillset is an evolving mindset. “I really hope that, before long, we can bring the next generation of leaders into positions of authority with decision-making abilities that are far more democratic,” says Sarah Downey, president and CEO Michael Garron Hospital in Canada. “Keeping these decisions in the hands of people who only see things in a particular way, is not our path to transformation.”

Key performance indicators in terms of importance, line graph illustration
Those prioritizing ESG KPIs, pie graph illustration

When CEOs were asked to rank their most important organizational key performance indicators (KPIs), customer experience took top spot (60 percent) followed by clinical quality (47 percent), workforce satisfaction (42 percent), financial performance (34 percent), and in last place the environmental, social and governance (ESG) metric that includes diversity and inclusion and addressing access issues (17 percent).  This suggests that CEOs will be evaluated for patient-centricity, while the broader social impact of their leadership is yet to be prioritized. When examining this topic by self-identified organizational transformation personas, the innovators come out where we’d expect them, taking the lead on prioritizing ESG metrics.

There’s further recognition that patient-centered organizations need to not just empathize with community needs but be a product of it. “Your organizations need to reflect the communities you serve. We've been diversifying our board and management teams. It is entirely possible to find the talent you're looking for among diverse communities, you just might need to seek them out differently,” says Sarah Downey.


Key takeaway

  • Health leaders, like their organizations, will need to demonstrate agility and diversity in their capabilities – clinical leadership will need to keep up with digital competency to lead transformation, while increased community-based care needs political leadership.

  • KPIs continue to focus on the core functions of care – patient experience and clinical quality but thinking about roles outside of organizational walls will likely increase in importance.

  • Leaders need to consider how the people they surround themselves with not only help give voice to their patient-customers but help build trust with the communities they serve.

How to take action

Health leaders of the future will need multi-dimensional skills for not only themselves but in the teams that surround them. Ensuring teams are diverse and inclusive will help leaders understand their role in broader society. Organizations’ roles in this should also be translated into KPIs that are beyond traditional operational measures – including ESG, recruitment strategies that embed diversity in leadership, and ultimately visions that guide the organization to seek constant self-improvement and contribution to societal good.