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Strategic Leadership: Becoming the CEO of Your Department

May 27, 2022
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The increasingly complex and rapidly changing context facing healthcare organizations, especially in an era of global pandemics, translates to a significant burden on CEOs to demonstrate strategic leadership.   Setting aside time to anticipate potential threats and opportunities is tricky for many CEOs who can easily get trapped in tactical firefighting. The key is building their direct reports' capabilities, enabling them to anticipate the pressures facing the CEO.

I work with several senior healthcare leaders who have indicated their desire for their subordinates to demonstrate strategic leadership in their departments as if they were a CEO. However, in conversations I've had with middle managers, this concept is poorly understood.    So what does it mean to think and act like a CEO demonstrating strategic leadership?

A hallmark of CEO functioning is strategic thinking. Strategic thinkers transcend their functional silos and can consider multiple perspectives in facing issues or challenges. CEOs vary their focus directionally in four ways: inward, downward, lateral, and upward/outward. In focusing on these directions, they consider threats, challenges, and opportunities they can exploit.

Inward Focus

Focus inward, consisting of self-awareness and self-management, and taking responsibility for your behavior and development:

  • Building awareness of your strengths, weaknesses, and emotional hot buttons
  • Asking colleagues for feedback on ways you can improve your impact
  • Creating a development plan that identifies weaknesses you want to develop and strengths to better leverage
  • Taking accountability for your words, actions, and commitments

Downward Focus

Focus downward consists of actions you take to lead and motivate your team, both the individuals who report to you and the team dynamic. Important practices include:

  • Mitigating your weaknesses by leveraging the talents of your direct reports
  • Asking your subordinates about their career interests and finding ways to help them realize them
  • Regularly engaging your team to get their input on critical issues
  • Noticing and recognizing peak performance among your direct reports
  • Communicating desired outcomes to your team and inviting them to determine the best way to achieve them

Lateral Focus

A lateral focus consists of your actions to engage and collaborate with your peers:

  • Developing strong, trusting coalitions among your peers
  • Engaging peers to elicit their input on changes in your department that might have downstream impacts
  • Proactively collaborating with your peers to improve core organizational processes
  • Advocating for your peers even if they aren't present

Upward and Outward Focus

Focus upward and outward to proactively manage the relationship and concerns of your boss and external stakeholders and customers:

  • Understanding your organization's strategic plan and how your department supports the attainment of critical priorities
  • Assessing and understanding emerging healthcare trends, best practices, and potential future risks
  • Continually improving the functioning of your department without being asked
  • Anticipating the challenges your boss is facing and proactively suggesting solutions
  • Paying regular attention to the needs - both expressed and unexpressed - of your external clients and stakeholders.

The road to becoming a CEO is a long one that takes persistence, resilience, and passion. Few people successfully navigate this journey. However, the essence of a CEO mindset and behavior - strategic leadership - can be incorporated into your leadership toolkit now and pay immediate returns for your career success and advancement.   

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Dr. Kevin Nourse has more than 25 years of experience coaching leaders who are experiencing transitions to thrive in their new or expanded roles. He is the founder of Nourse Leadership Strategies, a coaching and leadership development firm based in Southern California. For more information, contact Kevin at 310.715.8315 or kevin@nourseleadership.com

(c) 2022 Kevin Nourse

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