Shocked, but not surprised: Prioritizing Leadership Development



Harry Greenspun, M.D.

Chief Medical Officer, Managing Director, Health Solutions

Korn Ferry

February 13, 2018

Living in Washington, DC, politics is inescapable. During the most recent government shutdown, traffic was light, and friends were suddenly free for lunch. Perhaps the most commonly heard phrase around here these days is “I was shocked, but not surprised.” People recognize that what’s happening doesn’t make sense, but they have seen it happen repeatedly.


One of the most enjoyable aspect of my role is hosting our monthly webinar series. It’s a chance to bring together a group of experts to talk about significant issues confronting healthcare, focusing on challenges related to their people, their organization, and their rewards system. We do our best to keep it candid, lively, and interactive, taking questions from the audience and conducting polls throughout.


Per tradition, our first webinar of 2018 was about what to expect in the year ahead (the recording can be found here). Joined by my colleagues Eileen O’Donnell, Tom Flannery, and Katerina Zacharia, we hit the big issues looming over the industry – uncertainty over the political landscape; value-based care and consumerism, mergers and acquisitions, sexual harassment, and the workforce of the future. Falling between the recent government shutdown and women’s marches, the topics were particularly fresh.


Many common themes emerged related to culture, agility, and inclusion. Most importantly, the pace of change within healthcare and the daunting number of issues to be addressed are placing extraordinary demands on leadership. The transformation of the industry is requiring that our leaders not only be stronger and more effective, but also, in many cases, lead differently. In other cases, the transformation is so great, it may require different leaders altogether.


Generally, since many of us conduct these programs from our home offices, the most alarming thing that happens during a webinar is that someone’s dog will start barking. I’d managed to strategically mute my line when I saw the mailman approaching, and thought we were in the clear. Things seemed to be going well as we approached the end, with insightful comments from our panelists and provocative questions from the audience. Then something shocking did happen.


We launched the final poll of the webinar:


My organization’s highest priority is:


  • Financial performance
  • Quality or service
  • Innovation
  • Leadership development


To my astonishment, “Leadership development” didn’t get a single vote. I was shocked, but not surprised.


“Shocked” because our experts and our audience had been confirming the challenges that lay ahead, including aggressive acquisition plans and changes in business models. All this dependent on extraordinary leadership.


“Not surprised” because we see this play out repeatedly. Organizations set worthwhile goals and implement well-constructed strategies. Eventually, though, they find that they fail to achieve desired results, fall behind their schedule, or can’t sustain meaningful change. Initially, people focus on seemingly more obvious problems, like technology challenges. Sadly, they don’t recognize this as a leadership problem until quite late. Trying to asses, develop, or recruit leaders at this stage can be far more difficult and costly, often stalling or undermining whatever progress had been made.


Ironically, this is often more common in successful, high-functioning institutions where leaders have been historically effective. Organizations can become complacent and believe that what worked for them in the past will work for them in the future.


Leadership development is just that – a process that occurs within a specific environment. Successful execution of strategy requires aligned leadership. To achieve that, one must understand the capabilities of the team in relation to the demands that will be placed on it. Measuring and mitigating critical gaps, either through personalized development or by identifying new leaders, is critical to success. Strategic plans crafted with these factors addressed at the outset are far more likely to succeed. Those that don’t are destined to leave people shaking their heads, shocked, but not surprised.

We’d like to hear your thoughts and experiences. Is your organization becoming more agile? How are you adapting to the challenges of the digital economy? 
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