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SERIES: Inspiring Others | Driving Results

Steve Pohlman, interim Chief Supply Chain and Support Services Officer at Cleveland Clinic leads a multi-disciplinary team that managed complex supply chain disruption with simple concepts learned as a leader. While rolling out a new inventory management system during the pandemic, he reminded his teams to explain the need for change to stakeholders by leading with why. He states, "Once they understand the why and where we're going to end up, then they want to know the what and the how. And it's ideally doing it with them, not to them. We're not going to do this to you, we're going to do this with you." Listen now.

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Leading With Why During Change with Steve Pohlman, Supply Chain Leader

Podcast Transcript

Introduction: Welcome to Beyond Leadership: At the Intersection of Leadership and Everything Else. In this Cleveland Clinic podcast, we will commingle with extraordinary thinkers and explore the impact of their ideas and experiences on leadership and management.

Brian Bolwell, MD: Welcome to Beyond Leadership: At the Intersection of Leadership and Everything Else. I am Brian Bolwell your host. Today, I'm very pleased to have Steve Pohlman with us, who is our interim chief supply chain and support services officer at the Cleveland Clinic. In this role, Steve leads a multidisciplinary team that spans sourcing, procurement, materials management, support services, including food services, linen and laundry, patient transport, and a variety of other stuff. Prior to taking this role, Steve served as the executive director of clinical supply chain when he was responsible for optimizing the entire enterprise clinical supply chain. Steve, it's a pleasure to have you with us today.

Steve Pohlman: Thank you for having me.

Brian Bolwell, MD: Can you share with us, you joined the clinic about five years ago, how you came to the clinic and what you've been doing since you joined? Again, to remind our audience, we have a broad network that consists of both our main campus here in Cleveland, as well as our regional hospitals. And so Steve, please tell us about yourself.

Steve Pohlman: Position, I was asked to join the Cleveland Clinic supply chain team as a senior director of materials management. Primary responsibility in the first few years was implementing our just-in-time supply chain delivery system across the enterprise, as well as implementing our WaveMark inventory management system, which allows us to manage and track inventory using RFID technology. After that was implemented, I had an opportunity to move into a little bit broader work and took over the clinical sourcing team and kept the materials management operations team. And then most recently been asked to sit in interim role of supply chain and support services until they get that permanent role filled. So it's been a fun, exciting five years, almost six years now, and have run across a lot of people and had a chance to work with a lot of people and learn from a lot of people. So it's been a great experience so far.

Brian Bolwell, MD: So Steve, prior to joining us, you held a variety of other roles professionally, some of which went well and some of which were challenges. Can you share a couple examples and what you learn from times when things didn't always go your way?

Steve Pohlman: That takes me back to shortly after I graduated from college which is quite a while ago. It was actually my first experience leading people in a manufacturing environment. I was very early in my career. I had the opportunity to work in the welding industry and managed a group of manufacturing teams about 80 people or so. And one of those things that I learned was, I could not expect all those folks to be just like me and do things just like I will do and do the work like I would do. So I had to really, really focus on understanding their personalities and what makes them tick, meeting them where they are. But I didn't learn that actually until after I left that organization. I would have reflected on some of the things that happened in our organization when I was asked to create a very productive environment.

I did things the way I thought they needed to be done. I didn't take into account a lot of the thoughts and ideas of the folks. And because of that, I ended up losing my job over it because I wasn't thinking through everything that I needed to think through. And when I reflect on that, that was kind of a watershed moment for me. My next foray into leadership was many years down the road. But when I got that opportunity, I really, really thought about some of the mistakes I made in the past and got me to where I'm really focused on the people and meeting them where they're at and listening. As folks say, we have two ears and one mouth for a reason. So the listening piece is very, very important and understanding where their thoughts and ideas are to bring them along slowly. And use some of their ideas where it makes sense because they're the folks that have to live with it ultimately.

Brian Bolwell, MD: So one of the things that certainly you were passionate about when we talked previously was again, this concept of empowering your team. And I think you said it's very important if at all possible to let your team lead the change, because most of the projects that you're on involve some sort of change management. How do you make that a reality?

Steve Pohlman: I allow people to be themselves. I really... Let me back up a little bit. I really try to build the folks and put them in the right places on the team, take advantage of their strengths. And I want them to be able to manage through that project, that change, whatever it might be. And I'm there to support them all the way through it. I want them to take their role seriously and manage their role and do what they're supposed to do. But I'm there to help them knock down those barriers to get to where they have to go and allow them to work through that. And I allow them to make mistakes. Mistakes happen, we must learn from mistakes and move forward.

And it gives them the freedom to think, the freedom to push the envelope, the freedom to live on the edge if they need to, do what they got to do to get to the end result. I'm there to help them again, knock down barriers, the kind of that servant leadership approach. Whatever I can do to make their job easier. And I expect the same thing from them. I expect them to look at their teams and say, "What can I do to support my teams?" As it goes down the ranks a little bit to whatever they can do to make their team's jobs easier. And that's our role and ultimately, in the utopia of the world, I would work myself out of a job, technically becomes if they're doing things so well, and then it's a well-oiled machine, I'm not needed there to do the things that I'm doing now for them. But, I'm trying to get them to a point where again, it's them, they do the work and I'm there to support, help being that servant leader to allow them to make the change they need to make.

Brian Bolwell, MD: So step one, in this process you alluded to is to build a good team. How do you do that? How do you approach recruiting? How do you approach putting people in positions where they have the best chance to succeed?

Steve Pohlman: I would say primarily, I look for soft skills. I look for the skills that are in their DNA. I can train somebody how to manage a project. I can train somebody how to use technology, but I can't train somebody to have a sense of urgency or be a great customer focused individual. Or truly following up on what they do or truly care about the customer, the caregiver they're supporting. So, those things are hard to train. So I look for those intangibles, those soft skills. And if you have those soft skills, then I can train you to do the work. And customer service is paramount to me. And I want to focus on the customer, whether it's a frontline caregiver taking care of a patient or a frontline caregiver patient transportation or delivering a supply to an end user or to a caregiver, whatever that might be. The customer is number one.

And if you ask anybody that works for me, the number one thing they will tell you is I'm focused on customer service. And I really want to make sure the customer has truly, truly great experience working with my teams. So I build based on that intangible. I look for that intangible and then I take that person and put them in the role where their strengths can be used. And if I need to move them around and cross train them and get them to be that holistic person that I'm looking for, I do do that. But I'm again, focused on those soft skills, those intangibles things that necessarily can't be trained off the DNA. I'm looking for that customer service DNA. And it's hard to find sometimes. It's hard to pick out of an interview sometimes. But when you find one, you know you have one.

Brian Bolwell, MD: So when you talk about soft skills and you talk about customer service DNA, how do you evaluate that in an interview?

Steve Pohlman: It's tough, Dr. Bolwell. It's very tough to evaluate it. It's kind of a conversation in the interview and you kind of get a feeling for who those people are and how they respond to questions. And there's a level of energy in the interview that's different from a person that may not have that DNA. There is a level of energy that's different, especially when you start asking questions about the customer or the patient, and maybe some experiences that they've had in the past. It comes out. It comes out in a way that sometimes it hits you right upside the head, sometimes you got to dig it out, but it's clearly there. And in their voice, you can hear the passion, you can hear the true dedication and the passion and the belief of where they're coming from. And I think in some cases that's hard to put on a show or act that way. It has to come out of your pores. It has to come out of your heart. And you can see it on their face.

Brian Bolwell, MD: I've done an awful lot of interviews over the past 20 years or so interviewing physicians for different roles. And inevitably, after an interview, people will tell me that I asked different questions than they're used to answering. Because I actually try to probe for emotional intelligence, which I think covers a lot of what you're talking about when you talk about a customer service mentality. And it's interesting. If I asked something like, "Tell me about a time you made a mistake and what you learned from it," some people will run with that pretty easily. And other people will just stare at me blankly with not much guidance of internal guidance of where to take the question and where to go with it.

It's striking how a lot of EQ questions that I think might be pretty common for standard interviews of non-physicians, wind up becoming somewhat different when we're interviewing physicians for various roles. There's a lot of very good EQ questions that you can actually find on the internet for those of you who were listening and curious. But you always want to talk about... One try to probe for, how did you manage a challenge? Or what did you learn from a success? Or what do people around you think of you? How do you support your team?

Give me an example when you did the right thing, even if it was difficult to do politically? There's a bunch of them, which I think are very, very useful. Another thing Steve, that you're alluding to, is once you have individuals, how do you put them in the right spot? I remember hearing somebody tell me, not everybody does everything well. In fact, nobody does everything well, but what you want to do is put employee X in a position where if they're really good at doing Y, do more Y. You find that to be true?

Steve Pohlman: Yeah, I do. You've heard the analogy before, make sure they're on the right seat of the bus. Make sure they're on the right seat. And you're exactly right. It's finding their sweet spot, finding where they're... Finding their sweet spot, but also maybe putting them in a situation where it's a stretch or stretch goals so to speak. To get them to expand their knowledge base or expand their bandwidth a little bit. And some folks take that on and they succeed in that very quickly and you see a whole other level of energy at that point. And some folks are very comfortable where they are and you need comfortable folks too.

You need comfortable folks to make the world go around. Those folks are the folks that are behind the scenes doing some of the sausage making for lack of better term. And you need other folks out there just to teach or think strategically and lead. And giving them their stretch target, or their stretch goals, or their stretch projects helps them get there. Because ultimately, I want to build my team up so I have a bunch of folks that can do my job someday. And that's what I want. I want competition at the level that they could come in and... When my job becomes available, they're able to have multiple choices of... Cleveland Clinic would have multiple choices of putting that person in that role, build up to that level of strength.

And then, I talk about 3D mentality a lot. Going 3D, making sure I have a primary, a secondary and a tertiary person that can do that role or understand that role or understand that work that has to be done. And that's hard to get to. I was there one time in my career at Akron General, where I actually had my whole team was 3D. And it was the greatest six months of my life, because it was so easy to manage those folks. It was awesome. I haven't reached it here yet at the Cleveland Clinic because the team is so hard. Then with the challenges these days with hiring folks and being able to get folks to do the work, it's been tough, but that's still one of my goals. It's definitely one of my goals to get us 3D and to the point where that way the managers have time to manage it and they're not doing the work as much. So we'll get there someday. But that's something that I aspire to get to.

Brian Bolwell, MD: One thing you discussed when talking about serving leadership is that your role as a leader is to remove obstacles, which I totally agree with. Sometimes they're political, sometimes there are other kinds of obstacles, but it's our role to remove them so that your team can in fact succeed. Can you give me an example or two of removing an obstacle?

Steve Pohlman: We rolled out our inventory system across the enterprise and we eliminated seven different systems and went to one system. And some of those seven systems were favorites of some of the facilities that we're in and folks were used to using them and didn't want to change. And that's the whole change of management around that. So I needed my folks to focus on the people, the process and the technology, as it relates to rolling out that system. Get down and do the dirty work figuring out the workflows around, what was happening in those hospitals or people that were doing them and then obviously the technology to support those workflows. And we had a lot of folks that were not excited about the change. So I needed them to do their work on a daily basis.

I didn't need them to go in there and have to try to sell it every day, every day, trying to sell it every day. So my job was to meet with those key leaders at those organizations and talk them through the change and talk them through what the future is going to look like and talk them through the why we're doing this. And it was a lot of phone calls, a lot of backgrounds, a lot of more face-to-face meetings pre COVID. And then still a lot of phone calls and a lot of conference calls to walk them through it on maybe a weekly basis. Check in calls, those kinds of things, just to keep them close and make sure that they have my ear to lean on if they were getting concerned.

Which allowed my team to work with their frontline staff, just to do the work, the busy work. And when you got to the frontline staff, they really enjoyed it because ultimately it was going to make their job easier. The frontline caregivers, those nurses in the operating rooms, those nurses in the AP lab, is going to make their job easier because they don't have to deal with ordering supplies, managing supplies any longer. So they were super excited about getting the work done. So I needed that to happen. In order for that to happen, I needed to speak with their leaders, their directors, and senior directors to make sure they were good with what was going on. Now, once we got to the point where their nurses were going to them saying, "This is the best thing since sliced bread," then all of a sudden those barriers went away. When their teams came down and said, "This is great," all their concerns went away because their caregivers were happy with the work that was being done.

Brian Bolwell, MD: So change management is hard for everybody, but you just said that one thing that's very important is to start with the why. Simon Sinek has a book titled Start With Why and how you try to generate change or generate really any kind of quality improvement. Do you find that to be true, the kind of getting by and about why you're trying to achieve something is critical to its success?

Steve Pohlman: Yeah. I truly believe that. A lot of people lead with the what, and they hit a brick wall, right?

Brian Bolwell, MD: Yeah.

Steve Pohlman: We got to lead with the why. We got to lead, why are we doing this? And then where are we trying to get to? And this is what we're going to do, and this is how we're going to do it. This is the what, and this is the how. And by the way, you're going to be involved in the how. Your teams are going to be involved in the how. This is not going to be done in a silo or on an island or anything like that. If you lead with the why, and you talk about the where, and then you tell them the what and the how because, that's usually what they want to know ultimately.

Once they understand the why and where we're going to end up, then they want to know the what and the how. And how much of their time it's going to take, or how much involvement from them it's going to take. And it's ideally doing it with them, not to them. We use that a lot when we were rolling out the inventory management system and rolling out the low unit of measure system. We're not going to do this to you, we're going to do this with you. We're going to do this with you. This is a together thing, because at the end, you're going to have to work in the same workflows and processes that my inventory staff is working in. So we're going to do this together. And that made a huge impact doing it together. And having that conversation around, not doing it to you, but doing it with you.

Brian Bolwell, MD: I think that's a really, really key point. And I think you articulated it very well. So 15 months ago, we were dealing with a lot of supply chain challenges with COVID. Nobody expected COVID to happen. Nobody had any idea what the challenges would be in terms of getting PPE, in terms of testing, in terms of all sorts of stuff. How did we approach it? How did you approach it? What worked, what didn't work? Ultimately, I think the clinic weathered the storm very, very well, but boy, a tough time. Walk us through that time.

Steve Pohlman: It was a tough time. It was a very reactive time in the beginning when we realized that our primary suppliers were not going to be able to keep up with the extremely high demands of PPE and how fast the demands went up. So our primary suppliers aren't going to be able to keep up. So, initially it worked through trying to figure out where we're going to get our PPE from. And a lot of it ended up coming from what I believe we would call alternative suppliers. And the first two weeks, even for us was pretty reactionary, trying to figure out what was going on and following the news clips, following the CDC, following some of the federal organizations telling us what were we expect to see, but nobody really knew what to expect.

We didn't know how the virus traveled initially, right? There was different thoughts on that. So we tried to get as many masks, gowns, high protection gloves as we possibly could. That was the primary things. One thing that we did about two and a half weeks in is we actually put an emergency management structure around the whole supply chain COVID response for lack of better term. And once we put that structure in place, again, what we did is we took folks that had roles negotiating contracts and sourcing contracts and our buyers doing buyer work and our analytics folks doing analytics work. We actually took them, talked to them and changed their roles during the COVID response period. We had multiple people working from home, but their jobs were changed a little bit or their jobs slowed down a little bit because we weren't doing normal hospital work at that time for a period of time there, a couple months and a half or two and a half months or so.

So we took those folks and we asked them to change the role and be part of this emergency management COVID response team from the supply chain standpoint. And we had a team that did only looking for product. We had a team once the product was found, we had a team that bought the product. Then we had a team that had to distribute the product. And then we had a team that had to make sure that it was re-inventoried. So we broke up that work into many, many groups instead of the four or five of us trying to do it all on our own. So again, so leading through change, getting those folks to understand the why. It was all about, "Why am I not doing my regular job?"

"Well, it's not that we don't need that job right now, but that job is not as important as this job is at the moment. So we need you to do this role for us for a while." And that went on for about, from March until June. In June, July, we finally got our feet under us a little bit, and things started heading back in that normal direction a little bit last summer. But it had been floated obviously until this spring and summer. But those folks ultimately went back to their normal roles about in the fall of the year, because we were able to finally catch up and work with a bunch suppliers. The suppliers finally caught up things like that. So again, it was about organizing it and then structuring it. Organizing it with the appropriate emergency management structure and then getting the people to fill those roles and then managing it through it that way. And once we got that in place, it became a little bit calmer and we actually could think a little bit as opposed to react.

Brian Bolwell, MD: One of the things we did is we build our own testing platform, which must have helped from that perspective.

Steve Pohlman: Yeah. The testing platform, we built our own, and that was a whole other process of figuring out how we're going to get swabs and test kits over to the testing facility. The suppliers couldn't get us our swabs so we ended up working with the pharmacy and manufacturing our own transfer media, and we went and bought swabs from whoever we could get them from. We built our own test kits. So again, that was another role thing. We took folks that were responsible for doing X and we had them do Y. We had them build test kits and manage that process for a long time. So that was a challenge to roll that out. And that happened within like a six day period, from the time they decided to set up the test facility, to the time they were going to go live it's about a week, maybe week and a half.

So we had to get all that in place pretty quickly. So, it was a team that was very responsive and very agile. And I couldn't have been more proud of them as we went through that March, April, May, June timeframe, last year, about a year ago. And it was interesting to watch the team come together so nicely when they're all focused on a common goal, which I'm sure Dr. Bolwell, you've experienced that too. When you get a large group of people focused on one thing, it's amazing how much can be done, how quickly without any question or argument folks just do it. And it's a testament to the folks on my team and how they came together and did that.

Brian Bolwell, MD: Yes, I agree with you. If you have alignment on purpose and goals and vision and mission, I think that you can achieve almost anything. One of the keys for leaders in the pandemic was communication. How did you communicate to your team? I'm sure that it wasn't all face-to-face because that probably wasn't even possible. What was your approach?

Steve Pohlman: We had multiple meetings throughout the day, multiple phone calls, multiple conference calls, or in some cases where we did have a few face-to-face meetings when we needed infection prevention or were ordered to come down and look at some products and look at some things for us because we had to get things approved. But we had a cadence of calls on a daily basis. Multiple calls on a daily basis, making sure the team was communicated to, making sure the leaders were communicated to, making sure executive leadership was communicated to. And it got to a point where almost whatever time of that day was, folks expected that call to happen. And that went on for a few months until we slowed it down a little bit and got our feet under us. But communication was constant. We had to make sure that we had PPE requirements out there and PPE requirements changed almost every other week when the CDC would come down with the new guideline. So we had to make sure that process of communications helped us. Communication we had to update. But yes, it was more of a cadence of communication.

Brian Bolwell, MD: Steve, you've mentioned serving leadership a couple of times. When were you introduced to serving leadership and how have you continued to learn about serving leadership?

Steve Pohlman: I was introduced... That's a great question. I was introduced at some point in my career at Akron General. I thought the concept was, obviously it made a lot of sense. Instead of being somebody that's trying to do the work and trying to pull people along, try to take the barriers out of the way so they can just do what they need to do. Don't put them in a spot where they have to take down the barrier, because they're probably uncomfortable doing that. So that's my job to do that, my role to do that. And when I got to the Cleveland Clinic even became more important just because of the matrix or relationship that we live in and then the complexity around it. I mean, there's a number of folks that we have to have conversations with to make things move forward, explain the why to, and it's worth my time to do that.

So I can get the project done faster than a normal cycle or faster that we need done. So those, again, my folks can do the work. It's a concept that I enjoy and I think that's why in these last five years, Dr. Bolwell, I've loved what I do because I'm not only helping patients and caregivers, but I'm helping my own team get the work done. So it becomes a full circle. I'm helping my folks help the caregivers who are taking care of those patients, which is just, it's a great thing. I'm a people person. So I'm in the right business because we take care of people.

Brian Bolwell, MD: So that's a great summary. And one of the things that's really important is that everybody wants to have purpose in their lives, whatever they're doing in a work environment. And clearly you've done a wonderful job doing that with your team, Steve. And to our listeners, again, this is an individual who performed absolutely heroically with his team to get this very large healthcare organization that we work for, the Cleveland Clinic through some very tough times in the COVID pandemic. And supply chain became extraordinarily important. And certainly Steve deserves an enormous amount of credit for that. So, Steve, thanks for joining us. Have a great day, everybody.

Conclusion: Thank you for joining us for this episode of beyond leadership. We welcome any topic ideas, comments, or questions about this, or any past episodes. Email us at exe[email protected] or by clicking on the link in the show notes.

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Beyond Leadership

Host Dr. Brian Bolwell escorts you through a network of thought leaders, sharing world-class insight on leadership and cutting-edge hospital management approaches. They will inspire and perhaps compel you to reinvent your practices – and yourself.

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