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Listen to this heart to heart conversation between two leaders from Cleveland Clinic Akron General: Dr. Brian Harte and Steve Abdenour as they discuss their leadership journeys, and the flexible leadership styles that has accompanied them along the way. Here's their conversation.

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Flexing in Your Style

Podcast Transcript

Michelle Lampton: Hello and welcome to Learning to Lead, a leadership development podcast from Cleveland Clinic. I'm Michelle Lampton. Today we're going to be hearing a conversation between one of our Mandel Global Leadership and Learning colleagues Colleen Carroll and two leaders from Cleveland Clinic Akron General: Dr. Brian Harte and Steve Abdenour. In it, they share about their leadership journeys and unique leadership styles. Here's their conversation.

Colleen Carroll: Good morning gentleman, - thanks for being here today. First thing's first, it would be great if you could introduce yourself and tell us a little bit about what you do at Cleveland Clinic.

Brian Harte, MD: Hi, my name is Brian Harte. I'm an internal medicine physician at the Cleveland Clinic going back to 2004, and I'm currently the President of Cleveland Clinic Akron General.

Steve Abdenour: My name is Steve Abdenour. I am currently Chief Operating Officer for Cleveland Clinic Akron General. I have been with the organization about 32 years. Most of the time has been here at Akron General prior to becoming part of the Cleveland Clinic, going through the integration piece, and then I spent the last couple years at out Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates before coming back in this new role.

Colleen Carroll: That’s great! Do you think that you could share with our listeners how you and Dr. Harte work together and a little bit about your communication philosophy?

Steve Abdenour: Well, Dr. Harte and I... First of all, our offices are just one wall apart here, so we're in constant communication throughout the course of pretty much every day. We communicate kind of continuously either through walk-by meetings, sticking our heads in each other's offices, constantly through email, and then we touch base pretty much every day through our morning huddle processes, and then beyond that, we'll have routine weekly meetings, where we have just at least an hour long sit-down going over items.

Brian Harte, MD: As Steve mentioned, we have both morning and afternoon check-in huddles, where we go over what we feel that the rest of the team needs to know about their day and what the next day is going to look like, so we put a high premium on sharing information here. I've come to the belief that having frequent, almost constant communications, sort of just in time communications with the key members of our executive team, is absolutely critical for our performance.

Colleen Carroll: Thank you both for that - I'm already hearing a theme here of continuous communication and lots of transparency. Something we're often talking about in GLLI and our leadership development efforts is cultivating a leadership practice - you know, your style, how you lead others. And I think it varies for all of us in how we want to be led and then how we lead.

Given that both of you are capable and seasoned leaders, I'm curious if you might be able to share an example of a time you've had to flex your leadership style to meet the needs of your team?

Brian Harte, MD: One of my first leadership transitions was going from a main campus department chair to regional hospital operations, and within a very short period of time I realized that the hospital operations job was different. When I was managing a department, we really focused on clinical operations within a group of physicians. It was a large department, many of whom had very similar background skills and training as I had, and that didn't make the job necessarily easier or harder than moving into hospital and organizational operations. It simply is quite different, because when I came out to Hillcrest as the Chief Operating Officer, and that was in late 2010, I was suddenly sitting at a table with people with extraordinary expertise in areas and domains and subjects and competencies that I didn't understand much about at all, nursing, pharmacy, facilities, clinical engineering, OR operations, etcetera.

So I very quickly learned I think to have a very deferential and leadership style, one where I saw my job was to use my position as a physician to articulate the clinical strategy and let my team use their expertise and demand that the team use their expertise to work together to achieve those strategic goals, and that was a very different kind of leadership than I had been used to as a department chair.

Steve Abdenour: Now from my perspective the pathway would have been similar, but still a little different, and as I kind of grew as a leader most of it had been through I would call more organic leadership responsibility, and that is working within the organization, being able to take on greater responsibility. What that means on the operation side is things like getting introduced to a new department or now being over an area that you're not accustomed to, like Dr. Harte just indicated.

Now all of a sudden, even though it may have been a peer department in the past, I may not have had a lot of experience in that area, so now this is something new to me. I think the key is to know or admit what you don't know. That means, again, relying on people who are the experts in those areas.

I would encourage anybody if you find yourself in that situation learn as much as you can about that area, about the people who are leading that area, what is it that's important to the people in that area as well as the OKRs or whatever an issue is at the time. Admit what you don't know, immerse yourself in that, and see how you can help that area take down barriers.

There are going to be numerous times I think in your career as a leader where you're going to come across situations where you're going to have people of varying skills, people who are very seasoned in their areas, or some people who are brand new. I'm actually dealing with one of these situations right now, where we're having a transition of a 20 plus year employee who was just the most capable individual in their area of facilities and plant operations, and we're going to be handing it off because that individual is retiring to a younger team.

How I would interact or manage with that group, the new group, would be very different than with the current incumbent, so it does kind of make you reassess and change your style to kind of fit the situation and help to potentially grow those new folks into that situation.

Brian Harte, MD: And just to add to echo of the things Steve said, I have found that my leadership journey has gone from what used to be sort of direct management to much more prioritization on communication and, as Steve said, learning.

Colleen Carroll: Wow, it sounds like a lot of ah-ha moments and learning for the both of you, for sure. And a lot of people-focus too.

Colleen Carroll: Building off what you both just shared and how closely you work together, do you find that your leadership styles always jive, or have you had to adjust for one another?

Steve Abdenour: I had the pleasure and opportunity to work with Dr. Harte in a previous role, and so I was exposed to his leadership style, and I think his style and my style are somewhat similar Certainly I think we're both collaborative in our approaches. I think we both want to understand what's happening in specific areas.

Another thing I will say I think is actually very important that I greatly appreciate about Dr. Harte is his willingness and ability to inject humor in the daily situations, because let's face it, we all work in a very stressful environment and as people continue their careers in leadership the stresses and responsibilities tend to just continuously ramp up.

I have always personally found it beneficial I think and helpful at times where just allowing humor to help disarm a situation, and I think it helps put people at ease. But, again, back to Dr. Harte's style and my style, I think they're certainly more similar than they are different. I think we recognize where our individual expertise tend to kind of maybe drop off and the other one picks up.

Actually I'm grateful for the fact that I think we both recognize that. I will say as just an anecdote just the other day when we were having our one-on-one meeting kind of at the end of the normal agenda I kind of took the opportunity to kind of push the agenda away and say, "Hey, Brian, I need a gut check on something," dealing with a personnel decision, a certain disciplinary action. Even though these are things you constantly deal with on a weekly basis sometimes you get a tough one, and it's great to be able to sit back and say, "Hey, this is how I'm seeing this. Let me get your perspective."

And I'll tell you, having that difference of view or being able to push away from something you maybe too close to has just tremendous benefits going forward I think, for me at least I can say.

Brian Harte, MD: When our executive team has gotten together, and especially after there's been a change or an addition to a member of the executive team... So as an example, Steve Abdenour joined as COO back in March. What we've actually done is had that person, if they hadn't already done it recently, go through Strengths Finders. Then we actually have a grid, my executive team has a grid where we kind of line up at least each other's Strengths Finders assessments against each other. And as Steve said, we do find a number of similarities. We all tend to have a good sense of humor. We also tend to be very data oriented, fairly analytical in or approach.

But I think it's essential to also recognize when others on the team have different personality styles or different approaches to leadership. So there are people on our team who are more strategic thinkers. There's an individual on our team who's much more relationship based with his approach to leadership, and that's an important thing for two reason.

Number one is that the way those skills complement each other is I think essential, because if we all look at a problem or an issue or a situation or an opportunity in the same way, then you run a very high risk I think of group think, so we want contrarian thinking. We want to be able to not only have conflict, but of course to manage it in a very healthy way.

So we want different perspectives and opinion on a situation, and in healthcare I think that's sometimes hard to get, because I think especially clinicians, doctors, nurses, et cetera, and I think also healthcare executives tend to be relatively similar in their approach, so to seek out those different kinds of styles is I think essential.

Also the other reason of course is when you're interacting with a person, and in my case I tend to be, as I said, pretty data driven, analytical, I like to be methodical in my thinking, and if you're working with somebody on your team who is just not that way, then it can be very frustrating. So that's an example of where I and Steve have to both flex our styles... Even into a realm which may not be entirely comfortable, but we have to flex our styles in order to sometimes accomplish our objectives together.

Steve Abdenour: I will say I think Brian brings up a very good point, because I know there have been certain times where... As he indicated, a lot of our administrative hallway here, we tend to be a little bit heavy on the analytic side of things. So, it's great to kind of recognize, or sometimes you even miss it a little bit, and we've kind of caught each other.

I know there have been a few times where Dr. Harte has even said to me... He says, "You know what? You might want to talk to Amanda about this one. She's dealt with something similar in the past and she's going to have a different perspective."

Sometimes, even though it may be... You think it should be obvious, sometimes it's helpful to get that little nudge and then be able to kind of bounce it off one of your peers and get that different perspective. That can be a little more eye opening, because it's just not... Maybe not the way you're used to looking at a problem.

Brian Harte, MD: I would add to what Steve said is that whether you use it as sort of a tool, at our executive team we try to incorporate sort of that different styles, different ways of thinking, into the way we discuss or share information. So something might be presented, and I will in advance pick out somebody in the group to lead the discussion.

What I've tried to do is actually pick out somebody who does not have expertise necessarily in that area so that they can ask questions from their perspective, and the issue is less does that person have the expertise to ask or to guide the discussion in a way that... It goes in the direction that you might expect. It's actually quite the opposite, to bring a different perspective, and sometimes a perspective that has less experience in the area.

So if we're discussing a safety event, I might have somebody from finance, as an example, kind of lead the discussion, because I want to bring in not only the learning, but also the different perspectives into the conversation so that we intentionally avoid group think, and as Steve said, intentionally asking your colleagues for feedback on a situation is another way of doing that.

Colleen Carroll: Yeah, feedback is so important! Switching strides a bit here, we'd like to hear a little bit about how you two work together to make decisions. There is a lot of complexity out there, especially at Cleveland Clinic, we are constantly faced with making decisions - and we don't always have the answers. Being that you two bring your different background and experiences, what is that process like for you?

Brian Harte, MD: So I think Steve and I actually work really well together, and I at least approach it from a few basic principles. The first is let's make sure we're both on the same page with what we're trying to accomplish, so I think simplifying is much as you can. Sometimes it's not all that much, but clarify and make unambiguous whatever you can so that we're on the same page with actually what we're trying to accomplish.

And, start with structural intention, so before we drill down into what the deficits or the gaps or the problems are, let's start with the idealized goal and what we have working in our favor to try to achieve it. The second is... At least I try to make sure that I am not stepping outside my swim lane. I will not pretend on any facet of the planet Earth to be able to do hospital operations nearly as well as my COO, so I have to make sure, and I sometimes will ask for feedback to make sure that I am framing the goal from my perspective and letting Steve have sort of equal contribution to that, and more than equal where it speaks to his expertise. I think the third is to not get bogged down in trying to get too much data. I think especially sometimes in healthcare and on the clinical side we want more and more and more information before we…. have a level of certainty to make a decision. I heard at a clinic leadership session, and I think the quote was ascribed to Colin Powell. He said, "The right time to make a decision is when you have between 40 and 70% of the information you need. If you have more than 70, you waited too long, and if you have less than 40, then the risk is too high."

So I think that carries into the last point, which is not afraid to take some risk, not existential risk to the organization, but we want to move as quickly as we can to make the best decisions we can. We can't count on having perfect information to make every decision.

Steve Abdenour: Great points that Dr. Harte makes right there. I will just add as part of the Cleveland Clinic enterprise we work in a complex organization, and I think what's helpful in working together is understanding, you know again, as Brian indicated, what the goal is in this situation and, um ok, from a communication perspective who do we need to reach on this issue, who do we need to consult, where's the information coming from, and who do we need to speak to as a next step.

So sometimes this is a matter of all right, let's just make sure we're not duplicating each other's work, because information can be coming to us from multiple sources on the same subject. It's just sometimes the nature of the beast in an organization so large. I am appreciative that Brian talks about knowing maybe the limits of the technical part of the operation. Actually we kind of joked the other day... We were just dealing with an issue on financial clearances and at the end of the meeting I kind of pushed back in chair and says, "You know what? I know next to nothing about this," and he looked at me and said, "What do you think I know about this?" it's admitting what you don't know and let's find out what are our deficits, who do we need to pull into this situation. Let's face it, nobody knows... Nobody is going to have the answer to everything, but I think as Brian indicated it's how do we posture ourselves to get to the point where we can make the most informed decision with the reasonable resources that are at our disposal.

Colleen Carroll: Those were two really great answers - making decisions does involve risk, no matter how we look at it! So, as we wind down this interview, we have one final question for you both: what is one piece of advice you would lend our developing leaders in the Cleveland Clinic enterprise?

Steve Abdenour: A couple of things, the golden rule, just honestly it's the things you learned in third grade, treat people the way you want to be treated, and I would say in whatever you're doing... Whatever your job is at the time, try to be the best at what that need is asking of you. It's really been that simple. I've never had a game plan for my whole life, saying I need to be at this level, or I need to make X amount of compensation, or I need to have Y number of people reporting to me. It's put your head down, be good at what's in front of you. And then ultimately the last piece I say is don't be afraid to stretch yourself, because that's how you develop, that's how you learn, and that means taking on something that's going to be unknown to you at some point and not being afraid of it.

Brian Harte, MD: Well, Steve you gave several pieces of advice there, including one or two that I might have thought of as well. I think I would add to what Steve said though look for an opportunity to create, to create something out of a situation or an opportunity or in solving a problem, to create something which doesn't currently exist.

Maybe it's nothing less or more than relationships amongst people and a team that has not come into existence previously, or maybe it's a solution to a problem which has not yet been proposed. I think in our nature we are creative beings, and I think that the best in our leadership is brought out when we think about things from that creative perspective.

Michelle Lampton: And that's our episode. A huge thank you to Dr. Brian Harte and Steve Abdenour for taking the time to share their leadership stories with us, and a special thank you to the wonderful Colleen Carroll for asking such great questions.

That's it for us at GLLI! Stay curious and keep learning.

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This podcast is designed for Cleveland Clinic caregivers looking to develop their leadership skills both personally and professionally. Listen in with leadership experts on the topics that matter most, and what makes our culture what it is at Cleveland Clinic. We'll hear from aspiring leaders to seasoned experts on hard lessons learned, best practices, and how to grow and develop. No matter where you are in your journey, this podcast is for you.
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