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In this third installment of our inclusive leadership series, we hear from Cleveland Clinic’s Dr. James Hekman, Medical Director for the West Region and strong advocate of community health equality, on how to strive to create more inclusive teams.

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Inclusive Leadership Part 3: Diverse Teams are the Strongest Teams

Podcast Transcript

Emily Grimes: Welcome to Learning to Lead, a leadership development podcast from Cleveland Clinic. I'm Emily Grimes, and today we are returning to the topic of Inclusive Leadership with Dr. James Hekman, the Medical Director for the West Region.

There's so much to be learned on how leaders live inclusion in their work, and my colleague Elizabeth Pugel sat down with Dr. Heckman to hear his story and learn how he connects to inclusive leadership. Let's hear their conversation now.

Elizabeth Pugel: Today, we have Dr. James Heckman with us. And we are excited to have you to hear your perspectives on inclusive leadership. So Dr. Heckman, what does inclusive leadership mean to you?

Dr. James Hekman: Well, one thing I'd say is inclusivity never happens by accident. I've come to learn that it needs to be intentional, inclusive leader needs to be more than being open to diversity, it needs to be a stated goal, it needs to be highlighted with every decision and it needs to be measured. It's human nature to feel more comfortable with people who look and talk and relate like you, to counter this natural tendency, inclusion needs to be intentional.

Elizabeth Pugel: Has there ever been a time where you felt not included? And if so, what was the impact on you?

Dr. James Hekman: The time in my life when I felt most excluded was some time now, when I started college. I received my actual degree from the University of Michigan. But before that, I spent the first year of study at a midsized religious college in Western Michigan. It was an easy and expected move after high school for me to begin with this college.

A good percentage of my Christian high school class enrolled at the school, which was respected academically and was relatively affordable for a private school. So I basically went with the flow and signed up to attend as did many of the students who I had gone to high school with, and then I also signed up to live in the dorms. I’d come from a really homogenous, very religious community. At the same time, I was coming to understand that I was different than nearly all of the incoming freshman class at that college.

Elizabeth Pugel: Wow, Dr. Hekman, that’s a very reflective moment in your life.

Dr. James Hekman: Socialization in the dorms and in the school generally was evangelically focused and centered on obtaining a degree while also creating a family. In the late '80s culture was different than it is today and someone who was starting to identify as LGBT couldn't really find a place to fit in. Events weren't designed to be inclusive, career networking wouldn't support an LGBT person living openly. I never really felt bullied, but there were some moments of microaggressions and some intolerance on campus. Mostly though, people were good and well meaning, but didn't know how to deal with it, they didn't know how to process who I was, which led to a more comfortable avoidance.

Elizabeth Pugel: This sounds like a tricky situation. How did this make you feel?

Dr. James Hekman: So, there was an extended period of time for me when I felt like an “other”, I felt excluded. And that led to a pretty significant depression for a year. This led to the decision to leave that college and transfer to the University of Michigan, which was my real first introduction to diversity as an adult, there were so many different experiences and cultures and backgrounds in one location. I thrived there, and what was once the hardest time in my life, it became quickly the most exciting and rewarding.

Elizabeth Pugel: That sounds like it was a really tough experience for you, Dr. Hekman. How did this early experience in your life impact how you practice inclusive leadership today?

Dr. James Hekman: Thanks for that question. I try, with the emphasis on the word try. This is a work in progress, to ask questions of members of my teams, I want to know who they are as people even if it is as different to me as night is to day. I remember those days when I felt excluded, when questions about my experience were missing by those who led. And I want to create teams where everyone's experience is meaningful, is heard, and contributes to a greater understanding of our shared humanity and in turn leads to better problem solving. That's the goal, at least.

Elizabeth Pugel: I love that idea of understanding our shared humanity and how it leads to better problem solving and really to building stronger relationships, right? So what have you learned from relationships with other leaders about being inclusive?

Dr. James Hekman: There have been so many wonderful inclusive leaders that I have encountered at Cleveland Clinic. So just tracing my time with the Clinic back, when I first started clinical practice, there were many leaders in what we now call 4C, but was called the Medicine Institute at the time, who role modeled support for inclusion in our clinical practices, and I personally felt welcomed by them at Cleveland Clinic. At the beginning of my leadership journey, as we started to explore improving the visibility of LGBTQ+ people, Dr. Kelly Hancock, Steve Jones, Ed Sabanegh, Brian Donley, really stood out as people who demonstrated inclusive leadership. They encouraged and guided me and others from different backgrounds to consider trying our hands at new roles. Regional Operations, the group that I work with, has really emphasized developing inclusive leadership in recent years. You can see that in the current mix of leadership within regional operations, but personally I remember Tom Ableson, Medical Director at Beachwood who is retiring this year, he frequently would stop by my office or have short encouraging conversations in the lunch spot at Beachwood Family Health Center. He gradually and persistently encouraged me to consider additional leadership responsibilities. Josh Miller has been a valued mentor for me and he has always treated me with candor and support. I feel like he knows me as a person, and our professional relationship is built on that authenticity and respect. He’s developed similar relationships with each of our Medical Directors and he has placed diversity and inclusion as a top priority. There are some of the folks, there are many more, but these are some of the folks that stood out to me from my own particular unique leader diversity experience.

Elizabeth Pugel: What I’m hearing is that you have benefitted from leaders taking the time to get to know you personally, and during that time, those relationships have helped build respect and allowed you to feel valued. What are the three to four qualities that you feel are most important to inclusive leadership?

Dr. James Hekman: Great question. I think, besides being intentional, which I think is the most important of all of these, I think it is really essential to create a culture of psychological safety where people feel comfortable and are actually expected to speak up. I also believe inclusivity should represent the community that is being served. There is no formula or single system to create inclusivity. It really should represent those in the region, the area that is being served. It should mirror that community.

Elizabeth Pugel: Thank you for those thoughts, Dr. Hekman. So why do you think it is important for people, and leaders, to be inclusive, to create that culture of safety, and be representative?

Dr. James Hekman: I would say that it is important to create diverse teams because diverse teams make stronger teams. I think the ideas of psychological safety and intentionality are key, and in creating a team of people of differing backgrounds, those varied and different experiences help the team arrive at the right answer for any particular question that comes along. So, here’s an example, something that I’ve used before that I find kind of a neat example of soliciting different opinions. There was a study done online asking about 17,000 people to guess the weight of a cow at a state fair named Penelope. The average guess was 1,287 pounds. Now, the cow, Penelope, weight 1,355 pounds, so the average that was calculated was only off by about 68 pounds, about 5%. So, you can assume with an online survey that 17,000 people were a pretty diverse bunch. The reason you can get so close to the correct answer is that each person’s guess has a little different piece of information in it based on different experience, a different perspective. So, the consensus of those viewpoints is that the answer becomes very close to the correct answer. So, as we build that in our teams, those teams become stronger and more able to come to the solutions for situations that arise. Diverse teams that represent the communities are the strongest teams. Just like it’s jokingly said that Cleveland Clinic buildings are built to withstand a hurricane, an earthquake, and a tornado all at the same time, I think we can build our teams that way. As with COVID, we can’t predict for every scenario. What we can do is develop teams that have the capacity to adapt to changes as they occur, and an inclusive team has that ability to pivot more rapidly and more durably.

Elizabeth Pugel: What a great illustration on the value of diverse teams. Thanks for sharing those thoughts. You really painted a picture of why inclusive teams are so critical to our work Cleveland Clinic. So if you could instill one inclusive quality in every person of our organization, what would it be?

Dr. James Hekman: My advice would be to make it intentional. Inclusion takes work and it takes prioritization. It doesn’t usually happen on its own. The impact would be that the groups that lead us look like the people they are leading, and they are influenced by a number of different factors and backgrounds and are more likely to achieve the correct answer for any problem that presents itself.

Elizabeth Pugel: That’s a wonderful piece of advice. As we conclude our podcast today, what would be your final thoughts that you would like to leave our listeners with today on inclusive leadership?

Dr. James Hekman: So, I think Cleveland Clinic does an outstanding job of valuing inclusive leadership. I think inclusion and developing inclusive leadership teams is done intentionally in most of our areas. I think that, as with any organization, we have room to grow. We could do better; we could do more. We are continuously improving, and podcasts like this one are an example of how we start that process.

Emily Grimes: And that’s our episode today. A huge thank you to Dr. James Hekman for being so open and sharing his thoughts and stories with us. Thank you, as well, to Elizabeth Pugel for being such an amazing listener. And, most importantly, thank you for your time and willingness to join us as we learn to lead.

Caregivers, if you're curious to learn more about inclusive leadership, head online to Connect Today and visit the Office of Diversity and Inclusion's site or the Learner Connect page for more content from Mandel Global Leadership & Learning Institute.

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

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Learning to Lead

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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