George Barrett and Cardinal Health stay ahead of health care’s pace of change

Cardinal Health also seeks to keep a balance in both its customer and product portfolio mix. In order to stay clear on the larger issues, Barrett says the company has a strategy council that meets about every six weeks.

“That group really wrestles with the hard issues of our time, that’s what we do internally,” he says. “I say to the group, ‘Look, we’re not going to solve every question at every meeting. We’re not going to be able to tie a bow on some of these issues. We’re going to surface the important issues and we’re going to start to assess our capacity to provide solutions, given those dynamics and given those forces, and make some strategic bets around them.’”

Leading the way

In a time of enormous change, whether that’s in the organization, industry or both, a leader needs to stay active and in the forefront.

“You need to do more than mobilize people’s brains. You have to mobilize their hearts to have a receptivity to change,” Barrett says. “That requires very active leadership. And that’s not just from a single leader; it’s all the leadership of the organization.”

You also don’t have the time to be indirect, he says. You don’t have time to have a million meetings to confirm your own instincts. You need to address issues quickly, while debating them fully.

And when things are going well, encourage your employees to challenge themselves to understand why they are succeeding.

“The answers can be illuminating,” Barrett says. “The answer could be, ‘Wow, we actually had some enormously important insights that we’d like to scale more quickly and transfer to some other parts of our organization.’”

Or one success may be covering up some challenges.

In either scenario, it’s important to not get insolated and have people who will tell you the truth.

“You’ve got to create an environment in which the people can thrive, and I think that goes back to this issue of culture,” he says. “The word ‘culture’ sometimes gets a bad rap because it’s sort of warm and fuzzy as opposed to hard science.

“But the reality is that a great strategy with an organization that’s not ready to execute, or that’s not aligned, or not inspired by the challenges in front of them, will not be able to bring success to that strategy.”

Incubating ideas

With swift industry changes, Cardinal Health needs to be nimble and adaptive, in spite of the fact that a large organization naturally tends to be a little slower moving.

To change this, it requires a careful look at the culture of the organization to ensure the company is actively promoting innovation, diversity and debate about how to compete in the marketplace, Barrett says.

One way Cardinal Health has encouraged its employees to think differently — to innovate and be able to run with ideas — is through Fuse, the commercial technologies team within Cardinal Health that focuses on the design, development and delivery of commercial software to improve the safety and efficiency of patient care.

By creating a separate facility with unique organization, layout and talent management approaches, Barrett says Fuse runs more like a typical startup, while applying knowledge from touch points across the health system.

“It is sometimes hard to get small things running in a large enterprise because the large enterprise is always looking for something that can operate at scale,” Barrett says. “But sometimes you have to incubate ideas.

“And this allowed us to incubate ideas with some protection around them, and I think that’s allowed us to accelerate the work being done at Cardinal Health.”

A magnet for talent

The need for organizational speed and adaptability carries over into how Cardinal Health approaches talent management, as the company measures its own people on it.

“When you think about setting priorities for an organization, one often thinks of the classic strategic priorities, which, of course, we do, but we also prioritize capabilities that we need to have and behaviors that we need to reinforce,” Barrett says.