Dr. John C. Ruckdeschel Featured

8:00pm EDT September 25, 2007
Sometimes on your way to the top, you can become disconnected from those below you. Dr. John C. Ruckdeschel had seen former colleagues who became leaders step away from the work that got them to the top and lose touch with the pulse of the institution, and he didn’t want that to happen to him. So when he took over the $200 million Barbara Ann Karmanos Cancer Institute as its president and CEO, he says it was vital that he continued to see patients in order to stay in touch with the organization and his 1,000 employees. Smart Business spoke with Ruckdeschel about how to be straightforward and how to find out if a prospective employee is the right fit for the company.

Be honest. I do see patients, and there are times when the brutal honesty about what is going to happen to them with their disease is not what they are ready to hear. But, I never lie to them about their disease or say everything is fine.

It’s the same thing here. If I was going to let someone go, but we haven’t quite figured out all the pieces of it yet, and I was being asked about it, I would say, ‘We have a problem here. No decision has been made yet, but here’s the problem we are dealing with,’ and then let it roll out later as opposed to, ‘Three days from now, we are going to fire you,’ which would not work.

It depends where we are in the process. I would say, ‘We have a problem, and you need to tell me how we can solve this problem.’ If they say, ‘I’ll change and be good,’ then I have to make a decision whether I believe that or not. I wouldn’t say everything is off the table. I would say, ‘I will put that in the equation, work on it, and I’ll get back to you.’

It’s so much easier to lie or to shave the truth on a regular basis. I think that’s one of the hard things about leadership.

Look deep into potential employees. I need to look in their eyes and see if there is a light on in the back of their eyes — the people who are enthusiastic, who understand their business, can talk about it and tell me how we might solve some of the problems we’re having. It isn’t, ‘Give me $10 million, and I’ll solve your problem.’ It’s, ‘This is how we’ve done it where I was, and this is how I think it applies to you.’ Then I can see a light on and see a passion for what they do.

It’s like we are betting on horses. I look at their trainer and look at their breeding. It depends on where they did their training and who have been their mentors to date.

I also ask all of my key people who are doing the interviewing to look for the light on. Their approach is going to be somewhat different than mine. People do tend to shine up their behavior for the boss and think they can slack off for someone else.

Act fast on problems. Every three months, I go to all of our sites and give about a 10- to 15-minute discussion about where things are, throw it open for questions and give people gifts who ask questions. I am out in front of everyone, every quarter telling them where we are going, the good, bad and the ugly. The vice presidents responsible are right there. We hear a complaint, I turn to them, and they are on it. We don’t need a committee meeting or a memorandum and all the other nonsense. It is direct.

When we announce something, we send out a correspondence out to all our employees before it hits the press and say, ‘If you have questions, ask.’

Relax. I’m very careful to separate out my private life, and I am very careful to preserve free time. I don’t permit dinner meetings unless they are truly unavoidable. However, every time a candidate comes through, I don’t go to dinner with them.

My feeling is if it’s work-related, I’ll do it during work hours. I’ll get up early and have breakfast with them or have lunch if a meal is required, but I am not going to routine dinners all the time. I would spend six nights a week out to dinner.

You can overanalyze, overworry and overfret about a problem. There are some things that need to be stepped back from. If it’s meant to be, it will come back to you. If you are in a stalemate in a negotiation, step back from it. You shouldn’t be in a negotiation unless you could give it up.

Pay attention to employees when a change occurs. I watch their faces. If you are experienced and watch people instead of reading from your notes, you notice whether people are avoiding eye contact, their body language, etc. If I get a sense that people are uncomfortable or the tone of the question is negative, then, instead of giving the answer, try to get at the cause.

You just make yourself available. People stop me in the hall all the time and will ask a question. Just keep talking to people and never stop when things are tough.

Your key people have to be on board. If your vice president for that area is not on board, then you either need to rethink the plan or rethink the vice president, and that goes down to the director level, as well. That forces the issue.

HOW TO REACH: Barbara Ann Karmanos Cancer Institute, (800) 527-6266 or www.karmanos.org