Path finder Featured

8:00pm EDT August 26, 2007

Partnership, accountability, trust and high reliability.

It’s Joe Swedish’s path — or, more correctly, his “P.A.T.H.” Those four qualities are the team-building characteristics that he wants every person at Trinity Health to embody, from the senior managers down to the lowest levels of the $6.1 billion, seven-state health care service provider.

With partnership, accountability, trust and high reliability in place among its people, Swedish says an organization is built on a foundation of bedrock that will allow it to grow for years to come.

“For me, it’s that acronym,” he says. “That’s what a team is based on. With all of us working together, if we can fit ourselves to that team construct, I believe we can accomplish great things.”

When Swedish became president and CEO of the fourth-largest Catholic health care provider in the U.S. in 2005, he had never led a multistate business entity that needed large-scale alignment of its people in order to accomplish long-term objectives. Out of necessity, he had to undergo a self-directed crash course on large-scale organizational management.

He quickly came to an overriding conclusion: The power of a business is in its people. You have to be able to harness that power in order to grow your business, and in order to do that, you need your people to not only work together, but to want to work together for the common good of the organization.

That is how Swedish started down his path to “P.A.T.H.” “The challenge I quite frankly underestimated was a matter of scale, with regard to geographic dispersion, program diversity and just the nature of managing infrastructure that oversees all of our locations,” he says. “What I have learned thus far is that I have to be more trusting of people, my leadership team, and I really have to become very knowledgeable about the power of talent in an organization.”

The four qualities of partnership, accountability, trust and high reliability are, as Swedish calls them, “vectors toward a simple word, and that’s ‘alignment.’”

“There has to be clarity of purpose and a commitment on the part of the people who are serving the organization,” he says. “Fundamentally, people have to be able to trust the leadership and commit to the team so they feel that sense of ownership toward the organization.”

To define the path for a business, you must define where you want to take your business, and to do that, Swedish says you must isolate what it is you want to value as a leader.

He says strategy is one of the most important areas in terms of defining an organizational path.

“I spend a lot of time determining the effective path of the organization based on our strategic direction,” he says. “The responsibility of the CEO to set strategy is a very significant responsibility. Basically, it lets your organization know what you’re striving to achieve and why that sense of ownership is so important. We can only accomplish it if everybody is aligned.”

For Swedish, the critical keys to alignment are making sure you have strong communication within your culture and that you intelligently manage risk.

Managing communication

Swedish says that without effective communication, your best-laid plans will die on the vine.

And truly effective communication appeals to employees on a personal level.

“Once you’ve defined the path, then it becomes the responsibility of the CEO and the team to communicate again and again,” Swedish says. “You want to make sure certain people are listening to your message, and in order to listen, that gets back to the ability of the person communicating to cover their personal commitment, not just to the organization, but to each individual.”

It’s the philosophy behind Swedish’s second P.A.T.H. acronym: passion, attitude, truth and heart. Those four qualities are essential for authentic communication that draws in your team. Swedish says a CEO must be passionate about what he or she is saying, and that must go along with large doses of positive attitude, transparency of message and speaking from the heart.

“Every leader has the responsibility to exhibit those qualities. That is evidence of an organization where people can really begin to get that sense of ownership because they believe the owner is really trying to bring them into the organization with that level of commitment and is an authentic leader.”

But delivering a message with passion, attitude, truth and heart is only half the battle. If you are in Swedish’s situation, with many employees spread across multiple locations, you need to make sure the employees in Location A are interpreting your messages in the same manner as employees in Location B.

With 45,000 employees in seven states, that is no simple task for Swedish. That’s why he decided early in his tenure to begin stressing what he calls “common language.”

“What I have found repeatedly is a disconnect, a breakdown of common language,” he says. “I can go from one location to another and the same word means different things to different people.”

Shortly after arriving at Trinity Health, Swedish gathered his senior management together for a series of culture-shaping sessions that lasted for about six months. In those sessions, Swedish and his leadership formed a template for uniform communication across the health system, including common organizational terminology.

“As an example, we all committed to the description of our organization as unified enterprise ministry,” he says. “To us, that means something more powerful. To others, it might not mean as much.”

He says each word was selected with a particular quality in mind. “Unified” represents a systemwide approach to communication and best practices.

“If you are a unified organization, you are better able to cross-pollinate best practices, so that a hospital in Silver Spring, Md. can benefit from the achievements of a hospital in Boise, Idaho or Fresno, Calif.,” he says.

“Enterprise” is an acknowledgement that Trinity Health is a complex, growing organization that must manage risk effectively.

“Hospitals within our organization are singularly very traditional but connected from the scale in this organization can create a very powerful voice to promote the transformation of health care in the U.S.,” he says.

“Ministry” speaks to Trinity Health’s mission in the communities it serves. The system has its roots in Catholic health care providers extending back more than 100 years.

“Ministry means simply to serve, and we want to be able to continue in the tradition of serving our communities,” he says. “So those three words, that is an example of common language. No matter where I go in Trinity today, we talk about being a UEM.”

The job of communicating to all parts of a large organization falls, in many ways, onto the shoulders of the field management. Since a CEO can’t be in all places at all times, or even some of the time, Swedish says he learned very quickly that driving a message across an organization is heavily reliant on those directly beneath the CEO.

“Certainly you become aware that the limit of your control is probably about a layer and a half or two layers in the organization,” he says. “Beyond that, you are really trusting individuals who work with you to effectively guide the organization to accomplish its goals.”

Swedish meets regularly with all leaders throughout the Trinity Health organization, in person and by phone, to reinforce the messages that originate in the home office.

“I’m not disconnected from the organization, but we have 45,000 associates,” he says. “I have to have a team I can trust and that is aligned with me and my thinking regarding the primary objectives of the organization.

“Leaders like me really pride themselves on that face-to-face connection. But that is incredibly difficult in a far-flung organization. In some regards, it’s really not that different from a multinational organization, which suffers the same issues with regard to executive outreach. So you have to be able to rely on the talent that immediately surrounds you to carry out that message.”

Managing risk

Swedish says aligning a company for optimum growth means managing risk in a uniform fashion. One wing of your company might lean toward playing its cards close to the vest, while another might like to gamble a bit more.

However, if the conservative wing of your company is losing money by missing out on growth opportunities while the more adventuresome wing is making bad investments, it all adds up to the net sum of pulling the company downward.

Swedish says the key word is “judgment.” “If you don’t take risks, you don’t grow. Business risk is like personal risk in that it’s a matter of seizing moments that, in many cases, are opportunities that only come along once. As a CEO, managing change is probably the hardest thing I do every day.”

Swedish says it comes back to knowing what you want to value as an organization, and then communicating that to your employees. Through communication and feedback, he says you will figure out what is an acceptable risk level for those in your company.

“Taking risks means different things to different people because people have different levels of risk tolerance,” he says. “It’s the responsibility of the leadership to advance risk-taking to appropriate levels to continue growth.

“I think it’s important to note that the most important risk-evaluating tool I have is the ability to know two plus two equals four without knowing what the second ‘two’ is. That was something that was taught to me many years ago by a mentor. The judgment of the leader is what helps an organization discern the correct degree of risk to take on in any project or activity that attempts to move the organization. Again, it all distills down to judgment.”

HOW TO REACH: Trinity Health, www.trinity-health.org