Dennis Lee Featured

8:00pm EDT October 26, 2007

Accountability. Success. When approached individually, these principles can elude even the savviest of executives. But try to achieve both simultaneously and that’s when things can get really difficult, Dennis Lee says. As president and CEO of Methodist Hospital of Southern California, his most difficult challenge isn’t overseeing the day-to-day operations of the facility, which had net operating revenue of $207.4 million in 2006, but it’s demanding honest accountability from his 2,050 employees in a way that doesn’t discourage them from aspiring to succeed. Smart Business spoke with Lee about how to earn power, gain trust and ask the direct questions that alleviate stress.

Manage with accountability. You have to know what your goals are, and you have to have some way of tracking your progress on achieving those goals. One of the ways you can do that is by having regular meetings.

Our executive team meets quarterly and reviews the goals of the organization. Each goal has a member of the executive team assigned to accomplish that. If you haven’t made progress on your goal, you’re going to be a little embarrassed in front of the rest of the members on the executive team that you haven’t made progress.

I have my one-on-one meetings with my executive team. Their goals are a standing part of the agenda for every meeting. Just asking the question, ‘How are you doing on each of these goals?’ — that’s the way you hold people accountable.

Once somebody agrees to accept a particular goal, give them the freedom to achieve that goal however they want to do it. The only time you intervene is when they’re doing something that you know is going to be problematic to the organization or them in some fashion.

There are lots of different ways you can accomplish a single goal, and my way isn’t always the only way or the best way. If you let people decide for themselves, then A, they’ll be successful, and B, they’ll feel empowered that they can do it the way they want to do it.

Help others be successful. With respect to your direct reports, you always establish goals at some point and make those goals a regular part of your one-on-one meetings. Ask direct questions about how they’re doing in accomplishing their goals. It’s really just asking the question, ‘What can I do to help you?’

A lot of employees, just because of your title, are going to be reluctant to share bad news with you. If you make yourself accessible to employees, eventually some of that fear will be overcome, and then employees will be open with you.

It takes an ongoing commitment to be approachable and accessible to employees. That’s the only way you’re going to make them feel comfortable that they can share problems with you.

When an employee does bring a problem to your attention, you have to follow through. You have to eventually get back to that employee and say, ‘When I talked to you a couple weeks ago, you brought up this problem. Here’s what I’ve done about it.’ That’s absolutely key.

‘What can I do to help?’ — that direct question is the only way you’re going to know what you can do to help other people be successful. It rubs off on people. It helps them be friendly to patients and their families, visitors and the community at large. They don’t come to work with a lot of fear, and they’re better able to approach their job with a happy spirit.

Lead with integrity. Tell the truth, and tell it completely. When you can’t tell the whole truth, tell people, ‘There are certain parts of this issue that I can’t share with you,’ and tell them why.

It’s telling the truth 100 percent of the time and over time. You can’t fail on that. It’s the only way to build trust.

It’s important to everyone within the organization. It’s important that they trust, that they’ll know what’s going on all the time, and they’ll know the truth whether it’s good or bad. People will respect you more, even when it’s bad news, if you tell the truth.

Make communication a priority. We hold regular open forums where employees are invited to come and meet with members of the executive team to hear what’s going on in the organization and to ask questions.

We have regular management and department director meetings where we communicate to them so that they, in turn, can communicate to their employees at their departmental meetings.

There’s an open invitation to everyone in management if they would like me to come to their department meetings to address a particular issue or just communicate what’s going on.

You have to be on the lookout for signs of stress, and then have the courage to ask direct questions to get an understanding of what’s causing that stress. For example, when I go to the nursing unit, I’ll look up at the assignment board. If it’s full, I will ask, ‘How’s your staffing today? Are you having any problems?’

You have to just be sensitive to signs of stress, and then ask direct questions to understand what the sign of stress is. Then have the courage to say, ‘Is there anything I can do to help you?’

It’s the fact that you asked the question and you offered to help that is the greatest benefit.

Use your power appropriately. (Executives) should never use their title or position in the organization to browbeat employees into doing something.

You have to be approachable. Just because you have the title of vice president or department director doesn’t mean that you should isolate yourself in your office. You should be out, and you should be visible.

It’s only through how you perform in the organization — that’s how power is really given to you. It’s not through your title or where you sit on the organizational chart.

Basically, do you follow those leadership principles? It’s only if you do that well do people give you the power that you need to carry out your responsibilities in the organization.

HOW TO REACH: Methodist Hospital of Southern California, (626) 898-8973 or www.methodisthospital.org