Rich Cordova can still tear into the engine of a 1955 Chevy. It’s not really a skill that helps him much as president and CEO for Childrens Hospital Los Angeles, but then again, maybe it is.
Cordova has been around the block as an executive during the last 35 years, including leading the Southern California Region of Kaiser Permanente’s Health Plan and Hospitals, but his core style might just come from the mechanic’s sense to tinker.
A native of Southern California, Cordova grew up working in his father’s gas station doing everything from pumping gas to engine repair. The early lessons were lasting: Any one of a thousand problems can keep car off the road, so you have to think about each function of the engine to make things run smoothly. That adaptability is something Cordova keeps in mind with his 3,200 employees at Childrens Hospital, which treats seriously ill and injured children and is affiliated with the Keck School of Medicine of the University of Southern California.
Since moving into his current role in 2006, he’s worked to understand the discrepancy in employees from secretarial staff all the way up to highly educated surgeons, and he realized that keeping momentum at the organization was all about his ability to figure out the hospital’s problems and get the staff behind him.
“Any leader has to be flexible enough to understand the environment that they’re going into,” he says. “With hospitals, they have this saying that ‘Once you’ve been in one hospital, you’ve been in one hospital,’ meaning the cultures are so different, even though the mission is the same. You have to be flexible enough to understand that your leadership style may have to be tweaked here and there when you approach a certain group of people.”
Here’s how Cordova has continued to tweak his leadership style while working to conquer his field.
Hear and address the problems
There are a lot of differences between fixing an engine and running a business, but one similarity is training your ear for problem noises and adjusting your strategy.
The same way you can hear the loud exasperation of your failed exhaust manifold gasket, Cordova knows you can hear the problems of an organization.
“One thing I’ve been consistent at the whole time to be successful is having open communications,” he says. “I don’t do a lot of work behind the scenes making decisions, I have the executive team that I meet with weekly, we set agendas, and we talk over the issues and get consensus before we go to implement a new plan or program.”
Cordova makes it a priority to regularly speak with leaders in each of his departments. He knows he doesn’t have time to hear 3,200 different opinions on what needs to be done, but, he says, department leaders, a more manageable group to deal with, will tell you their big problems. It saves time in sorting out feedback while still getting to the heart of the situation.
“The key is listening,” he says, “Listening to the concerns of our scientists, listening to the concerns of nursing staff and our practicing physicians, and then understanding what needs to be done to correct the situation. Our whole strategic plan is a culmination of things raised by the faculty here at Childrens Hospital, and we’re fixing all those things.”
Once he’s heard the organization’s problems, he reciprocates their openness with a transparency of his own. For example, he gathers all the department leaders to hear the results of the hospital’s performance each quarter, and then updates what those results mean to the strategic plan so they can share it with their staff. By addressing the problems of the organization and letting everybody know you are not shying away from it, you’ve created the equation for consensus.
“My success has been to build that consensus,” Cordova says. “Be transparent as to where you’re going and where you’ve been.”
Just from letting people know the inner struggles of the organization, Cordova says you will get more candid feedback on what problems people have that are in the way of strategic goals. The added bonus will be employees who feel empowered by the knowledge of what’s going on.
“The feedback I’ve been getting since I’ve been the CEO has been phenomenal,” he says.
“It’s invaluable to them owning the plan. It’s sharing all that information because sometimes you take a dip in your financial performance and everybody needs to understand why and then understand how we’re going to move in a more positive direction.”
Show short-term progress
To keep an organization with an operating budget of more than $493 million moving, you have to show your entire staff momentum. Cordova makes it a point to show the positive changes Childrens Hospital has made, and then points out that he’s not just inventing ideas in some ivory tower.
“I keep articulating back to them, ‘I am only fixing the things that you told me need to be fixed’” he says. “That tends to motivate them.”
That momentum is something Cordova says has to be fed constantly. He recommends what he calls low-hanging fruit, a series of short-term goals that will help keep the whole organization feeling as if it is moving forward.
“Strategic planning is typically longer-range thinking, but one of the key elements to success is some short-term operational corrections,” he says. “One of our strategic goals was operations improvement to show them that those operational concerns were imbedded in our strategic plan. That’s the first year of implementation of that plan, it was not the 10-year goal, to give them the confidence that we were moving on those issues.”
Those momentum-building changes don’t have to be big, they just need to have a positive impact on many people. One thing Cordova started with at Childrens Hospital was the redesign of the Web site.
“Things like that are short-term to establish that we are beginning to make those changes,” he says. “Did it cost a little money? Comparatively speaking, that’s low-hanging fruit, and it goes miles to show that we are listening and we can make changes.”
That continued effort will keep the emphasis on the organization’s forward movement, but it will also inspire employees to continue to give productive feedback.
“They feel they are being listened to and we are taking care of these issues for them,” Cordova says. “Our job as administrators is to create an environment so that the physicians and nurses can practice the best medicine they can, and you can only do that by listening to their concerns, understanding what needs to be done, developing the plan to get there and having the vision to get to the future. If you do all that, you’ll capture their imagination, you’ll capture their energy, and you’ve got an alignment of the organization.”
Give a chemistry test
While the key to an engine repair may be a new part, there are no stores stocked with employees who will fit your company. So to find new talent for the senior leadership team, Cordova takes a nugget he’s learned in the medical field: He administers a chemistry test.
“The old motto is you are only as good as the people you surround yourself with,” he says. “You can get a lot of resumes, and, of course, you look for the skill level and the education, but just as important, maybe more important, is the chemistry they bring to the organization. I’m almost inclined to say that counts even more because I’ve seen people who are textbook smart but can’t survive in large organizations.”
Cordova’s chemistry test isn’t complex. He first mixes a job candidate with the people he or she would work with both daily and occasionally and then he finds a way to relax those candidates who make it to a second interview to get to the core of their personality.
“When I select the interview panel, I’m selecting people that I know are going to work with this person,” he says. “Then, I select people that may be further away from that position [but] will have some kind of interaction. I make sure that I get a lot of data points on this person.
“Then I do the informal interview process where I take the candidate to dinner and give a more relaxed atmosphere. I’ve even taken some candidates to play some golf.”
In taking his perception from the casual atmosphere and blending it with the thoughts of staff members involved in the department, Cordova says you can get the right equation of how the person will fit.
“By having my own assessment and the assessment of the key executives that they’re going to work with, we can make a pretty good judgment as to what I call the soft sciences, meaning their people skills, their teamwork, their sensitivity to others, how they are going to work with physicians and nurses, and their team approach,” he says.
Match culture and community
More than just hiring for the right chemistry of the organization, Cordova places an emphasis on matching the culture of the hospital to the community. The Los Angeles market is one of the most diverse in the nation, and if you want to serve others whether they are clients, consumers or patients you have to realize that your people need to reflect that. To Cordova, that starts from the top.
“I look for diversity of the executive team,” he says. “Serving a very diverse community of Latinos, Koreans, Chinese, Armenians and so forth, an organization needs to reflect the community it’s serving, both at the governance level and at the executive level.”
First, Cordova says the way you search for outside talent has to be different.
“You start with the criteria you are using for recruitment,” he says. “You make that commitment. You begin to tell your search firms that this is a priority for you, and you have to start putting the onus on your search firms to help develop a diverse pool of candidates.”
Beyond making that recruiting effort a priority, Cordova says that companies can do the work internally to make diversity happen.
“The other commitment companies can make is to grow your own,” he says. “Develop the pipeline by bringing in students, interns and administrative residents that have diverse backgrounds and grow them in your organization.”
That process requires a leader to groom his or her diverse talent by tying each person to the organization.
“Give them stretch assignments, so four to five years from now, they are going to be ready for a director-type position and, four to five years later, that director will be ready for a vice president position,” Cordova says. “You have two avenues that you really have to pursue. One is grow your own. Two, make a commitment to having a diverse pool of candidates when you’re recruiting and having that be a requirement in your search.”
The ability to integrate that work force is extremely important, and Cordova insists that there is a direct connection between an organization’s quality measure and its leader’s ability to properly match the community’s diversity and emphasize cultural understanding of those whom you’re serving.
“There is a major emphasis on quality, and quality can be measured in a variety of ways,” he says. “I think there is a correlation between having a diverse staff and individuals that are trained in culture competence so that we are able to understand the different cultures that we’re treating, that has an impact on quality. And there’s a direct connection between leadership, culture competence and quality.” <<
HOW TO REACH: Childrens Hospital Los Angeles, (323) 660-2450 or www.childrenshospitalla.org