Ken DeFurio has worked in many positions within Butler Health System, but just because he’s now president and CEO, doesn’t mean he has all of the answers for his 1,700 employees.
“That is a real trap you can fall into,” he says. “Things have changed.”
For instance, when DeFurio started in the organization, everything was done on paper. But now it’s all computerized, and he wouldn’t know where to begin to document patient care in the electronic world.
“My job isn’t necessarily to say, ‘Yeah, been there, done that.’ It’s to understand in changing the workflow that much, what additional burden or what obstacles have we created for the staff, whether it be doctors, nurses or anybody else,” he says.
It’s DeFurio’s job to keep an open mind and remember that just because something is done electronically doesn’t mean it’s better.
“If you slowed a nurse down or you’ve taken a nurse or a doctor away from the bedside because you are making them type into a computer now, you’ve got problems,” he says. “I hear that kind of feedback as you are going through those types of implementations and changes. My job is to make sure we are moving forward and not taking steps backward under the umbrella of progress, because it may not be progress.”
DeFurio needs to have an understanding of the issue and find people who can help.
“In this case, it might be one of the guys from the IT department who can write a program to streamline the documentation, as an example,” he says. “Then you get that resource applied. You work with the folks that were on the front lines and you improve the situation and make it better for them.”
Here are some of the other leadership lessons DeFurio has learned during his career.
DeFurio’s greatest learning moments have come from seeing things handled in very poor ways.
Such was the case with a former boss DeFurio had who would manipulate positions below her.
“Basically, she would align herself with buddies, with her personal friends, and push aside other folks who were in leadership positions who were actually very effective at their jobs and were doing all the right things for the organization,” he says. “They found themselves a victim of this personally driven circumstance.”
It didn’t work out for that boss, and it caused a lot of organizational and personal pain for the people involved.
“It definitely, with me, created a self-awareness of personal interests and how self-serving interests can be major obstacles to doing the right thing and doing what is right for the organization and, in our case, the community,” he says. “I’ve learned some lessons the hard way from working with those people that I will never forget.”
DeFurio had to be mindful of his relationship within the company when he became president and CEO. Having worked his way up through the organization, DeFurio had developed friendships with employees at lower levels, but he had to alter those relationships as he was promoted.
“The closer to the front lines you are, the more personal and friendship relationships you have, naturally,” he says. “You see these people a lot and do things outside of work.
“As I moved up through the ranks, I had to consciously step away from those friendships along the way. It’s not that they are no longer my friends; it’s just I don’t have the same personal relationship with them now that I used to.”
While you may be achieving your professional goals, you may also feel disappointed about having to change aspects or your personal life.
“When I was first going through it, it was a major bummer,” he says. “It’s a change in your life. It takes time to work through that because if you are a social person to begin with and those relationships really matter, it’s a real hard thing to move on and be willing to let some of those things go.
“Where I have seen people fail is where they don’t let that go, and now they have these friends at various levels and that just presents conflicts. Imagine being personal friends with somebody two or three levels down in the organization and the leadership structure in between. You’ve essentially set that leadership structure up for failure in that dynamic, and it’s just not fair to those folks.”
You have to realize that, while it’s hard for you, it can be just as difficult for your friends at the lower levels of the organization as they see you move up through the company. You have to be honest with them about why things have to change.
“If they are really your friends, they don’t hold it against you. They understand,” he says. “Your real friends are giving you pats on the back and saying, ‘Good job, man. Way to go. Good luck.’”
While you want to distance yourself from those relationships, you have to remain the same person. If you stay the same person they became friends with, you will be able to have professional relationships with them.
“Even if they are not understanding why what happened (did happen), if they still know that fundamentally you are the same person, you are still honest, you are still doing the right things for the right reason, you’re just doing it at a different level, they will respect that,” DeFurio says. “So, you can’t become somebody else. You can’t become the Grand Poobah because they know you’re not. It would be absolutely disingenuous, and at that point, it’s a charade. As long as they can see that you are still genuine, you’ll be OK.”
Keep it casual
One of the other leadership lessons DeFurio has learned is to keep things casual whenever possible.
For example, he wants what is best for the patients of Butler Health System. So, when employees make wrong decisions, but they made the decision with the patient’s best interest in mind, he’s OK with that. After all, DeFurio has walked in their shoes and while he doesn’t pretend to know their jobs, he remembers the pressure they are under.
“I’ve never forgotten these jobs are hard,” he says. “The folks we serve are very sick. You could work Monday through Friday 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and forget that there are people working their hearts out at 3 o’clock in the morning on a Saturday night. Having been there and done that, I’ve never forgotten that you always need to stay close to that.”
If there is logic behind a mistake or a wrong decision, you want to handle it more informally. DeFurio or a manager would casually explain the situation to the person, rather than have him or her come to an office and feel like he or she is being disciplined by the principal.
“It’s much more informal,” he says. “I’d probably say it’s more of a hallway conversation kind of thing. Pull them aside, arm around the shoulder and say, ‘Look, you could have pitched that ball a little bit differently and let’s talk about that.’ Try to make it very nonthreatening because ... there is a perceived hierarchy and power structure that any CEO needs to be very conscious of. It takes work to remove some of those psychological barriers that I believe are more art
ificial than real.”
DeFurio especially sees younger executives come in with a hierarchical and bureaucratic approach to leading.
“(It’s) not because they are intending to do anything negative,” he says. “It’s natural. You think that’s how you achieve results through folks. What I always suggest to folks is to take a deep breath. Everybody has a brain in their head, regardless of what their title is. Try to let folks talk and understand what is going on. Don’t draw conclusions until you’ve done your job in gathering all the appropriate information from whatever stakeholder group it may be.”
If DeFurio sees a manager going down the wrong path or making mistakes, he won’t immediately jump in. You want to give him or her the time to work out situations on his or her own.
“You step in when you start to see the overall goals of the organization or maybe the goals of the department are at risk,” he says. “That’s when you step in. If things can be done better, but you are working toward the goal, then it’s little tweaks of advice.
“If there is something really going south and you are worried about the morale in the department or the goals are not going to be met, that kind of thing, then you step in a little bit more strongly and try to get that course corrected. Everybody deserves the opportunity to succeed regardless of the level in the organization.”
Even for a more serious mistake that costs the organization money, DeFurio takes a more informal approach.
“The game here is not to make money,” he says. “Yes, you have to have a bottom line to thrive and to succeed and grow and be there for the future. But, we’re here to serve patients and to provide care and as long as decisions were made in the best interest of the patient and of the patient’s family. Even if it was costly, that’s OK, because it was done with the patient in mind.”
While it’s possible to be too informal, DeFurio still prefers to lean that way as a leader, as opposed to being more formal when discussing a mistake.
“Somebody said to me one time that presidents of companies need to act presidential,” he says. “I think it was a different way of saying, ‘Be more formal than informal.’ I think for some folks that probably from personality- and style-wise works well for them. I do think you always need to be aware of that public presence and the fact that people are watching you.
“For me personally, I have found that the informal approach works better than the formal approach more often than not. That includes even with my board. We have formal board meetings with agendas and things you have to do, but I just try to talk to them in the boardroom as if I were talking to them sitting in my family room about a particular issue. It’s being honest and direct and answering any questions folks have.”
If you lead with a more formal style, it may put a stranglehold on your employees’ ability to think as individuals. You have to come in with an open mind when it comes to mistakes because it isn’t someone’s intention to do wrong.
“Not everything is going to be a success 100 percent of the time,” he says. “As long as you are open and honest and forthright about what went well and what didn’t go so well, you don’t punish people. I do have this fundamental belief that everybody does come to work wanting to do a good job and sometimes things don’t turn out the way you want to.”
How to reach: Butler Health System, (724) 283-6666 or www.butlerhealthsystem.org