The Organization Development and Training teams at the University of Washington Medical Center weren't satisfied. The Medical Center was consistently ranked among the top dozen medical centers in the United States as rated by U.S. News & World Report's "America's Best Hospitals," and near the top of all medical schools in federal research funding.
But many of the medical center's leaders felt compelled, in the midst of health-care's increasingly competitive landscape, to take their "operation" to the next level.
"Being an academic medical center, there is a strong desire here to learn," says Kurt O'Brien, manager of organization development and training. "There also is the realization that if we want to keep improving and getting better, we need to provide our leaders with the necessary skills and tools."
Moving the entire organization forward would require leaders who were up to the challenge and a leadership development program that could help get them there. Leaders had been talking about specific concepts for several years, and they now saw the opportunity to put them into practice. When O'Brien's team, whom he describes as a creative group always willing to try new things, discussed what would be required, they agreed they wanted a leadership development program with these three components:
- A competency-based model.
- A research-based, valid, and reliable 360-degree feedback instrument.
- A systematic approach to leadership development.
A consultant working with O'Brien had been impressed by Zenger Folkman's Extraordinary Leader approach. She talked with her other clients about the programs they were using and came back to O'Brien with several options, but continued to recommend Extraordinary Leader.
It met their three criteria, and further appealed to O'Brien, and later to the medical center's executives, because of "the research behind the product," he says. The program relies on decades of research and more than 200,000 detailed statistical profiles from more than 25,000 managers in a wide range of companies and industries. The course is based on the book, "The Extraordinary Leader: Turning Good Managers into Great Leaders" by Dr. Jack Zenger and Dr. Joe Folkman.
O'Brien and others in his group went through the Extraordinary Leader workshop. Experiencing it firsthand clinched their decision.
UW Medical Center's first Extraordinary Leader workshops took place in the fall of 2005. Participants included the top eight executive leaders in the organization—the CEO, CFO, and others—and the next level of senior leadership, including a total of about 50 people.
After achieving leadership buy-in, the program now is offered four times annually. Employees attend from all parts of the medical center, including food services, environmental services, patient care, nurse administration, and physicians in leadership roles.
O'Brien, who is a certified Extraordinary Leader trainer, and his team, developed their own delivery schedule of the material. They begin with a two-and-a-half hour session that introduces leaders to Extraordinary Leader concepts, and makes the case for using 360-degree feedback to improve leadership skills, and prepares them for participating in the process. Facilitators take care to emphasize that the primary focus is to build on their strengths as reported by the feedback. Three weeks later, the participants gather again to interpret their feedback, meet with a professional coach, and create a development plan. Feedback reports are e-mailed to each participant two days prior to this second workshop, which, according to O'Brien "gives people the chance to have their reaction, get two nights' sleep on it, and then come to the workshop a little more prepared to start talking about their feedback and understand what it all means."
Extraordinary Leader now is embedded in the learning culture of the UW Medical Center. "It has been received extremely well," O'Brien says. "Leaders give us very positive feedback about their experience."
The program's reputation for success has led to its adoption by other units of the broader University of Washington, such as its office of financial management.
O'Brien cites the experience of the medical center's former CEO at the time Extraordinary Leader was rolled out as representative of the course's effect on its participants.
"She was anxious and reticent about doing a 360-degree program because she had a bad experience in a previous organization," he says. "But she liked what she heard about Zenger Folkman and agreed to give it a shot. She went through it and thought it was great. She really enjoyed the experience and the focus. That was a good test for the program."
"More than a third of the organization's leaders have completed the workshop. Ninety-seven percent of workshop participants agreed—with 80 percent strongly agreeing—that "The design of this course (teaching methods, activities, and materials) provided an effective way for me to learn this subject matter." Similar percentages also agreed the facilitators are effective at delivering the material. In response to open-ended evaluation questions, participants often cite the results of their 360-degree feedback as eye opening. Most are pleasantly surprised, such as the individual who wrote, "I didn't realize my team thought so highly of me." Others were candid about learning their performance as perceived by others didn't match their own impressions. Raters also hailed the emphasis on building strengths.
"People remember that it is really trying to get them to focus on building on strength instead of focusing on a weakness," O'Brien says. "This focus also translates into how they lead their own departments and teams, in terms not just of looking at problem areas, but also of looking at successes and building on those."
"It is gratifying to know we have a tool here that helps our leaders learn about themselves and how others perceive them, and provides them with the opportunity to look at developing their skills in new ways," O'Brien says. "Overall, this effort is contributing to improving the entire organization."
"The program's success elicited phone calls from training and learning officers at other health-care organizations to discover what is working so well. O'Brien tells them, "If you are looking to use a multi-rater approach to help develop your leaders, then you should seriously consider the Extraordinary Leader program. We choose to use it here because it is competency-based and has strong research behind it. The fact that it is a strength-based assessment helps change people's perspectives and mental models, and they end up having a more positive experience."
"The Extraordinary Leader course now is a core component of the University of Washington Medical Center's training regimen. "It takes vision to institute a program like this, and a lot of credit has to go to Cheryl Hawley, our former manager, for seeing what was possible. I expect it to be part of the medical center's training program for a long time," says O'Brien, who is exploring how to sustain learning among those who already completed the program. In looking forward, he cites a familiar refrain for the always-improving medical center: "Now our effort is focused on taking it to the next level. That is our next challenge."
Joseph Folkman, Ph.D., is a keynote speaker and conference presenter, an organizational consultant, and the author or co-author of six books. Scott K. Edinger works with leaders on developing leadership talent in their business and addressing the challenges of organizational change. He is a keynote speaker at national meetings, and has contributed to publications such as Selling Power and Training magazine sister publication Sales and Marketing Management.