Supply chain leadership, succession planning can learn a lot from rugby

Dec. 18, 2018

Supply Chain Management represents that critical part of a hospital’s operations that has both direct and indirect impacts on quality of care and financial sustainability. It’s the one that represents just over 50 percent of a hospital’s operating expenses and takes up 20 percent of nurses’ daily work shift. Most importantly, it’s the one that is in desperate need of new leaders to take over for the large percentage (35 percent per year, over the next few years) of current leaders that are retiring or leaving their current position, each year.

Since I explored the topic of leadership and succession planning a year ago, I’ve found that the needle hasn’t moved very much. Perhaps more accurately, it’s like the speedometer needle when you press down on the accelerator while the car remains in neutral gear. (See the January and July 2018 Periscope columns at HPN Online.)

Who am I to address any of you about leadership? The answer is somewhat simple. While I don’t inherently know more about leadership than most others in the supply chain profession, I have studied leadership and leaders for most of my more than four decades in this industry and profession. Having consulted with about 1,700 hospitals in the U.S. and Canada, I have worked with a similar number of people in charge of supply chain in those hospitals and integrated delivery networks. Some of them turned out to be leaders.

I’ve also had the opportunity and privilege of meeting, getting to know and working with healthcare provider organization executives (some were leaders and some were not) as co-participants in professional organizations’ activities. One such organization was the American College of Healthcare Executives (ACHE), which has as its focus the aim of preparing executives to become leaders, and for those leaders with experience, to become better leaders. You see, becoming a leader is not a race that has a finish line. Rather, it is a journey that lasts throughout an entire career.

In addition, I benefited from working with many seasoned leaders, and observed them in action. Some were my bosses, while others were colleagues. I learned to believe in the motto that, “You will know a leader when you see, [know and work with] one. “Unfortunately, the opposite also is too true. But even faux “leaders” can be helpful; at least you can learn from them what not to do.

Ever attend a seminar or conference that focused exclusively or primarily on leadership? It’s an amazing experience because of the opportunity to learn from both the faculty and the attendees. The attendees are there to help themselves become leaders or better leaders, too. And if you happen to think you don’t need to attend such a conference, I will suggest, “Oh yes, you do!” Even if you learn only one new thing about leadership that you can immediately put into practice once you return to your office, that’s just fine. Remember, becoming a leader is a journey. After you attend multiple conferences or seminars during your career that at least offer some sessions or content on leadership, the cumulative knowledge gathered during such events should help you put leadership characteristics (see those previous Periscope columns for a discussion about this) and skills into practice.

What about articles or entire books or journals about leaders and leadership? Read any lately? This might be a biography or autobiography on one of the “Captains of Industry,” from the more distant past or more recent one. It could also be a memoir or leadership book written by one of those Captains that explores their philosophy about leadership and stories about situations when their own leadership skills and traits had to be put into action, and the outcomes achieved.

Roll through the scrum

One useful source about leadership to explore involves sports – particularly books by popular players and coaches, but also including players that became coaches and the challenges they faced transitioning from player to coach. Many of the players did not and still do not succeed as coaches. It could be that as players, all they had to focus on was their own game/performance. When they had to become concerned about the ability and performance of all the players on the team, make and orchestrate a plan for the group and lead the team, they discovered they were poorly prepared.

One of my three sons, who played rugby for several years (all three played rugby – he played the longest), sent me an article about a rugby player who became captain of a pre-eminent rugby team and what that captain learned both from others and on the job. (See McKinsey Quarterly, December 1992, or click here: Here are some of the thoughts (mostly paraphrased so no quote marks provided) from his experience that can apply to anyone in any business including healthcare.

  • The leader’s first and most important role is not to get in the way.
  • Central to the leader’s role are establishing the values that animate the team and mark it out as something special; the leader’s job is to represent these values as powerfully as possible. Leaders must set an example in everything they do.
  • First, there are the critical control and integration tasks. Great teams encompass myriad capabilities or talents; the leader must identify and unite the particular combination of those capabilities that will meet the immediate goal of the team.
  • Another leadership function is to provide focus within the team. Visions must be broken down into objectives; desires must be translated into incentives. Training must focus jointly on the immediate task in hand and on the building of long-term capabilities.
  • The leader must make each player feel needed and wanted in his or her own right, but at the same time, ensure they understand that no one is bigger than the team and that everyone must make sacrifices for the group.
  • The final task for the leader, and in many senses the most important, is to build and nurture other players as leaders. Within each of these sub-teams there is a number of potential leaders waiting to contribute. The leader must recognize the leadership in others and foster it.
  • Leading and building a team is not about acting the role of leader. It is about being a leader.
  • You can’t be world class unless you have world-class problems. The opposition/competition is the opportunity. Take it.

What you have read up to this point you now should recognize as a reference to a few leadership skills and traits, but equally important, somewhat of a roadmap to learning about leadership. It should give you ideas about the sources of learning that are available that do not necessarily happen in a classroom, or on the job. You are the one that knows the types of learning environments and styles that work best for you. And if you pursue a number of these choices, you will probably learn more and have some fun, too. So get going before the going gets even tougher.