Most days, you’ll find Michelle Fisher in her office, looking out the window—but that doesn’t mean she’s daydreaming. That’s just what Piedmont Healthcare’s chief strategy and performance improvement officer calls her practice of being vigilant of the constantly changing world of healthcare. “I spend a lot of time studying the macro forces impacting our industry, translating those trends into implications for Piedmont, and then educating our board and management team,” she says. And through that work, Fisher has reinforced the importance of agility, openness to change, and empowering women at the Atlanta-area system.
Fisher’s focus on learning and educating leads naturally from the four elements of her work: strategic planning, corporate business development, project management, and performance improvement. As the system has doubled in size over the past four years, the challenge of driving those efforts has required a lot of intentional communication and cohesion. “My responsibilities have changed over my fifteen years at Piedmont, but it’s always been helping to design, implement, and measure progress against our long-term goals,” she says.
The last aspect of that focus is especially important, Fisher notes, as the bigger picture of her role is to help impart financial sustainability and stability to the organization. To provide the best possible care to patients, Piedmont needs to be able to attract the best clinicians, optimize the best technology, upgrade facilities, and invest in best practice research and implementation. All of those, of course, are going to require financial resources. “We are a nonprofit community asset, and it’s our obligation to provide the highest quality that we can to our patients. But to do so, we have to be financially viable,” Fisher says. “We have an unsustainable cost structure in healthcare in general, so organizations have to make changes, if you want to be around for the long haul.”
Looking out the window involves both identifying opportunities and developing strategies that minimize the effects of negative trends. Fisher first gained an understanding of the full scope of that work when she was asked to organize a system-wide training program to embed a culture of continuous improvement. “We studied improvement programs that taught Lean and Six Sigma, among other approaches,” she explains. From there, she collaborated with Piedmont’s chief medical officer, Dr. Leigh Hamby, and launched “QPI,” Piedmont’s quality and process improvement program.
Since its 2014 launch, more than three hundred employees have earned their black belt, which required learning key principles in improvement work—most prominently, in today’s environment, the importance of managing teams through change. “If you combine a risk-averse or change-averse culture with a rapidly evolving industry, you will find yourself playing catch-up with your competitors,” Fisher says. To change that, the QPI program tries to instill a sense that change is required of all healthcare leaders in today’s environment and what is critical to success is how they go about making the change.
Easier said than done, as change management is a difficult concept to master, but one that Fisher approached with an equal focus on strategy. First, she quickly learned that fully understanding the why behind a need for change was essential for employees to buy in; however, it was better for those employees to determine the what and the how themselves. “Grassroots change is always better than top-down. If you tell effective teams why change is required, they’ll figure out the what and how. More importantly, they will own the change,” she says.
Another lesson that Fisher learned came from trying to “go it alone,” she says. Simply put, she observed that organizations didn’t have to figure everything out internally. “Knowing when to call in partners is important, and that’s why I credit Deloitte and Accenture as being a big part of Piedmont’s success over the years,” Fisher says. “Partners like that can accelerate an organization’s transformation, especially with change management expertise.”
One change Fisher is particularly passionate about is creating more gender diversity in Piedmont’s leadership teams. “Most workforces in healthcare are about 80 percent female, but only 10–12 percent of the average executive team is. More confusing is that less than 5 percent of CEOs are female,” she says. There is no silver bullet to create gender balance within organizations; however, there are many strategies available. Fisher stresses the importance of mentorship—something she learned from her own mentor and predecessor in the role, Michele Molden. “She spent time refining my technical skills, but also my emotional intelligence,” Fisher says.
From that experience, Fisher has helped drive the Women’s Leadership Alliance, an employee resource group aimed at developing women leaders throughout Piedmont Healthcare. The program offers mentorship matching, a speaker series, and networking and community service opportunities. More than anything, Fisher stresses the Alliance’s abilities to help build relationships throughout the system and connect women with the knowledge and resources they might not otherwise have access to. “Building those relationships, getting to know others, and sharing experiences makes leaders develop faster. It makes you more invested in the company’s future,” Fisher says.
As Fisher herself can attest, inspirational leadership and a focus on doing what is right for the community and the patient can both inspire employees and lead to positive change for an organization at large. Whether through the quality- and process improvement program or the Women’s Leadership Alliance, all of Fisher’s work is done with patients in mind. “It all really centers on communicating, managing change, and building authentic relationships,” she says. She may be looking out her window, but it’s always in order to take care of the people in her home.
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