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Adaptability is a hallmark of great leaders, and for Will Conaway, chief information officer and vice president of technology at Prime Healthcare, that has meant culling all he learned from ten years in the automotive industry and finding ways to adapt its ahead-of-the-curve technical capabilities and sophisticated performance tracking tools for the healthcare sphere.
The CIO who also teaches at Cornell University’s ILR School working with masters-level students in leadership, psychology of leadership, and negotiations says regardless of the experience, he has found a way to incorporate seemingly disparate experiences into effective solutions in his role. Conaway spoke with American Healthcare Leader to reveal his key tactics on building culture, setting tone, and enabling success in the IT space.
What strategies do you find especially important for building effective IT departments? What that has looked like for you at Prime Healthcare?
I don’t like to use the word effective. I see the word as setting the wrong tone. Effective should be the minimum baseline for any IT department. If your IT department is not effective, close the doors, turn off the lights, and outsource starting tomorrow morning.
With that said, when I joined Prime Healthcare IT, our first order of business was to uphold the concept of becoming a world-class IT department. This is an arduous task and can be counterintuitive, as your first step is often a step backward. Whenever you slow things down to perform analysis and are perceived as taking a step back, you risk losing the resolve of your people at the very time you need to be gaining their trust. Getting by this requires the courage to reevaluate the past. You need a return to the basics: define the current state and desired future state.
Once done, everything must be aligned with the values, goals, and mission of the organization as a whole. This type of work for a leader requires rolling up your sleeves and getting involved with your people. It’s time intensive and takes constant, consistent communication to spur improvements and monitoring, so you don’t fall back to bad habits.
“When you consider the number of items that IT touches in healthcare, you realize that IT has a massive cultural component and influence on an organization’s culture.”
What components have gone into building culture at Prime?
Before I started my role as CIO and vice president of information technology, I had put together a one-hundred-day plan and pillars depicting what the IT department should be doing operationally, culturally, and what it should measure to track progress.
When I talk with many technology leaders, I don’t always hear talk about culture with a sense of urgency or importance. When you consider the number of items that IT touches in healthcare, you realize that IT has a massive cultural component and influence on an organization’s culture. To be a top IT leader, you must have a good understanding of what your and your team’s actions mean to the organization as a whole.
To address culture, I have leaned heavily on my background as a teacher of the psychology of leadership, negotiations, healthcare strategies, VUCA, and other academic foci. From teaching top leaders and high-potential employees at many large organizations including J.P. Morgan, Amazon, and ACCOR through eCornell, and teaching many outstanding students in varied industries at Cornell University, I’ve developed many questions to ask about organizational culture.
For example, what is the age of your organization in cultural terms? What characteristics does your organization display? When is the organization capable of cultural changes? Are there sub-cultures that need to be considered? Pillars allow your people to see the building blocks of the department and how things fit together.
Tell us about some of IT space successes that you’re especially proud of.
There has been much success with Prime Healthcare’s IT department; however, the achievement isn’t mine, but mine to share since it came from every member of the team and from the unwavering support that we receive from all leadership throughout the company.
The team has worked very hard, and it’s understood that success isn’t built in a day; it is built every day. We’re all very proud of the paradigm shift that has occurred within Prime Healthcare’s IT department. The building blocks were already there; they just needed to be set in place.
The foundational team that greeted me upon my arrival at Prime Healthcare included CTO Raghu Chennareddy, the brightest technical mind with whom I’ve ever worked; Vik Mahan, senior director of hospital operations, an experienced operations leader with in-depth knowledge of Prime Healthcare’s hospitals and facilities; and Red Clemens, enterprise program director, who had detailed plans and concepts of how to run an EHR program. Since then we’ve expanded our leadership team with even more top talent: Joe Wood, leading our project management office/M&A corporate, who is already familiar Prime Healthcare culture and operations; and Betsy Grossman, director of epic revenue, who brings years of healthcare and financial systems experience. Additionally, we have teamed with Prime Healthcare HR and have been hiring the best talent in the industry for all our IT jobs.
It is extraordinary what can happen when everyone is working toward common goals. As a group, IT is helping to create a safe, impactful, patient-centered, timely, efficient, and equitable environment.