The Crucial Role of Connectors in Large Health Care Organizations

Article · September 20, 2018

As a pulmonary and critical care medicine specialist at Cleveland Clinic, I am privileged to work with a group of highly accomplished and respected colleagues who have an insatiable thirst for knowledge and remarkable potential for innovation. My experiences and observations in this academic health care setting have led me on a personal quest to understand what fulfills such individuals in their work and how organizations can provide an environment that sustains them in their professional careers.

Through informal conversations, town hall meetings, and literature searches, it has become clear to me that fostering a sense of community promotes professional satisfaction and growth and encourages individuals to contribute to their institution’s mission and vision in a meaningful way. As in other professional environments, people with a unique skill set that enables them to connect and foster collaborative relationships with and among others are invaluable to the overall success of an organization. In addition, supportive environments that allow individuals to connect as a community need to be preserved and supported.

Rugged Individualism: An Outdated Concept

In the past, traditional concepts of professional success required a healthy element of rugged individualism. A successful research career or thriving clinical practice (or a combination of both) required an entrepreneurial spirit to achieve the rewards of autonomy, professional satisfaction, and fulfilling relationships with patients and communities. While such qualities remain necessary for success, the need for coordination and collaboration has become ever more important in the current health care environment.

We all can agree that times have changed with the increasing complexity of patient illnesses, the deluge of medical information and changes in treatment, and the ever-present bureaucracy of documentation, insurance appeals, and regulatory requirements. To face these challenges, a clear vision and goals are needed. In this environment, leaders with the ability to connect people from different segments of an organization — i.e., “Connectors” — are essential.

Fostering Synergy: A Contemporary Approach

The ability to forge these connections requires a specific set of leadership skills (both innate and learned) that can be called upon to promote relationships and identify synergies between individuals across an institution. These skills (e.g., demonstrating empathy, being an attentive and active listener, understanding the context and goals of an institution, and seeing possibilities when others may not) enable Connectors to bring people together in visionary and innovative ways. In other words, Connectors are individuals who are entrepreneurial with relationships. The ability to facilitate such relationships among individuals across an organization has the potential to create more joy, satisfaction, and sustained longevity in work.

In the best-selling book The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference, Malcolm Gladwell emphasizes the crucial role that Connectors have played in society throughout history. One well-known example of an effective connector was Paul Revere, who had the ability to make and maintain social connections across different segments of society. When Revere set out on his “midnight ride” to alert the countryside about the British march to Lexington, the news spread rapidly by word of mouth. In contrast, William Dawes (a contemporary of Revere’s who was dispatched on a similar mission) was less effective in spreading the news because he had a more limited sphere of influence. The qualities that made Revere different from Dawes — qualities such as the ability to quickly make friends and acquaintances, to develop high-quality relationships, and to “build bridges and span boundaries” — are characteristic of Connectors.

This perspective on history is a metaphor for how to address our challenges in health care. However, simply knowing people is not enough. Connectors need to convey the intangible qualities of empathy, curiosity, charisma, and optimism in order to be effective. The impact of such individuals, at the right time and in the right place, can change the course of an organization.

Unleashing Connectivity

To span boundaries in our modern world, individuals, settings, and effective organizational structures must be intentionally put into place to unleash connectivity.

  • Individuals within organizations — specifically, mentors and sponsors — can implicitly or explicitly function as Connectors.
    • Mentors not only share their clinical or research expertise, but they also serve as role models of professionalism. For example, when the leadership team at Cleveland Clinic sought to better understand the joys and challenges associated with the practice of medicine at the institution, it recruited a group of physicians to participate in a series of town hall meetings on the topic. These meetings were facilitated by a group of peer leaders, whose job was to listen to their physician colleagues and connect them with appropriate programs and resources (e.g., career development workshops, well-being initiatives, etc.) that would enrich their professional lives and practices. Leveraging the talents and leadership skills of these mentors was crucial to the success of these town hall meetings because it provided a sense of authenticity and optimism that the individual attendees could apply to their daily lives.
    • In contrast to direct mentors, sponsors may function outside of a related work environment (or even outside of medicine or a particular specialty) yet have the ability to connect people to opportunities outside of their immediate area or local environment. Herminia Ibarra has written about the importance of “outsight” for professional growth — that is, the ability not only to default to what one knows well (by having insight), but also to embrace projects and activities that require new skill sets and different collaborators. Finding success in new and previously unexplored areas of our careers is a fulfilling and empowering pathway to growth and career satisfaction, and effective sponsors can open doors to such experiences. In my own case, the relationships that I have forged with various sponsors (e.g., colleagues in business intelligence, finance, and quality improvement; the administrative staff in the Dean’s office; local and national thought leaders and philanthropists; and board members of nonprofit organizations) have widened my professional and personal horizons and, in so doing, have provided me with a unique skill set.
  • Spaces and programs within an organization, which may come in the form of office meetings, national meetings, or simply chance encounters during the course of daily work, can be used to facilitate the exchange of ideas and the creation of new networks. Furthermore, organizational infrastructure, such as our Office of Professional Staff Affairs, can create a sense of community by coordinating efforts focused on such areas as practice efficiencies, professionalism, well-being, and career development. Such spaces and programs can also serve as a means of connecting with mentors and sponsors as well as supporting and promoting suggestions from colleagues.
  • Organizational structure also can be effectively used to promote synergy and facilitate connections. For example, peer leadership panels can create a culture of sponsorship; small task forces or committees centered around a specific purpose can be an agile way for best practices to emerge; and faculty governance through faculty senates, a peer “board of governors,” or elected medical staff officers can provide advice and perspective from the trenches, focus efforts on organizational goals, and identify leaders from within the organization.
    • In addition, resources to facilitate practice efficiencies and interprofessional team-building have been highly effective for improving quality and patient satisfaction. Examples of such resources include mentoring and professional development programs, structured yearly professional reviews and faculty developmental plans, programs for certifications in continuous professional development, collaborative research structures (such as the Clinical and Translational Science Collaborative of CWRU School of Medicine in Cleveland), and offices that support innovations in practice and health care delivery (e.g., offices of Project Management, Quality Improvement, and Business Intelligence).

Connectors: The Compass of an Organization

Large organizations need many types of leaders who can help to crystallize the “true north” of the organization and the population it serves. Crucial among these leaders are those individuals able to connect and influence others even as they weave and protect the fabric of the organization. Recognizing and supporting such individuals by providing them with the time and resources to create and maintain these meaningful connections will inspire others to function as Connectors as well.

Connectors see possibilities, span boundaries, facilitate the creation of communities, and recognize the potential beyond the sum of the individual parts. By shepherding and valuing the multitude of talents that an academic medical center provides, these Connectors can develop, strengthen, and sustain the crucial talents of an organization’s faculty and staff and create an environment to meet a common challenge. These crucial skills, which have proven to be pivotal in the course of history, need to be valued in health care and the profession of medicine. At some point, we all must channel our inner Paul Revere.

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