Healthcare Chief Strategy Officers: Three Essential Competencies

By Adriane Willig

The role of the healthcare strategist – embodied most often by the healthcare Chief Strategy Officer – has seen its ups and downs over the years. There have been periods when some organizations have eliminated executive strategy positions, particularly as a way to reduce expenses. This still happens today.

Yet I believe we are seeing a resurgence in the importance of the role of Chief Strategy Officer and a corresponding demand in the job market. Forward-thinking health systems are realizing that they need an executive who can truly devote undivided time and attention to the future direction of the organization. It is difficult for CEOs to promise this today with their diffused responsibilities. (See “The Healthcare Chief Strategy Officer: A Future Focused Executive.”)

Adriane Willig

Adriane Willig

So what defines today’s healthcare CSOs? To start, they need to be transformational leaders, just like the CEOs they report to. Additional competencies and talents include the ability to inspire and influence others; motivate others to be innovative and think outside the box; and be champions for a different future in their organizations.

I had the opportunity to present on the topic of transformational healthcare strategists at the recent Society for Healthcare Strategy & Market Development (SHSMD) annual meeting. (I was pleased to be joined on the podium by Heather Prasad, Director of Strategic Planning for Thomas Jefferson University Hospitals.) While our presentation covered a lot of territory, most importantly I believe there are three critical competencies required of transformational healthcare Chief Strategy Officers:

Creativity. This is needed not only in oneself (which is typical in a strategist) but in pushing others to be creative. Healthcare strategy leaders need to foster an environment that facilitates brainstorming, challenges the status quo, and then builds consensus around innovative concepts in order to move forward with them. Strategists have to be open to risk-taking – it has to be part of their DNA – and to fostering a culture of risk, while also understanding the need to keep in line with their organizations’ long-term missions and goals.

Results Orientation. Healthcare Chief Strategy Officers and other strategists often do not have bottom-line ownership in initiatives, yet they certainly need to be accountable and take responsibility for ensuring that strategic initiatives are successful. Healthcare strategists need to be action-oriented, persistent and have boundless energy, instilling a sense of urgency and possibility in others. They also need to keep teams focused and committed to seeing initiatives through to completion. If strategic initiatives don’t get done, or don’t achieve unqualified success, good strategists will own up to it and vow to do better.

Informal Influence. Informal power connotes working with and through others to accomplish goals. Healthcare CSOs and strategists need to develop strategic relationships and learn how and when to use them to solve problems and move their organizations forward. Some might call this having political savvy, but I think it is more than that. It is being seen as a trusted partner and go-to person, knowing how to get things done through persuasion and consensus rather than force or authority.

Healthcare Chief Strategy Officers and healthcare strategy leaders with other titles have a unique window of opportunity in the next few years to truly make their mark on the industry. Successful strategy executives, I believe, will be those who are creative, results-driven, and informally influential.

Adriane Willig is a principal in Witt/Kieffer’s Healthcare practice. She recruits healthcare Chief Strategy Officers as well as CEOs, CHROs, Chief Marketing Officers, and many other types of senior executives.

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