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Being best isn’t the be-all and end-all

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As CEO of Cleveland Clinic, Delos “Toby” Cosgrove had earned a sterling reputation as a longtime leader in the health care field. After gaining international fame as a pioneering heart surgeon, Cosgrove took the top job at the prestigious Cleveland Clinic in 2004.

In 2006, he gave a presentation to Harvard Business School students. The awestruck audience hung on every word as Cosgrove de­­scribed how he led his staff of 40,000 to excel.

During the Q&A, however, Cosgrove’s command of the room fizzled. A student said that when her father needed heart surgery, she helped him research where to go.

“We knew about Cleveland Clinic and the excellent results you have,” she said. “But we decided not to go there because we heard you had no empathy. We went to another hospital instead even though it wasn’t as highly ranked as yours. Dr. Cosgrove, do you teach empathy at Cleveland Clinic?”

Stunned, Cosgrove didn’t know how to respond. After muttering, “Not really,” he changed the subject.

In the months that followed, Cosgrove pondered how Cleveland Clinic’s personnel could forge a deeper connection with patients. In 2007, he unveiled an initiative to overhaul the hospital’s culture.

Specifically, he announced that medical staffers would become “caregivers” charged with treating patients’ physical issues and their emotions. He also reorganized the Cleveland Clinic’s structure to allow doctors to collaborate better with support staff to gain a better understanding of how to address patients’ needs.

Cosgrove, 73, has lifted Cleveland Clinic to new highs. In 2013, it finished first in patient satisfaction based on a survey of American hospitals by U.S. News & World Report. When Cosgrove lectured at Harvard Business School nearly eight years earlier, Cleveland Clinic was ranked at the bottom of that list.

— Adapted from The Silo Effect, Gillian Tett, Simon & Schuster.

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