Have You Considered Hiring a Chief Strategy Officer?

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STR-thumb1With all of the responsibilities that health-care executives are juggling today, many are finding it useful to create another executive position whose focus is solely placed on long-term strategic planning, Philip Betbeze reports over at HealthLeaders Media.

Known as the chief strategy officer, the role does not supplant the CEO’s responsibilities for strategic planning, but rather delegates the responsibility for guiding the execution, communication, and sustainment of those strategies, Betbeze writes. “Think of them as business-development gurus who are generalists; their projects are long-term in nature. That’s one reason a good CSO is hard to find and often will come from within the organization: The right person will need to possess well-rounded knowledge of how the organization functions now in order to envision a higher-functioning future state.”

This role is not exclusively for insiders, however; it could be a good role for an executive whose career has been spent in other industries besides health care, but would now like to transition into health-care leadership. The advantage of the outsider, Betbeze explains, is “fresh thinking.” However, he adds, “many systems…are reluctant to take that risk.”

For five years, Greg Poulsen has been a CSO at Salt Lake City’s Intermountain Healthcare, after being promoted from senior vice president of planning.

He feels the importance of a CSO is paramount in an industry faced with rapid change: “The thing that’s changed the most over the past five years that has elevated strategy work is the rapidity with which the world around us is changing. Some of it is purposeful change in a consistent direction, but much is turbulent in that it goes one way one day and another the next, and figuring out the correct path is significantly more challenging than when I started.”

This position is especially needed by those organizations who wish to remain independent, Adriane Willig, consultant with Witt/Kieffer in Oak Brook, Ill., and expert on strategy officer executive searches, said. She points to the fact that “strategy has been done collectively by the CEO in conjunction with the board and often helped by outside consultants, but that’s no longer sufficient for many organizations. Foremost among their responsibilities, strategy officers are focusing on developing a framework for the entire organization, which even at a standalone hospital is a complicated place. The layering on of nontraditional offerings such as hospice, skilled nursing, a health-plan component, or physician practices, just to name a few, brings another level of complexity. Finally, the CSO is charged with differentiating his or her hospital or health system based on value and quality—two metrics that, let’s face it, are still relatively new to healthcare.”

This requires an understanding, Wittig added, of “the whole spectrum of the business.” Often a CSO’s job demands that they “process information from disparate pieces and understand how to evaluate, using strong analytical skills, whether the organization has the right pieces for effective clinical integration, for example” and “understand payers and the health insurance exchanges, and how to focus on driving their organization’s differentiators into a competitive advantage with payers.”

Wittig elaborated: “They have to understand everything from the technology to the mergers and acquisitions, as well as finance and operations. So it’s a complex skill set and a person can’t be a heavy hitter with all of these expansive skill sets.”

Have you considered hiring a CSO at your organization? What kind of person would make the ideal CSO? If you’ve already hired a CSO, what are the benefits you’ve gleaned from having this executive aboard?

-by Pete Fernbaugh

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