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A healthcare CEO's take on what it means to be a 'superboss'

January 21st, 2016

by Barry Ronan

First off, I do not consider myself a superboss; that is for others to decide. But I do find this concept to be most interesting.

For those of you who may not be familiar with the term, it comes from a recently published book by Sydney Finkelstein. The focus of his book and related article in the January/February 2016 issue of Harvard Business Review is how these superbosses hire talent and hone it going forward. So, just who are they? They are innovators who have the ability to groom talent and develop future leaders; they are confident, competitive, intelligent and imaginative and, most importantly, they act with integrity. Wow--superhuman or simply, superboss?

Actually, I have been blessed to have worked for a number of such superbosses; they have been mentors and leaders who have possessed the traits and characteristics identified above. I was mentored extensively in the early years of my career, first starting as an equipment orderly in central processing through moving to the position of executive vice president of the health system some 20 years later. I am certainly a better person and leader as a result of that superboss mentoring.

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However, once you become a CEO, there is more self-learning and professional development that occurs, and you are the recipient of less mentoring. As the CEO, the responsibility for the mentoring of others now falls to you to a much a greater extent.

As the CEO seeking talent for my organization and perhaps employees whom I may eventually mentor, I first look from within. At a recent meeting of our senior and middle management (about 100 people), I asked who in the room had been advanced or promoted in the organization. I was amazed that the great majority of those in attendance raised their hands. We have been very fortunate in honing the talent from within, but I also recognize that there are occasions when talent from the outside should be sought.

We just recruited an executive director for our Cancer Center who is from the Pacific Northwest and has never held an executive-level position in a cancer program. However, he is young and dynamic and brings skills to our program that will truly set us apart from other programs bordering our service area. The expectation is that he will approach problems from a different perspective, be a quick study and be honed for a future promotional opportunity within the organization.

The HBR article states that superbosses “employ practices that set them head and shoulders above even the best traditional bosses.” They seek talent differently and create high expectations. Throughout the article, there are excellent suggestions on how we can become better leaders within our organizations. Who knows, maybe after reading the book or even the article and applying the superboss approach, we can more easily make that leap from a traditional boss to a superboss.

Barry Ronan is the president and CEO of Western Maryland Health System in Cumberland, Maryland.

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