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Ritch Eich
Ritch Eich

Tapping young expertise

Time for a new generation in hospital boardrooms


By Ritch Eich
Posted: July 4, 2011 - 12:01 am ET
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Having served as a hospital executive, trustee and board chairman of not-for-profit and for-profit hospitals and health systems in the Midwest and West, my experience suggests that other than having major friction with the medical staff, nothing can undermine the CEO faster than disillusioned or frustrated board members.

How often have you pondered the following questions as you're heading home after a less-than-productive hospital board meeting: Why doesn't the president and CEO better utilize board members? Why aren't some of the new directors (trustees) young adults who reflect the growing and important digital dynamic, multitasking approach to the business world? Why are the “leaders of yesterday” often being selected to fill seats in the boardroom instead of the “leaders of tomorrow?”

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There is no doubt that the time has come to more fully use the expertise represented by hundreds of thousands of young community leaders who currently give unselfishly of their time, talent and even treasure to serve as board members of hospitals and health systems. This sense of urgency is heightened by the necessity to expand our existing board ranks by enlisting the youngest “best and the brightest” from the wired world—people who can more effectively make use of the latest technologies to improve procedures and expand the organization's outreach. Here are four principal ways you can help address the issue:

When you are asked to join a hospital board or suggest names of excellent board candidates, ask the president and CEO if he or she truly intends to tap the expertise of new board members and how.

Ask how, outside of board meetings (four to eight a year), will members' skills in such areas as customer service, mergers and acquisitions, branding, media relations, producing financial results and investing—to name a few—be maximally harnessed. Is there a well-developed board orientation program? Are newer members “teamed up” with more experienced board members to more quickly grasp the mission of the organization and their role in it?

Then, if you're satisfied with the responses, ask if the organization's leader has considered going “outside the box” to recruit young, bright, enterprising professionals for at least a few of the available board seats. When he pauses to consider your question, quickly ask if he realizes how young people are often poles apart from him and from you in how they approach today's business problems and how distinctly they engage in critical thinking and process challenges. In other words, ask him how high a value he places on hearing diverse, generational points of view before making decisions.

If you conclude that you and he are on the same wavelength, pose these $64,000 questions: What role does he see the hospital board playing in setting strategy? Is the board going to be more involved than it was a year ago? Does he encourage the board to discuss strategy during dinner before the meeting actually convenes? Is the primary role of the board to help set the overall strategy for the organization?

As we all know, the best hospital CEOs want the best boards, and they also want the best possible board relationships. Too often, however, there is disparity in how the CEO sees the board functioning and how an individual board member wants to be utilized. The result is frequently underutilized or misused human capital, which can lead to frustration and potential conflict in the boardroom and beyond.

If you ask these questions and others that occur to you, I can assure you that you will have a better idea of how much the CEO wants the board to be involved in true governance and what kind of board he or she genuinely wants. And, you can hopefully help improve how your board functions, thus enhancing your hospital's success.

Ritch Eich is president of consulting firm Eich Associated and past board chairman of Los Robles Hospital and Medical Center, both in Thousand Oaks, Calif.


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