There are few clues to Barbara Harness' personality in her 32nd-floor office in the American Hospital Association's Chicago headquarters.
It has that sanitized look: a few dried-flower arrangements, neatly stacked books, files and papers. Nothing out of place on the desk. Little to suggest the personality of the occupant.
Except for the gargoyle. A smiling gargoyle statuette, about six inches tall, sits on a leather-bound copy of management guru Stephen Covey's tome The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.
"It's a smiling gargoyle, but it's still a gargoyle," said the 38-year-old AHA vice president.
Although Harness says the gargoyle is "just something whimsical" to have in the office (she regularly moves it to a new perch), the figurine perhaps reminds her that people follow their nature or agenda regardless of what they say or the facial expressions they wear.
Harness, a Seattle native, is a rising star at the AHA. She began her association career in 1988 as the director of its section for maternal and child health. After four promotions in eight years, she has risen to the level of vice president in charge of the AHA's Center for Health Care Leadership.
The center is an amalgam of several AHA sections and functions. It includes the membership sections for healthcare systems, federal hospitals, metropolitan hospitals, small or rural hospitals, aging and long-term-care services, maternal and child health, psychiatric and substance abuse services, and rehabilitation hospitals and programs. It also includes the AHA's division of trustee and community leadership.
But perhaps most important, the center oversees the AHA's revamped educational programming for healthcare executives.
Over the past two years, the association has been replacing its educational offerings-populated by veterans of the healthcare lecture circuit-with what the AHA calls "self-directed learning." The process focuses on smaller gatherings on site at specific hospitals or health systems on specific topics. MODERN HEALTHCARE featured the educational transition at the AHA in a recent issue (Aug. 5, p. 96).
After some coaxing, Harness reluctantly acknowledged that she "is one of the creative forces" behind the AHA's move to self-directed learning.
"The lecture circuit is helpful in some cases, but by the time something is being spoken about and written about, it may not be on the cutting edge anymore," she said. Harness believes the cutting-edge issues are being debated at hospitals and health systems in the field, not at luncheons.
But the transition hasn't come without jumping some significant political hurdles. First, she admitted that there's competition among AHA members to serve as on-site host to a new educational offering. She has to balance that competition with the desire to offer something truly fresh and educational.
"We've never had to pull teeth. We have very willing members," Harness said politely. "It's perceived to be an honor. It's a showcase."
And the AHA has chosen to have outside companies underwrite many of its educational programs rather than funding them through dues revenues and registration fees. Some companies are anxious to underwrite programs, and Harness has to balance the association's need for money and the companies' goal of marketing their services to AHA members. The program can't turn into a sales pitch.
"If they (sponsors) bring in content, we'll build them in as part of the faculty," Harness said. "If not, we'll just use their names in materials as traditional sponsors."
To date, according to Harness, the corporate sponsors of AHA educational programs "have been very respectful and haven't crossed the line."
As a follower of Covey, Harness continually seeks balance in her personal life. Her weekly planner reminds her to spend time on spiritual, physical, social/emotional activities as well as the mental, the category into which work falls.
After a long day at the office, for example, Harness will spend time in her flower garden, where some plants were grown from seed. That, as any gardener will tell you, takes time and patience.