Michael Covert faced some unusually trying circumstances when coming aboard as president and CEO of CHI St. Luke’s Health, Houston, a few years ago. Parent Catholic Health Initiatives previously had had no presence in Texas, and the larger Catholic system had just acquired the six-hospital Episcopalian St. Luke’s while also integrating other disparate acquisitions. Covert tells H&HN a little about the challenges of leading a new organization during a transition, and the importance of developing a schedule to orient oneself to a new position.
What were the unique circumstances you faced when joining CHI St. Luke’s?
COVERT: Within less than a year to 18 months, we had gone from five hospitals and a joint venture to 17 hospitals. This was a very large change in the operation and the mix, in a setting in which there was no history organizationally relative to CHI, or the nature of all these organizations coming together almost at one time. So, the significance is that the job has been part startup — bringing them all together; part turnaround because of the needs of each respective organization, and based on where they were against their own metrics; part realignment because you’re bringing together organizations that had no relationship at all, and a group of hospitals in Houston that really were not system-oriented, even though they were part of a system; and then part growth — dealing with the competitive nature of the environment. The second piece of that, however, was making the adjustment to come into a larger CHI organization that has existed for the last 20 years, and has a number of regions.
What are the critical steps to take when transitioning to a new organization?
COVERT: Putting together a meaningful orientation schedule is critical, and I involved a number of different groups in helping me put that together, not just your own assistant, folks from HR or some of your administrative team. I talked to leaders in all of the organizations, people from CHI, and vendors and competitors, because I wanted to learn as much as I could about the nature of the environment that I would be in. I wanted to hear from as many people as I could in different constituencies. If you don’t have a very disciplined schedule, you’ll end up walking away from it because of other time commitments, other people’s agendas, other priorities that come up relative to day-to-day activity, and you lose sight of keeping that orientation schedule. The point is for you to gain traction, momentum and some understanding about the organization, to learn about your people, and to learn about the various constituencies with which you work in a meaningful way. It’s also important to be patient. One of the pitfalls is that you can find yourself wanting to take action too quickly to show your value as the senior leader in the organization. Our expectation is that they hired us because we’re senior people and we have great experience. Well, what comes with experience ought to be the level of patience that you need to learn to understand the organization. It’s important for you to show your team that you are genuine, you are authentic, you are open so that you have the opportunity to assess the organization and the people working there, remembering the fact that no one cares about the last place you worked.
Could you talk about the role a coach played in your orientation?
COVERT: Sure. I think it’s a great idea. Whether the organization will provide you with a coach or you get one yourself, dealing with a transition as a senior leader is a very challenging time in your life. One of the benefits of a coach is having somebody who can help you step back and look at yourself and how you are doing. They might be able to help you with certain skill sets, but less so in this regard because you’re going to be visiting with a number of different individuals and the expectations that you have of yourself will be great at this time. As a senior leader, you’re pretty comfortable in your own skin in knowing who you are relative to the setting from which you just came. But you’re in an entirely new setting now, and sometimes the skills that got you to that last job are not exactly the skills you will use in the next job. By having a coach, it gave me someone who was independent, who could ask me questions in a safe setting, and who helped me to take a look at the benefits of what I was doing. I’m simply saying that it’s good to have someone who is not tied to your organization.