NCHN Blog

Leadership and Organizational Health: Walking the Talk - What's a Leader to Do?

Jay Seifert
Apr 1, 2013 06:40 PM

Jay Seifert, Guest ColumnistJay Seifert is the co-founder of LoneStart Wellness. He is a pioneer in applying established principles of social neuroscience and behavioral economics to individual and organizational “wellness.” His strategy is specifically designed to improve the health and well-being of those individuals most at risk for preventable chronic illness but least likely to participate in traditional “diet and exercise” programs. He is a monthly wellness guest columnist and you can see his columns in the first NCHN e-News of the month or right here on the blog.

Walking the Talk
What’s A Leader to do?

Today’s leaders are aware of the impact the declining health status of their members is having on their organizations.  Most leaders understand that a well-conceived initiative to improve the health of their members will deliver multiple organizational benefits that go far beyond cost savings.  Yet, for many organizations, implementing such an initiative remains a “back burner” issue.

The reasons most often given for not addressing the health status of an organization include:

  • Cost:  Is it an expense or an investment that will deliver a measurable R.O.I.? 
  • Complexity:  Will its implementation be a burden for an already overloaded staff?
  • Effectiveness:  Will it work? 

Each of these perceived barriers can be overcome with a well-crafted initiative that is positive, realistic, personally-relevant and forgiving.  There is expanding and compelling evidence that by adhering to established principals of learning theory, team-building and intrinsic motivation, an organization can quickly begin to create a culture where healthier behaviors are learned, adopted, shared and sustained.  Problem solved, right?

Not quite.  The best initiative in the world won’t succeed without authentic, visible and engaged leadership—something which is often more easily said than done. 

Leaders understand that in order to be effective role models, they must be willing to “walk the talk” of any initiative they propose.  As the leadership author, John Maxwell says, “A leader is one who knows the way, goes the way, and shows the way.”  When “the way” involves the leader’s personal health, the knowing is easy (if not especially pleasant).  It’s the going and showing that can be uncomfortable to the point of paralysis for leaders who have not been able to successfully take charge of their own personal health and wellness.

We’ve seen several leaders struggle with this very real dilemma over the years.  One successful hospital CEO confided in me that while he knew he had to contain his employee health costs, and he knew that other hospitals had successfully done so, the thought of “stepping out front on this issue with my people just scares the hell out of me.”  Doing nothing wasn’t an option so he needed to create a strategy that would enable him to overcome his own psychological barriers to participation and success. 

Here’s what we’ve found to be the necessary ingredients to such a successful strategy:

  • Clearly define everyone’s roles in the initiative.  The leader’s role is to have the vision, create the opportunity and actively participate in its implementation. 
  • Create realistic expectations for all participants, including the leader.  There should be as many sets of expectations as there are participants and they must all be positive, realistic and personally relevant.
  • Both provide and ask for meaningful support.  Some of our most successful initiatives have been lead by individuals who acknowledged that they had always struggled with their lifestyle choices and were willing to ask for the support of their organization.
  • Reframe your conversation about health and well-being by avoiding the negatives and focusing on the positives.  When you turn perceived burdens into opportunities, a “Me Problem” becomes a “We Opportunity” and a new, empowering culture of well-being begins to take hold.
  • Be careful and consistent in your messaging.  People must believe this is being done “for them,” not “to them.”  The failure to understand the importance of autonomy is the fatal flaw in most programs being promoted today.
  • While vision and leadership happen at the top of the organization, successful and sustainable implementation will depend upon how quickly the initiative is driven from the bottom-up.  Creating meaningful buy-in at the beginning of the initiative goes a long way toward assuring long-term ownership.

You can “go the way” and “show the way” to success just by acknowledging the personal challenge involved, creating clear expectations, and making even the most modest improvements in your daily behaviors.  By doing so, you demonstrate the three essentials of authentic leadership: humility, clarity and courage.

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Jay Seifert
Mar 4, 2013 08:09 AM
Jay Seifert, Guest ColumnistJay Seifert is the co-founder of LoneStart Wellness. He is a pioneer in applying established principles of social neuroscience and behavioral economics to individual and organizational “wellness.” His strategy is specifically designed to improve the health and well-being of those individuals most at risk for preventable chronic illness but least likely to participate in traditional “diet and exercise” programs. He will be a monthly wellness guest columnist and you can see his future columns in the first NCHN e-News of the month or right here on the blog.

There is now widespread agreement that our declining health status is an issue we can no longer ignore or defer.  And most of us are beginning to understand that it’s an issue in which we all have a very big stake. Current estimates are that we’ll spend between $2.8 and $3.1 trillion on healthcare this year, making it the primary driver of our nation’s debt.  A recent report by the Bipartisan Policy Center includes this stark assessment:  “The current level of healthcare spending will bankrupt our country.” 

It is estimated that 86 percent of all full-time employees today are either overweight and/or have at least one chronic illness.  As a result, employers now spend an additional  $2 per employee per day just in medical and pharmaceutical costs.  Factor in the other organizational costs of an unhealthy workforce (increased absenteeism and presenteeism and decreased productivity), and you understand why improving employee health is now a business imperative.

For the past seven years, we’ve partnered with the Texas Organization of Rural & Community Hospitals (TORCH) to improve the health status of their member hospitals and the communities they serve. More than ever, these hospitals need to contain costs, boost productivity and improve overall efficiency.  Protecting the health and well-being of their most important resource, their human capital, is their best strategy to achieve these outcomes. 

As we’ve implemented these initiatives, we’ve learned that the single best predictor of success is engaged, authentic and highly visible leadership.  Leaders understand that in order to be effective role models, they must be willing to “walk the talk” of any initiative they propose.  When that initiative involves their personal health,  that can be a disconcerting, if not a downright paralyzing prospect.  We understand. That’s why we’re here.

For the next several months, we’ll share what we’ve learned about effective leadership in addressing organizational health.  And you’ll be pleased to know that you can provide that leadership without ever having to run a 10K, trade hamburgers for tofu burgers or  put on a goofy Spandex outfit.  Our objective is to demystify the often misunderstood topic of employee health, help you define realistic leadership roles, and create the foundation for a sustainable culture of wellness within your organization. Here are some of the topics we’ll cover:

  • What is the leader’s role?        
    Providing the vision and inspiration necessary for constructive change is only the beginning. 
  • Burden or opportunity?                      
    Do your employees believe the initiative is being done to them or for them?
  • Top-down or bottom-up?        
    While the organization’s leaders must start the process, its sustainability will depend on whether its employees have taken ownership of the initiative.
  • Team-building            
    A well-defined, short-cycle team-building challenge will improve communication, morale, and engagement while strengthening a shared sense of mission.
  • Emerging leaders        
    When your employees believe that everyone, regardless of their condition, has something to contribute, as well as something to gain, and they prove that they can be successful, they become powerful influencers within the organization. 

A well-conceived and fully-implemented initiative to improve the health of your employees will deliver multiple and tangible benefits to your organization that go far beyond cost savings.  We’re looking forward to sharing what we have learned with NCHN and its membership.

If you have questions or issues you would like us to address in this column, contact: Jay Seifert at 512-894-3440 or jseifert@lonestartnow.com.

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