The XX Factor: Building Exxecutive Leadership Teams to Drive Multiple XX Returns in Healthcare IT

Lacking size, strength and the on-paper qualifications of his larger peers, 6 feet 3 inches and 185 lb high school senior Stephen Curry was passed over by Duke, UNC, NC State and all other big basketball programs recruiting their incoming class of 2006 prospects. Stephen’s dreams of playing in the ACC were crushed. Just as a basketball coach would be hard pressed to build his or her starting line up with five point guards, business leaders who are at any stage of growth look to diversify their teams with a range of functional skillsets to fill every position.

I asked Mary Tolan who, while serving as Chief Executive Officer, took Accretive Health public in 2010, what made for a successful team. She told me that, “the most successful teams with the right talent focus on winning and they are diverse and operate irrespective of gender, religion or race. They bring complementary skills and strengths to offset any potential imperfections of their teammates.”  In essence, truly differentiated teams in sports, business, or elsewhere, think bigger picture and are intentional about the qualitative pieces needed to mold a group that functions as a team, and not a smattering of individuals.

Although passed over by the Blue Devils, Steph led the Davidson Wildcats further than their North Carolina neighbors in the 2008 NCAA tournament, leading the team to the Elite Eight by leveraging his internal arsenal of hard skills (a wicked three point shot and speed) and soft skills (determination, innate intelligence, unflinching drive) and the assets and strengths of a team of lesser known athletes around him. Where he lacked traits beyond his control (like height), he could rely on teammates to fill in critical gaps.

Steph, now a starter for the NBA Western Conference leaders, the Golden State Warriors, was on paper an unlikely “candidate” for a basketball success story. However, within the right team framework at the collegiate and professional levels, he’s catapulted to both team and individual success and could very well be named the NBA’s MVP this season. Can you tell I went to Davidson?

As an industry ripe for disruption and undergoing an innovation revolution, healthcare is a particularly interesting lens to examine the opportunity for diversity on leadership teams—particularly with an abundance of companies in their formative stages, receiving significant capital and undergoing rapid growth.

As employee number five at Oxeon Partners, I’ve spent the last 3.5 years conversing with senior healthcare executives and consulting with start-up leadership teams on their human capital strategy. I spend the bulk of my day understanding the nuances that have made teams and businesses scalable, differentiated and prosperous. I leverage said findings to advise clients, on the precipice of tremendous growth, on talent and team composition.  And, while there are an infinite number of angles one can consider when creating successful and diverse executive teams, I have of course observed the all-too-often discussed gender gap in leadership teams.

This article is not meant to re-write Lean In from the Maura McGinn angle. I do not need to recount the statistics that (thankfully) have become a central piece of conversation over the past several years. I will, however, share some of my sentiments about a few of the prevalent arguments. To start, as there are fewer women in executive positions to date, one could argue that on paper, a woman candidate may be the less-qualified one, lacking the so-called “been-there-done-that experience.” They are often seen as higher gamble hires, burdened with extra-familial obligations and an inability to work around the clock, and are themselves perceived to be risk-averse.

Despite the all too commonly circulated figures that women outpace men in both undergraduate and graduate level degrees, of all the new and existing healthcare IT businesses that exist today, 93% of them have male CEOs and 6% have female founders. With $6.7B of venture capital invested in 2014, there are a tremendous amount of start-up organizations. Each team is a malleable blank slate in regard to people, values, systems and processes. There is a unique opportunity in this budding industry to change the conversation about executive leadership gaps.

Instead of lamenting the status of healthcare leadership trends and focusing on the disproportionate ratio of males to females on senior leadership teams, Mary Tolan strikes a different tune. Ever the “futurist” and an impressive female executive in her own right, she focuses instead on the insight and intrinsic value that women, if leveraged, can bring to healthcare management teams. “Healthcare is so close to the human experience as an industry, that having diversity on the board of a healthcare enterprise makes perfect sense. While women make up half of the population, they are more often than not the decision makers in the home.”

In fact, studies support that women are the largest consumers of healthcare, making 80% of family healthcare decisions nationally. Women make up 75% of family caregivers or informal caregivers in the home, and are largely representative of the healthcare delivery workforce, 78% of which is comprised of women. These figures alone suggest that a female perspective within the decision-making ranks of healthcare organizations is a no brainer - they bring real life perspectives as healthcare consumers and are well suited to both lead and represent a predominantly female workforce on the delivery side.

For the record, at no point in exploring this topic have any executives suggested that merely adding a woman to an executive team enables prosperity and success.

In speaking formally with Mary Tolan, Nancy Brown (Venture Partner Oak HC/FT) Alex Drane (co-founder and Chief Visionary Officer of Eliza), and Erika Bliss (CEO, Qliance), and informally to thousands of others executives, female and male, about fostering the right blend of characteristics to create high impact teams, there has been one area they all agree. Regardless of a company’s size or offering, the focus is always on soft skills: trust, collaboration, EQ, compassion, empowerment, drive, accountability, focus, urgency, and commitment.

Perhaps it is obvious that the focus is less about cultivating a team of broad functional skillsets, because no one in their right mind recruits a team of five starting point guards. But I’ve often observed that organizations and hiring managers looking to fill a specific role can become laser-focused on the functional check boxes, and lose sight of the collective fabric of the team and the intangibles that are so often described as the differentiators of successful teams.  Alas, here arises the adeptly named “accidental value,” a term that refers to organizations that find themselves with teams that look, think, act and breathe the same way. In these situations, founding teams are socially compatible, but unable to introduce different worldviews.  As organizations mature, this can damage their ability to hire individuals who exist outside of the norm: executives who might counterbalance the group’s “focus” with “compassion” and “urgency” with “thoughtfulness”.

Deliberately curating a team that counterbalances each other is important in any industry, and is significant when the stakes are high. Alex Drane and Nancy Brown both fondly described the periods of high stakes and fast paced growth as being rich with “heated debates and healthy debates,” with collaboration and teammates who “challenged the group to move collective thinking forward.” Both have seen first and second hand the potential pitfalls of creating an inflexible and homogenous leadership team: heads down execution that, although effective in the short term, hardly fosters cultural improvement and fails to challenge the status quo. It is critical to be intentional about creating checks, balances, and dialogue.

There is a strong argument that bringing female leadership to the table in healthcare, over other industries, makes particular sense. The aforementioned dynamic women bring track records of results, creativity, leadership, and other hard and soft skills, that make them phenomenal—and successful—executives. Point blank. However, they also demonstrate high levels of traits traditionally associated with women, including compassion, empathy, collaboration, and patience, which I argue make them particularly suited for leadership in healthcare.

There is no arguing that healthcare, despite its recent advances in technology and administrative improvements, remains a deeply humanistic and innately high touch industry. For these reasons, emerging and growing organizations focused on revolutionizing patient care delivery are still acutely mindful of the human elements that are critical to providing meaningful care and customer service. For instance, Iora and Accolade prioritize empathy as a core cultural value; Evolent Health has adopted “start by listening” as a value.

While these healthcare organizations are making concerted efforts to prioritize people-centric values in this humanistic industry, it should not be ignored that at executive levels, leadership teams have responsibilities to their employees. Management literature like Firms of Endearment and Drive provide evidence to suggest that businesses that underscore the importance of valuing all stakeholders: clients, shareholders, and employees, are ultimately more profitable and drive more significant returns.

Therefore, it is exceptionally important that leadership teams, tasked with collaborating at the early stage of an organization, strategically and tactically build the business, its infrastructure and value set, later nurturing, empowering and growing the often female employee base, all while delivering value to clients—who often times are women—within the healthcare industry are purposeful in hiring women executives. And while men can and do often possess the so-called female traits, the simple solution to ending the gender gap is focusing on hiring more women.

In many ways Steph Curry was a stellar prospect for the ACC schools of his dreams, bringing passion, energy, dedication, an unbelievable shooting percentage, and 18 years of coaching from an NBA veteran (his father) Dell Curry. That said, he was unproven in the eyes of college scouts.  And while it can be challenging for one to prove oneself without being presented with opportunities, it seems the tide is turning. In the last three years, I’ve witnessed and facilitated a strong wave of female executive hires, some proven and others with something to prove:

Rose Higgins as Executive Vice President & General Manager for SCIO Analytics, Connie Moser as the Chief Operating Officer of Rise Health, Margery Geers as Chief People Officer of Accolade, Carolyn Magill as the Executive Vice President of Payer Strategy and Operations and Beth Malko as the Executive Vice President of Clinical Delivery and Operations at Evolent Health, Linda Finkel as President of Avia Health Innovation, Carol Devol as Chief Operating Officer of Landmark Health, Stephanie Fenton as SVP Customer Success at Grand Rounds… the list continues. I’d be remiss not to mention the high powered female Chief Executive Officers we’ve had the opportunity to work with in the way of Allison Robbins at Imagine Health, Erika Bliss at Qliance, Stephanie Tilenius at Vida Health, Rebecca Onie at Health Leads, and investors like Nancy Brown and Annie Lamont at Oak HC/FT.

All of these women possess strong requisite functional and qualitative strengths that make them compelling for their given roles and within larger team-based frameworks. It is my strong belief that within this group of dynamic leaders, there are many “Steph Currys” who are strong both as individuals and MVP candidates. Perhaps their greatest strengths will be to collaborate in driving their teams to a first place finish - their efforts will not only benefit women executives looking for hiring managers to take a chance on them, but the entire healthcare workforce and industry at large.