How Can Healthcare Benefit From Having A CSO?

Industry insight: Paula Widerlite, Chief Strategy Officer, Anne Arundel Medical Center


Paula Widerlite is the Chief Strategy Officer at Anne Arundel Medical Center, a $1B integrated healthcare system located in Maryland’s state capital of Annapolis. Paula is a veteran of the non-profit healthcare industry, having served in a variety of marketing and strategy related positions for 40 years. Suffice it to say, today’s environment may be among the most challenging for strategy executives in health care. We sat down with Paula ahead of her presentation at the Chief Strategy Officer Summit, taking place in New York this December 5-6th.

What do you think are the main qualities of a successful strategy?

My favorite definition of a strategy is - allocation of resources in a specific direction. I wish I could give an attribution of this definition to its rightful 'owner', but it has been carried with me for many years without being traced back to the original source. What it means to me is that we can have all the great ideas, well-written strategies, plans, and execution tools, but if we don’t put our money where our mouth is, we have little more than words on a page. A successful strategy has to have the benefit of the best minds, the best visionary thinking, and the best budgets.

How do you think the role of a strategist is changing?

The role of a strategist is relatively new in healthcare, especially the hospital industry. We have gone from being a charitable community asset to an economic engine in our communities. We have to be managed and led with the same business acumen as other industries. In Maryland, every one of our 46 hospitals is non-profit. Their incomes were largely provided by federal or state payors, such as Medicare and Medicaid. The competition for market share was not part of the lexicon. Margins are razor thin. A community benefit is something that used to dominate our board discussions, operating, and capital budget sessions. The role has evolved from the CEO as a strategist, who used to get by on keeping good relationships with bond-holders, physicians, and community leaders to the CEO relying on a strategist to advise on market shifts, latent competitors, and diversification of the portfolio of services.

How important is flexibility when creating new strategies?

Flexibility is paramount. When an industry is redefining its business model (like healthcare), the daily mantra becomes: 'get used to uncertainty, learn how to lead a change, excel at failing fast'. This type of thinking is the new normal of healthcare executives. Once our strategies are developed, we fully expect to adjust and modify at least on a quarterly basis. As a matter of fact, if we are not revising our plan, we know that we risk stagnation and loss of growth opportunities.

Have the attitudes of a new generation of workers affected how strategy is formulated or implemented?

We are an organization that employs many 'lean' methodologies of identifying and eliminating waste, and continuously improving our processes. Part of that approach includes 'fresh eyes' on our teams. We value that new perspective and wouldn’t think of changing our programs and services without it. Also, as a society that expects virtual services, digitization, and real-time information, healthcare is not exempt from meeting those expectations. Our new generation of workers are physicians, nurses, administrators, and volunteers. We have students and patients who have a worldview that doesn’t include many of the traditional methods of healthcare. Not only do we have to keep pace, but meet them where they are - in a future filled with real-time, on-demand, efficient, and effective service delivery.

What can delegates expect from your upcoming presentation at the Chief Strategy Officer Summit?

I’m excited to have a discussion about the changing role of the CSO, the valuable addition to an organization, even in the non-profit sector, and for the aspiring C-Suite job seeker - a little foreshadowing of what we should expect from this role.

You can hear more from Paula and other industry leaders at the Chief Strategy Officer Summit, taking place in New York this December 5-6th.

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