Like most strong leaders, Liz Durst Fowler is a decisive executive who takes appropriate risks to help her organization position itself for growth and success.
Yet when she stepped into the role of chief executive officer at Hospice of the Bluegrass in Lexington, Ky., she knew a different approach was necessary, not only for the organization but for her staff. That’s because her predecessor was quite successful in her role and renowned as a trailblazer in the industry.
“Leading in this situation has taken great patience,” Fowler says. “I want to make improvements and do more. That is one of the hallmarks of a CEO, and I am usually very quick to act. But in this situation, my biggest mistake would have been acting too fast. It has been very important to me to get to know the organization’s strengths, the strengths of the individuals on my team, and to show my deep respect for what has been accomplished here.”
But in the rapidly evolving world of healthcare, that did not mean standing still. While acknowledging a proud history, Fowler needed to allay the fears of a workforce that had experienced layoffs prior to her arrival.
“I have always believed in building upon strengths,” she says. “In taking the time to learn our strengths, I have been able to prioritize the changes we will embark on. The team is much more confident because they know the change is happening using our strengths as individuals and as an organization.”
As Fowler built trust, her staff let her know what was needed to bring them fully on board with her vision for the future: transparency and honesty. They too were invested in Hospice of the Bluegrass, they assured her, and wanted their work to make a difference.
“Healthcare is changing at a rapid pace,” Fowler says. “It is essential to be crystal clear with your team about what the vision is today, but be honest about the future – it is uncertain. Today’s leaders need to be prepared to adjust their vision as needed while they are building a team that is resilient and nimble.”
Fowler had years of experience in operations before becoming a CEO, and that served her well as she sought avenues for improvement at Bluegrass. It also gave her courage to face a healthcare future that’s fluid in this country. She uses a sports analogy to offer advice to other first-time CEOs.
“I love the quote by Wayne Gretzky, the great hockey player: ‘A good hockey player plays where the puck is. A great hockey player plays where the puck is going to be.’
“Never forget the patient. Never forget the mission. Never forget the work that must be done today, but keep laser-sharp focus on the work of tomorrow.”
The key denominator in her career and in her life, she says, is developing relationships. That is what has made healthcare an ideal way for her to serve, Fowler adds.
“In healthcare, we don’t make widgets. We’re much more relational. The human aspect is so important. Our business is delivered by people, not machines. My role here is to be a mentor – you should always have a mentor and you should always be one too.”
Being a mentor, says Fowler, involves more listening than talking. And that allows people to stretch into their abilities, making them even more valuable to the organization. “As a leader, I need to have the best people that I can find. So I’ve got to be intuitive. I’ve got to be a good listener.”
Clinical skills are essential too, she says, but communication is key in the high-stakes environment that is hospice and post-acute care. Fowler says the team she inherited at Hospice of the Bluegrass is especially talented in that area.
“I have a courageous team that believes in our mission and is willing to take the steps necessary to follow a bigger vision,” she says. “Through the transition it has been essential to recognize their accomplishments, focus on what our community needs and communicate where we are going. It is important that they are as excited about our future as I am.”
Observing her team in action, Fowler says, gives her all the motivation she needs.
“Hospice professionals are my heroes,” she says. “They go into people’s homes and care for the patient at such an intimate time in such an uncontrolled environment. That is really, really hard. And we only get one chance to do it right. If you’ve ever had the help of a good hospice team, it is life-changing.”