As part of our series about the “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times,” we had the pleasure of interviewing Hank Osowski, Co-Founder and Managing Partner of Strategic Health Group, a nationally recognized leader in providing strategic advisory services to health plans and major health systems across the country. As both a senior executive with some of the nation’s largest healthcare organizations and as a trusted consultant, Hank has played pivotal role in the formation of more than a dozen new organizations and has been a key member of leadership teams that have successfully guided the financial turnaround of several financially distressed organizations.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I started my career in a traditional fashion, working my way through the organizational labyrinth with positions of progressive responsibility. But I soon found that managing routine day-to-day operations were not engaging or challenging. I’ve always had a spirit of informed risk-taking and quickly migrated to the energy and excitement of starting new businesses. Over the years, I’ve been involved in about twenty start-ups. I get the same energy from seeing a financially distressed organization successfully re-establish itself in the marketplace.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
I can share a tragic story that has helped me to frame my commitment to success. Earlier in my career, I was brought in to manage the struggling technology affiliate of a large insurance organization. Following months of restructuring the organization, updating the technology foundation and stabilizing the customer base, the parent organization was sold to a foreign entity. The new parent had no interest in the technology company and ordered it closed immediately. I watched with great sadness the pain of staff and customers as this business shuttered. The day of that board meeting I promised myself that I would never “bury” another company. I would do everything possible to find solutions that would avoid these near death situations.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
During the journey of my career there were many individuals who imparted their experiences and knowledge; the CEO who taught me to think strategically, the colleague who shared the importance of vision and the CEO who supported an unconventional approach despite significant opposition.
In one of my financial turnaround ventures, I had to debate the head of our largest business unit who wanted to avoid the risk of potentially losing one of our most important customers by pricing our product at a loss. The organization was already in an extremely fragile financial state and I had the belief that potentially losing that one customer was far better for the organization and our other customers than adding significantly to our financial deficit. Given the differences in our respective positions I had to have my facts straight and organized in order to craft a winning argument. The CEO encouraged me to stand by my arguments, and because I did so we did not lose the customer and moved an important step closer to restoring the organization’s financial footing. I learned a valuable lesson of being prepared with facts and stringing them together in a persuasive argument.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your company started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?
In our current venture, our vision was to bring successful C-suite level expertise to our clients at a price-point that reflected a significant value proposition. This approach has allowed us to deliver a level of expertise and a range of experiences that provided client’s executive management and boards with tailored solutions to their challenges.
As we assist clients navigate the difficult and turbulent environment, if they don’t already have a clear vision of what they hope to realize for the organization, we’ll work with them to clarify such a vision. Over the last several years we’ve provided advisory services and leadership to more than a dozen start-up health plans and, in several other engagements, assisted clients with market and product expansion. My experience in this area was forged by two prior instances where I was a member of the senior management teams of companies that were in a near-death financial situation. In all these cases, clarity of vision allowed the organizations to rally management, staff, provider partners and other stakeholders to the organizations goals and objectives and ultimately achieve financial success.
Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion. Can you share with our readers a story from your own experience about how you lead your team during uncertain or difficult times?
During one of the financial turnarounds in which I participated, I was responsible for integrating two business units within one organization that had operated with dramatically different approaches. One unit had revised its processes, systems and rules to engage new and retain existing customers. The other unit was mired in an environment that inhibited growth and was more likely to prevent new business. The cultural clash with our financial turnaround goals required quick action to exercise the uncompromising players and build a new leadership team who could fully embrace our mission and objectives. It was a painful, but absolutely necessary action.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
There were certainly difficult times when it appeared that the storms on the horizon would engulf our efforts to complete a financial turnaround or build a successful start-up, but I never considered giving up. Perhaps it was my stubborn belief in our vision, the trust that we had built an extremely competent team or the confidence in our selected strategies. Those are the factors that gave me the motivation and drive to press on and ultimately succeed.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
Successfully responding to challenging times requires an extraordinary commitment by all involved. I believe there are two characteristics that are critical for a leader to possess during such times. These are trust/credibility and decisiveness. If the team who is charged with responding to the challenge does not have trust in the motives or message of the leader, the challenge will undoubtedly fail.
In meeting tough challenges, a leader must be willing to make difficult decisions often in the absence of clear information. Perfect information is sometimes the enemy of the good and a leader can not equivocate. A leader must exercise the best possible judgment to evaluate potential strategies and actions. Any sense of indecision will create doubt and discomfort among those who must respond to the challenges.
When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate and engage their team?
One of the best ways I’ve found to maintain the commitment of the leadership team and the entire workforce is to constantly communicate as clearly as possible. That often means acknowledging uncertainty, but at the same time recommitting to clarity of vision and confirming the strategies needed to achieve the desired outcome.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
Openly and honestly. But you can’t just communicate the bad news. Celebrate the important successes. You must be able to communicate your vision of the strategies and actions that you and your team are taking – or will take – to successfully overcome the challenges. Your goal is to enlist support and lead your organization or customers to the solution, even if the journey will be difficult.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
A leader must be constantly evaluating the landscape and his/her organization’s place in the universe because awareness of what’s happening and what’s trending is critical to avoid being caught by surprise. Reading, listening and constantly asking questions are among the skills a leader should embrace in order to achieve a balanced perspective of the environment in which the organization operates. Strategy and plans must be open to change commensurate with changes in economic and market conditions. The much-needed skill that the most successful leaders possess is remaining true to the vision while adjusting individual plans as underlying conditions may dictate.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
In my experience, the number one principle is maintaining a steady hand on the organization’s direction. A leader must not be seen as reactionary. Assuring that there is clarity of focus on the mission, the customer and the desired economic result will permit the leader to engage his/her team to successfully navigate the turbulence.
Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make during difficult times? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?
Much of my turnaround work has been with non-profit organizations. One refrain I’ve often heard is “We’re a non-profit so we don’t need to make a profit.” That mantra has many times guided (misguided?) the actions of leadership and staff. Completely wrong. Every business organization must be profitable in order to sustain the business. It’s what you do with the profits that matter.
Another key error that I’ve observed is leadership groups assuming a bunker mentality, building walls to keep out unwanted challenges as if by doing so they’ll suddenly go away. The best way I’ve found to deal with turbulent times is to tear down barriers, grab all relevant pieces of intelligence and engage the broadest group of stakeholders possible to successfully navigate the challenges.
Generating new business, increasing your profits, or at least maintaining your financial stability can be challenging during good times, even more so during turbulent times. Can you share some of the strategies you use to keep forging ahead and not lose growth traction during a difficult economy?
There’s a saying that in turbulent waters, you need a steady hand on the tiller. I believe that perfectly describes a leader’s role during turbulent times. A leader must have clarity about where the organization is headed and the strategies necessary to get it there. The leader must be alert to the changing conditions and fearless about modifying strategies to withstand the challenges. And a leader should never compromise the organization’s mission to best serve its customers and staff.
Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to lead effectively during uncertain and turbulent times? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Maintain focus on the primary purpose of the organization – its mission and vision
- Engage leadership and staff in positive actions to deal with the challenges of difficult times
- Retain concentration on serving the needs of customers
- Be purposely adaptable to changing conditions without being reactive
- Communicate, communicate, communicate
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I’ve always been guided by a quote from Ronald Reagan. “There is no limit to what a man can do or where he can go if he doesn’t mind who gets the credit.” I’m comfortable enough in my own skin to not worry about my ego needing credit for an accomplishment. I’d rather recognize and reward the diverse members of the leadership team and staff who on a daily basis execute the strategies and do the very hard work of keeping the organization moving forward.
How can our readers further follow your work?
I invite your readers to visit our website at www.strategichealthgroup.com to learn more about our organization and range of strategic services.