“A good education is critical, but a lot of it is learning as you go and moving into opportunities as they present themselves,” she says. “If someone had said, ‘do you know how to conduct strategic planning?’ I would have said, ‘No. But I am eager to learn and willing to do my best. So let’s give it a shot.’”
Joan Neuhaus didn’t set out to become a health care executive after graduating with bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Creighton University in the early 1980s. But when she landed a marketing position at Bergan Mercy Hospital, she quickly discovered she had an affinity and passion for the health care industry and its chief mission—helping people.
“I have been with CHI Health or one of its legacy organizations (such as Bergan Mercy) for 31 years,” the Omaha native says. “It has been a tremendous opportunity to work with an operation whose values mirror my own.”
These values run deeper than the typical business values of honesty, integrity, and hard work, says Neuhaus, now a senior vice president and the chief operating officer for CHI Health. CHI values, she says, create a healing environment that’s faithful to the ministry of Jesus Christ.
“It’s respect for the dignity of every person, treating every patient as an individual and respecting their choices, positions, and background. Having that value set and coming to an organization that respects and preserves that in every interaction has been very powerful for me.”
As CHI Health’s COO, Neuhaus manages the operations of 15 hospitals, lines of health care services outside of hospitals, and 7,000 to 8,000 of the health care organization’s 12,000 employees. That awesome responsibility requires a strong leadership philosophy that ensures the best-possible health care for patients while achieving the organization’s financial goals.
In complex organizations such as CHI, leadership is about mobilizing employees to take on tough problems, she says, tapping employees’ intelligence and other talents.
“My role is as an enabler. I make the connections between the parts of the organization that need to come together to figure out a problem,” she says. “It’s messy; it’s a little chaotic. It’s trusting that you have the right people in place and that you connect the right people to the right people.”
The key, Neuhaus says, is to just set the direction and not micromanage. Leaders need to give people clear direction and then let them go to work.
Take Risks, Always Learn
As a woman, hurdles must be overcome to reach the executive suite. After all, that’s why the phrase “glass ceiling” was coined.
Neuhaus offers simple recommendations for leadership success: eagerly take on new opportunities, deal with conflict productively, read and learn as much as you can, and most importantly, focus on building relationships every step of the way.
“A good education is critical, but a lot of it is learning as you go and moving into opportunities as they present themselves,” she says. “If someone had said, ‘do you know how to conduct planning?’ I would have said, ‘No. But I am eager to learn and willing to do my best. So let’s give it a shot.’”
It’s the advice Neuhaus and her husband give their 30-year-old daughter.
“Take some risks, take some initiative in areas you might not be comfortable with, and develop the relationships you need to be successful,” Neuhaus says. “Life is not a solo sport.”
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