Bill Bartlett | Gagen MacDonald

Insights & Events / Let Go & Lead / LG&L Interview

Bill Bartlett

Sep 18, 2018

At The Conference Board’s 16th Annual conference on Change and Transformation, Maril Gagen MacDonald interviewed Bill Bartlett, Ed.D.,Vice President of Organizational Development for Novant Health, to discuss leadership styles of executives tasked with leading change initiatives. Below is a condensed transcript of their conversation.

Fast Facts


Winston-Salem, NC

Number of Employees:


Time in Current Role:

16 years

Questions & Answers

You have a deep interest in helping leaders set priorities. What is your leadership philosophy around this, and where does this passion come from?:

BB: Our personal life experiences can influence how we see the organizations in which we work. I think, for example, about my personal experience growing up with Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD). I’ve struggled with it throughout my life, even though I’ve learned to compensate for it.

With that in mind, I’ve observed that organizations can also have ADD—some worse than others. That’s caused partly by the amount of change and messaging that occurs within our society. Various environmental forces bear on organizations today—like market shifts and regulatory changes—that drive the need for organizational transformation. Consequently, organizations of any size will need to become more agile and astute in response to those changes. Relative to this fact, leaders struggle to figure out how to lead for organizational effectiveness while tending to the work of effecting change within their organizations.

You are passionate about leaders getting clear on their priorities and then helping their teams align their own priorities to them. How do you coach leaders in your organization to do that?:

BB: First, we encourage leaders to ask for direction and feedback. As a leader, you must go to your one-up leaders and ask them what they think your priorities should be, based upon your function within the organization, what they expect of you, and how you can best support the organization’s strategy. Ask them how your work potentially impacts their areas of responsibility. It’s about getting clarity from senior leaders on their expectations of you in your function and role within the company.

Second, we suggest this personal exercise: leaders should carve out time to sit down and sift through the messages received from their senior leaders and develop a set of clear priorities based on those messages. As a leader, you have to get to a place of clarity yourself before you can lead others to it.

With the continuous add-ons of priorities from a manager or leader, how do you coach leaders to protect the scope of their responsibilities?:

BB: Generally, I think protecting the scope of priorities is an agreement—a verbal contract—between you and your one-up. As an internal organizational development consultant, I’m always looking for ways to help leaders achieve clarity and alignment. If we don’t have these things as leaders, we’ll find ourselves scattered—suffering from organizational ADD. Our attention will be drawn in too many different directions, and we’ll lose our effectiveness. Worse, our organizations can lose organizational discipline around things that require continuous focus.

All of this has to balance with an understanding that organizational priorities can change quickly as critical business opportunities emerge. And we need to be flexible and prepared to step into those things and address them with vigor.

When leaders achieve clarity on their priorities, they need to provide clear priorities for their teams. How do you recommend doing that?:

BB: One common observation of leaders across healthcare is that our front-line managers—especially those in clinical areas—have far more responsibilities than they could hope to manage.

An interesting story comes to mind: A couple of years ago, we brought in several managers and asked them to catalogue all of the duties they were required to perform. Then we had them complete an exercise to filter out the things that were essential from everything that wasn’t. What fascinated me, coming out of that exercise, was that these managers had as many responsibilities listed as when they started. Prioritization is very difficult for people because it can all look essential.

The reason, in part, is that messages and directives come from multiple places in most matrixed organizations. In healthcare, we have service lines that include our acute facilities, our ambulatory services, and independent practices (each with their own leadership structures) that are connected or affiliated in some fashion. So, things become complex quickly in terms of where priorities come from and what expectations are set. And front-line managers are lightning rods: they get struck by it all.

We help our managers by clarifying realistic expectations for them. Because they may be juggling other important responsibilities, we approach things episodically, prioritizing those things that need focus now. Priorities change over time, so it’s critical that one-up leaders are coached to meet with their teams every quarter to set or reset priorities.

Obviously, non-negotiables—like customer service—must be attended to at all times. Other items—like regulatory issues—can emerge as a priority occasionally, depending on the issue. So, we allow flexibility to shift focus to the more urgent activities when needed. When that priority is met, we shift focus back to other priorities.

I worked with a leader who used to tell her team, "You're juggling a lot of balls. Make sure you know which ones are rubber and which are crystal.":

BB: That’s right. People have to understand there will always be non-negotiables.

As we consider the concept of leading when you, as a leader, are no longer in control, what's your thought about the idea of “Let Go & Lead”?:

BB: For the first time in the history of our HR organization, we’ve established a three-year strategic plan. We celebrate that accomplishment because prior to this plan, our HR organization had been primarily focused on annual goals.

One reason we needed this plan is that we were attempting to support an organization focused on being strategic, but we weren’t functioning strategically ourselves. Building this strategic plan helped us to align more closely to the business and partner in a way that creates better outcomes for both.

We also developed a governance structure—with a senior and executive leader operational advisory group—to help hold our strategic plan. As a result, we’re now able to partner more closely on critical HR issues like talent. As a part of our strategic plan, we are designing an integrated talent strategy, which we believe will be a major lever in advancing operational success.

As leaders, we must stay focused on talent, finding more effective means to unleash that talent. I’ve had many conversations with leaders about what it means to unleash talent. At a minimum, it requires moving away from micro-management and task-orientation and saying to people: ’You’re professionals with skills and abilities. We want to see what you can bring to help build this organization by being the best that you can be.’ People are very excited about that. As leaders, we have to trust people to be the professionals we hired them to be.

What final words of advice do you have for leaders who want to learn how to let go?:

BB: It’s a matter of trusting our team when we have a high need for control. Because we leaders are goal-driven and understand that we are accountable for those goals, we like to minimize risk to ourselves. That too often means that we step into the work to manage what we should be leading. Instead, we have to look at accountability differently: it’s not just something we, as leaders, own; we have to see it as team-owned accountability.

As leaders, we must understand we can’t accomplish goals without our teams. We must introduce trust and a sense of shared accountability for our goals and responsibilities.

Join us at The Conference Board’s Change is the Only Constant: How to Communicate It and Win seminar on December 11-12 in New York City to explore more concepts like these from today’s leading change agents.

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