Creating Champions in the Public Sector

December 21, 2015 No Comments by intergrowth

Merriam-Webster defines a champion as someone who fights or speaks publicly in support of a person, belief, cause, etc. Creating champions – people who believe on a very deep and passionate level about the work they’re doing – is not for the faint of heart. If you’re the leader of an organization involved in managing and delivering health care services, why invest in champions? We’re in the business of helping others, so isn’t it enough to do good work?

No, it’s not enough. In a rapidly changing health care industry, it’s the innovators, the performers, and the connected who will thrive five, 10, and 20 years from now. Many “good” programs are no longer in existence and countless organizations lose contracts in spite of a strong performance. To stay alive in the industry, it takes champions that believe in what an organization is doing.

So what does staying alive in the industry really have to do with champions? Champions are passionate. They connect activity to outcomes. They fight for a cause because they know it matters. When your funding is threatened, your contract comes up for renewal, or when a problem arises and you need solutions to overcome it, you want champions at the ready to fight for you.

I first learned about the value and the challenges of building champions 20 years ago. I was Clinical Director for the Iowa Mental Health Access Plan (the state Medicaid mental health and substance abuse carve out contract held by Merit Behavioral Health and subsequently acquired by Magellan). We were striving to collaborate with stakeholders to make positive system changes, but hit some walls along the way. Some stakeholders were angry or distrustful that we wanted what was best for the members and families. There were times I felt discouraged with being seen as the “evil” managed care company, when I truly wanted to make a real difference in people’s lives. I had a great boss at the time, and he helped me understand that driving system change is fraught with challenges – one of the biggest being that people don’t necessarily want change. He quoted Machiavelli and explained that even those benefiting from our changes were often “lukewarm defenders”.

“And let it be noted that there is no more delicate matter to take in hand, nor more dangerous to conduct, nor more doubtful in its success, than to set up as the leader in the introduction of changes.  For he who innovates will have for his enemies all those who are well off under the existing order of things, and only lukewarm supporters in those who might be better off under the new.” Niccolò Machiavelli The Prince 

To face these obstacles, you need strong champions who share a vision for transformation and change and will join you in these efforts. We need each other to make a difference. It takes champions to create movement, to transform a system, and to innovate. Ultimately, this is what health care is about. Health care delivery and management is as complex and ever evolving as humans themselves; and we can only truly succeed together. We act together when we realize that our cause is vital; i.e. when it is worth fighting for to move it forward. Thus, I contend that to be truly successful in today’s climate, a leader must focus on cultivating champions.

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