Andrew Resnick, MD: One of the greatest challenges for chief medical officers (CMOs) is exerting influence with both clinicians and other members of the C-suite. It’s also a tremendous opportunity to drive meaningful change for the organization, improve the quality of care patients receive, and increase physician engagement and satisfaction. My colleague Tim Stewart, Senior Vice President at Jarrard Inc., shares principles for becoming a skilled influencer.

An accomplished communications executive, Tim counsels clients through complex issues while leading Jarrard’s Academic Health Systems Practice. In that work, Tim has guided countless leadership teams through physician engagement efforts and other strategic change management initiatives. His experience in this realm has led to unique insight into the dynamics of clinical teams, as well as best practices for CMOs and other executives to engage, communicate, and build trust with their clinical teams. 

Chartis: Start by defining the terms. How do you define “success” and “influence” in the context of a CMO? 

Tim Stewart: Success is being able to maintain credibility with the physicians across your organization, which allows you to wield influence when necessary. It’s worth pointing out that thinking about success in this way comes upstream of success in terms of hitting KPIs or other targets. Maintaining credibility so you can exert influence sets you up to achieve those specific targets—the business successes.  

Influence is the ability to bring physicians along in the direction necessary to effect change. It’s not dragging them along but making the case in a compelling way so people are willing to move on their own, in collaboration with you. 

Chartis: What are a couple things successful CMOs consistently do? 

Stewart: The easy answer here is to communicate clearly and regularly. That’s true.  

Going further, the best CMOs serve as a bridge from the physicians to the rest of the executive team. They absorb, translate, and maybe even repackage information so both sides can understand what the other is saying and expecting. It comes down to providing the right level of context and information so that the people on both sides can make the most informed decisions.  

Finding the right level is key. This doesn’t mean always sharing every piece of information every time. Instead, it’s about understanding what the different stakeholders need—which is often a lot more information than the other side might naturally want to share—and working from that.  

There’s also an element of being a buffer, amplifying the issues or complaints from physicians that are important and defusing the ones that aren’t. 

Chartis: Are there any traps or counterproductive approaches that CMOs should avoid? 

Stewart: At Jarrard, we talk a lot about the value of listening sessions through events like town halls. But it takes real investment to listen effectively. Any mechanism for collecting feedback and hearing concerns that isn’t done habitually and doesn’t show results is going to end up alienating physicians rather than empowering them.  

If you’re going to be visible and ask for feedback, you need to follow up on it. Even—or especially—if the response isn’t what physicians want to hear. Clinicians need to know you’re advocating for their interests, and that you don’t only care about their opinions or needs in advance of a big payer fight or for Doctors’ Day.  

There has to be a constant focus on open, two-way communication. 

Chartis: Our recent national physician survey showed that physicians are far more likely to trust their colleagues than execs at their organizations. What does this mean for CMOs? 

Stewart: It’s not a surprising finding. People trust the people they work with most closely. In practice, it means that there are some issues where, if you want to get results, you probably need to make yourself invisible. Instead, identify the important peers that you can influence and then encourage them to take that message to physicians and get the results you’re looking for. As Roger Ray, MD, Chartis Chief Physician Executive, has pointed out, “It’s critically important for those informal leaders to be aligned with your goals.”  

That survey finding also means that generic “From the Desk of the CMO” type newsletters are largely ineffective. Instead, think about the things that uniquely need to come from you and put your focus there. For everything else, run the information through other trusted messengers who your physicians feel a stronger connection to. 

Chartis: You work with executives and leaders from many different departments within the enterprise. What do you think others, like marketing and communications leaders, want or need from their CMOs? 

Stewart: Other leaders and execs want insight into what the organization’s physicians need and care about, and where the interests of all physician factions intersect. Many leaders are likely to paint physician interests with a pretty broad brush. A CMO who can speak to how an initiative will impact an employed primary care physician differently than it would a small group anesthesiologist will have everyone’s ear. They’ll be trusted by and influential with both execs and physicians because they have that nuanced insight into what really matters. 

Chartis: Where can CMOs offer the most value in guiding their organizations through change, especially when it’s difficult change like performance improvement, a merger, or service line changes? 

Stewart: There’s a lot of value in being a BS detector on behalf of the executive team. Similar to the previous question, it’s about drilling into how changes will actually impact physicians based on their nuanced circumstances, not how things look on paper. Whether the ultimate impact of a change is positive or negative, it’s better for the CMO to be able to anticipate reactions and mitigate physician pushback and dissatisfaction.  

Organizations talk a lot about how “we’re better together.” The risk comes if that’s an empty slogan, and the organization is just paying lip service to a shared mission while leaving key stakeholders—physicians—out of the loop. When that happens, the CMO can play a critical role in figuring out what’s real and what’s just talk. You can only make effective decisions and keep the bridge between physicians and administrators intact when conversations and actions revolve around real effects. Otherwise, you’re just talking past each other. 

Chartis: Any final thoughts? 

Stewart: It’s worth repeating the idea that success starts at the ground level, where a CMO builds trust with clinicians and uses that trust as the foundation to advance necessary change. It’s not top down, with the CMO pushing executive-level decisions onto physicians.  

We often say that healthcare is local. It’s also personal. Those ideas apply to the people working within a hospital as much as they do to the patients and community served by the hospital. Successful CMOs are the ones who anchor their work in that idea. 

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