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The importance of being visible | Lessons for Leaders


The CEO of AtlantiCare in New Jersey, Michael Charlton talks about the need to get around the organization and talk with staff.

Even when he was serving as interim CEO of the AtlantiCare Health System, Michael Charlton says he didn’t waste any time wandering around and meeting with staff members.

Michael Charlton, president and CEO of AtlantiCare Health System in New Jersey. (Image: AtlantiCare)

Michael Charlton, president and CEO of AtlantiCare Health System in New Jersey. (Image: AtlantiCare)

Charlton was appointed the president and chief executive officer of the New Jersey health system on a permanent basis in October. He had served on AtlantiCare’s board, as well as a member of the American Hospital Association’s board of trustees. But he brings perspective outside healthcare, spending three decades running a hospitality company in New Jersey.

In a recent interview with Chief Healthcare Executive®, Charlton talks about the importance of seeing staff throughout the organization, and to be seen by staff.

“The biggest lesson that I have learned, and it was reinforced when I first got here, is that you’ve got to be visible, and you've got to listen,” Charlton says. “And you’ve got to listen to understand, not just deliver a reply.”

“One of the most valuable things I found here in my first 60, 90 days, is I just listened,” Charlton says. “I met with people, I wandered. It wasn't about rounding a set of people. It was wandering. I wandered the building at night on weekends, spoke to different people, and heard what's on their mind.”

AtlantiCare operates two hospitals and more than 100 sites of care across southern New Jersey. Charlton also asked staff why they were working with AtlantiCare, and he says that’s been valuable.

He says he asked employees, “Does the purpose resonate with you? And it really shaped and framed some of the decisions and thoughts that we had to make, and I think that was key.”

Charlton says he walked around the system’s main campus sometimes early in the morning or on weekends. On the day of his interview with Chief Healthcare Executive, he says he began his workday at 6:45 a.m. and walked around talking to employees.

He says he has surprised some workers when he bumped into them.

“Initially, yeah, I think it was shocking to some people,” Charlton says. “But now, it's the best part of my day, to be honest with you.”

“Now, it's almost like an expectation that they're going to see me and we get to talk about their kids and their son's high school football game or Starbucks,” he continues. “So it's become the best part of the job.”

Aside from making human connections and having pleasant interactions with team members, Charlton says there have been other benefits, including building rapport and credibility for tougher subjects.

“It's also made it much easier to have the conversations that need to be had and to get the input and feedback that you need,” Charlton says. “Now, there's trust and understanding that, you know, we're just two people having a conversation trying to move an organization forward.”

Charlton also stresses the value in devising collaborative approaches in tackling problems.

“With today's workforce, and appropriately so, you’ve got to co-create the solutions now,” Charlton says. “Things can't be driven from top down anymore. It's not the right way to conduct business anymore.”

Even in structured organizations such as health systems, Charlton says generating buy-in and working with teams “is the right message to send.”

(If you’d like to submit your lessons in leadership in healthcare, great advice you’ve received, or insights you wish you had earlier, submit an idea for our “Lessons for Leaders” series. Contact Ron Southwick, senior editor of Chief Healthcare Executive: [email protected])

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