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UVA Health CEO touts the power of connection | Lessons for Leaders

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K. Craig Kent, the CEO of the University of Virginia health system, talks about the importance of having a strategic vision and making sure employees feel like they’re part of it.

K. Craig Kent says leaders need to be able to communicate well with employees and he says he saw the value of that just after beginning his role as CEO of UVA Health, the University of Virginia health system.

Kent took the post in February 2020, just weeks before the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic and all the upheaval it would bring. Facing unprecedented challenges, Kent said it was vital to reach out to communicate.

“During difficult times, challenging times, during good times, communication is a very, very important part of leadership,” Kent tells Chief Healthcare Executive®.

“My gosh, was it important during COVID,” he recalls. “The ability to be able to connect with people, and that can be one-on-one, or it could be me to the 18,000 people that are part of UVA Health.”

With the stress and the need to figure out how to provide care to patients in the new pandemic, Kent says it didn’t take long to bond with UVA Health’s leaders.

“I got to know my leadership team really quickly,” Kent says.

Early in his tenure, he talked about the importance of working as a system, rather than a collection of disparate parts.

“When I first arrived, we were a compilation of different entities that all came together, and we're supposed to be a health system,” Kent recalls. “But I don't think we've worked that way together. And so for me, it was easy to say, six weeks into COVID, if we don't work together, we're not going to take great care of our patients, we're not going to be successful. So it was an opportunity to bring people together.”

Kent talks about the importance of leaders being visionary. UVA Health is in the midst of a long-term strategic plan to expand healthcare across Virginia.

UVA Health is aiming to improve health outcomes and close disparities in care among underserved groups. And he says the system would like to look at partnerships beyond the state of Virginia.

He acknowledges that the plan is very ambitious.

“My guess is we won't achieve everything that we've laid out in front of us and our strategic plan,” he says. “And if we don't get to every place, if we don't get everything accomplished, that's okay. But we're pushing ourselves. We're trying to be the best that we possibly can.”

But again, Kent also points to the value of communication. It’s not enough to have a long-term strategy. He says employees need to understand the plan and feel like they are a part of it.

“What we tried to do is create an environment where every individual in the organization would understand and be connected into the strategic plan,” Kent says. “So if you're a nurse … if you work in one of our community hospitals up north, if you're a bench researcher in one of our laboratories, if you're one of the educators in the school of nursing, how is the strategic plan relevant to you?”

“And so being able to make those connections, it's all about communication,” Kent says.

Kent also touts another concept that he says is valuable for executives and managers: servant leadership.

“I'm privileged to be in this role,” Kent says. “I wake up every day and can't believe I had this opportunity. But it's not about me. It's about the people at work in the health system, and it's about our patients. And every day, I go to work trying to find a way that we can be better for our patients, and we can be better for the people in the health system. And that's a message that I want my team to send throughout the 18,000 people that are part of UVA Health.”

Kent also says leaders should also take joy in their work.

“The other thing I would say is that it's so fun to be a leader,” Kent says. “It's just so gratifying to be able to see that the organization that you're part of is changing, moving forward, providing great care. And that it's a wonderful time, a difficult time, but a wonderful time to be a leader in healthcare.”


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