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Why listening is ‘the most important skill’ | Lessons for Leaders

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Nicole Stallings, president and CEO of the Hospital and Healthsystem Association of Pennsylvania, talks about coming to the table, identifying common ground, and listening.

When asked about important lessons for leaders in healthcare, Nicole Stallings points to the need to be willing to come to the table.

Stallings is the president and CEO of the Hospital and Healthsystem Association of Pennsylvania; she took the post in June. Previously, she worked as the chief external affairs officer for the Maryland Hospital Association.

For two decades, Stallings has worked on significant and thorny health policy issues. She talked about the importance of getting people to sit down and come together to hash out differences. “I believed in bringing people to the table and finding ways to get things done,” Stallings says.

But leaders have to do more than talk and stand their ground.

“Listening is the most important skill of any leader,” Stallings says.

By listening, leaders can create space “so people can talk about their challenges,” she explains.

“Then we together can identify where we have that commonality, where that agreement is,” Stallings says. “We will always figure out what those guardrails are. There's going to be some things that we're not going to be able to give on, but identifying together, this is the problem that we are trying to solve, and then, how are we going to get there … tends to be the trick.”

In tough discussions, Stallings says it’s valuable to “admit we have more we can do.” As she says, she’s willing to “hold up the mirror.”

“I think when you do that, you enhance your credibility, and you're able to get more accomplished,” Stallings says. “And so those are the things that I bring to this job.”

Stallings says working with Maryland hospitals early in the COVID-19 pandemic was immensely rewarding.

“This was in the midst of the height of the pandemic, and I'm working on getting ventilators to the right place, or figuring out how vaccines will be distributed across a state,” Stallings recalls. “My children understood how I'm helping hospitals help people. And that was the most valuable work of my career. And when there was agreement on the problem, and the thing that we needed to solve, we all jumped in and we figured out how to make it happen.”

Stallings talks about the importance of getting more women in healthcare leadership roles. While women hold a host of healthcare roles, the C-suite tends to be dominated by men. Only 15% of all CEOs in health systems are women, while women hold about 16% of the CEO positions in health insurance groups, according to a November 2021 analysis published by Jama Network Open.

“I think we've got a lot of work to do,” Stallings says. “We've made some strides, but we have a lot of work to do.”

Some women hold off on pursuing leadership positions because they feel they need to have every skill or attribute cited in a post about the job, even if they are terrific candidates, women leaders say. Stallings says some women feel the need to “check every box.”

“I think that's why it's so important to have mentors,” Stallings says. “I benefited from mentors.”

In her own career, she says, “I don't just have female mentors. I've asked many men to mentor me as well. I think that's important … there are different leadership styles.”

Stallings also has mentored others, and she will hear from those she mentored years ago who check in from time to time.

Stallings says the healthcare industry needs more diversity in leadership, and she’s looking beyond gender.

“I will say it's not just important that we grow women in these roles,” she says. “We also need to make sure we have more people of color in these roles.”

She says she’s looking to ensure diversity on the board of the hospital association, and says diversity in leadership across healthcare is sorely needed.

“I think that's an area where we need to continue to grow, and really be intentional about the work that we're doing,” Stallings says.

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