The healthcare industry has one of the highest burnout rates in the nation, but CEO John Polikandriotis has bucked that trend at Vail-Summit Orthopaedics & Neurosurgery (VSON) through clear, authentic leadership. Now, he’s teaching others how to lead with “deliberate clarity.”
In March, he speaks at a virtual national conference for the American College of Healthcare Executives about how to achieve success when old methods don’t work anymore. He will be speaking alongside major figures in the health care space, including Dr. Anthony S. Fauci.
Polikandriotis understands the classic grind: “overwork, attain, intermission and repeat,” which ultimately leads to exhaustion and burnout.
Rather than chasing never-ending goals imposed by others, he advocates taking time to define what truly brings you joy. He also points out that anything worth pursuing requires sacrifices: Most people see the “shiny ball” of wealth, fame or other success leaders possess without knowing about the relationships, time, energy or money they put in to achieve their status, he said.
“Leading can be all-consuming and highly stressful, especially when you do it for a company and employees that you care so much about,” he said. “Great leaders have to sacrifice personal agenda for the good of others and their organization.”
Although leadership has a cost, it’s also quite rewarding.
“It teaches you priority management, relationship management and communication skills,” he said. “And at the end of the day, nothing is more rewarding to me than to see dedicated employees overcoming challenges, growing, learning and doing amazing fulfilling work.”
In his four years at VSON, Polikandriotis has focused on four core values: compassionate care, innovation, teamwork and community.
“John has trust in his staff, trust in the process,” said Megan Buhler, director of operations. “John has strength in leadership and brought a new presence to the CEO office when he joined the organization.”
His strength started with a clear vision of where VSON needed to go, and how to get there. He ensured all employees understood what the company stands for, where it’s going and why.
“John has brought a business perspective to VSON that incorporates intimate knowledge of the local healthcare environment with a national perspective into the business of healthcare,” said Dr. Erik Dorf, a shoulder, hand, elbow, wrist, knee and orthopaedic trauma surgeon. “Through his guidance, VSON has been able to maintain our market share and develop a growth strategy focused on aligning world-class orthopaedic surgeons throughout Colorado. John is a visionary in his field. We are blessed to have him on our team.”
Polikandriotis understands that success isn’t linear: Solving one problem just leads to other questions and problems.
“Success is an action, not a destination,” he said. “Today’s solutions will always lay the foundation for tomorrow’s problems.”
The choice: Either stop solving problems or realize that a meaningful life involves solving problems. Afterall, careers in healthcare — and plenty of other areas — revolve around solving challenges.
“Don’t hope for a life without problems,” he said. “Hope for a life full of problems you are passionate about solving.”
And, as a leader, realize that trying to fix every problem will probably lead to burnout. Polikandriotis takes two approaches: delegating and knowing what he can and cannot control.
“John trusts you to do your job,” Buhler said. “He doesn’t feel he has to be involved every step of the way. That’s why we’ve gotten so much done in the last four years. He trusts that I can do my job and he’ll do his job and things will just get done.”
When things like, say, a global pandemic come his way, he focuses on things he can control.
“I think it is an easy tendency to become paralyzed focusing on things that you can’t control or change,” he said. “Great leadership is about training yourself to separate what you cannot control from what you can control, and then focusing exclusively on the latter. Mindful leaders control how much they learn, how much they listen, how hard they work, and which inspiring people to surround themselves with. This choice to focus on things we can control can increase our endurance to be able to withstand and adapt to anything this constantly everchanging world throws at us.”
Such leadership skills require not only cognitive intelligence, but also emotional intelligence — the ability to be an authentic human being, connect with others, manage stress, show humility and empathy and be honest.
“High IQ makes sense, but we’re starting to live in a world where emotional intelligence trumps IQ,” he said. “If you want to win over hearts and minds, you have to lead with your authentic heart and mind. Leaders don’t tell people what to do; they have open conversations about what their team wants.”
In other words, they provide directions and intent — not orders. They provide an overall vision and goals with clear expectations.
“I’ve only been at VSON for a year, but I already feel like a stronger marketer thanks to John’s leadership,” said Rachel Follender, director of marketing and communications. “When I present a new opportunity to him, he doesn’t tell me ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ He always asks ‘what do you think?’ and encourages me to make a decision based on my expertise in marketing, as well as knowledge of our industry and organizational needs. When you work for John, he doesn’t just give you a list of things you have to do. He pushes you to develop that list yourself, and own the intention behind it. John doesn’t strive to be a boss — he strives to be a mentor and business partner.”
Most of all, great leaders care for, and support, their team members.
“Empower and educate others to work at their highest level,” Polikandriotis said. “The upper limit of what’s possible will increase only with each collaborator you empower.”
“Let’s be honest: orthopaedic surgeons are independent minded physicians,” Dorf said. “John has been able to align the varying perspectives of the VSON partners toward common goals and a long-term vision. Without his guidance, we would not be where we are now.”
As each empowered person passes on his or her enthusiasm and expertise to other colleagues, it creates a domino effect of vitality and success that ultimately serves the organization’s clients — in this case, VSON’s patients.