St. Joseph’s Hospital Shares Servant Leadership Journey
Hospital flipped organizational structure, included everyone in initiative

When asked what drove St. Joseph’s Hospital to start its journey into servant leadership close to 20 years ago, David Fish recalls it was when he was prompted to think that “there is more to work than simply work.”

Fish served as president of the Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin-based hospital from 1983 to 2010, and is now vice-president for advocacy for the Hospital Sisters Health System, which owns and operates St. Joseph’s.

“As a result of thinking about (work) in that way, the question always for me personally was how it is that you can find fulfilment — personal fulfilment and professional fulfilment — in what it is you are doing,” he says.

Fish says it seemed to him that there is a spiritual dimension to work as well, and given these feelings the question became asking how, as an organization, they could better develop an understanding of servant leadership — putting others before self and consciously creating an organization that allows everyone to connect or reconnect with its purpose.

He says this prompted looking at areas such as who are we, what do we care about, what do we want, and considering the trials and demands, how can we best stand by one another.

This caused the discussion of how might servant leadership be brought into the organization in a way that it is understood and lives out the hospital mission.

The top management team had two years worth of discussions, with three different retreats at a retreat centre in another city, to determine if there was a commitment to better understand servant leadership and create programming and opportunity for everyone in the organization.

“The belief I think very simply for us was just how do we carry forward the values of our sisters which are care, joy, respect, and competence, and how we interact with each other within our organization how do we create a simpler world, a more welcoming world …, a hospitable world and a more human and a more loving world,” Fish tells Axiom News.

The management was “all over the board” about servant leadership, some apprehensive about it, having been used to the traditional management forms, notes Fish.

“Most people hadn’t heard about (servant leadership) and weren’t even sure what it really meant, so there was scepticism in the importance of trying to figure out where do you begin this kind of journey and what do you focus on and who do you include in it,” he recalls.

The group decided to include everybody in the organization and along the way moved from the traditional power relationship of employer-employee to everyone being called a colleague.

The hospital changed from having departments to service areas. There are no department managers but co-ordinators who co-ordinate the service.

In the 1980’s, the hospital flipped its organizational structure to be the reverse of the traditional structure, so management exists to support others and assist the caregivers.

The hospital also created a “spirit” letter explaining to potential hires what the organization is looking for in individuals.

“(We) fundamentally wanted a recruiting process that provided as much information to others as we would want to know about them, so that we could be as best assured as possible that we were making a good choice in terms of their interests and preferences,” says Fish.

The application process included having people write stories of how they have provided service to others. Applicants started being interviewed by their potential new colleagues.

To mitigate having people who don’t attend meetings being at a disadvantage from knowing the information shared the hospital started having co-ordinators invite a few people at random from their area to attend. The participants could then talk about what they learned and see commonality in the meetings.

Fish says his most powerful experience has been the collective experience of the entire servant leadership effort.

He says there have been comments from thousands of people who have gone through the hospital’s program expressing how the program and work environment has made significant changes in their lives.

“When you collectively look at how the organization has grown, and how we have such incredible interaction with people of all levels within the organization, and just really robust conversations — that really is the collective benefit of this,” says Fish.

— More to Come

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