Even years later, I still consider it my biggest professional failure: a company-wide employee training program that I’d developed and put through several rounds of vetting was shot down at the last minute. It was a painful surprise, and it changed the way I’ve sought support for new initiatives ever since.
As hospitals increasingly migrate their medical records from paper files to digital media, their employees face the challenge of making the information readily accessible to providers while adequately protecting patients’ privacy. At my hospital, I was a senior vice president with a long track record of establishing successful programs, and I had oversight responsibility for my hospital’s IT and Health Information departments.
To make sure our 23,000+ employees were up to date on the industry rules, policies, and procedures they were legally required to be familiar with, my department heads and I created a robust training program. We went well beyond the minimum that the law required, creating a curriculum rooted in industry best practices. We could have just printed out a thick informational packet to give to each employee, but we knew the training program had a much greater chance of being effective. And we gave the program a catchy name to top it off.
From the outset, I understood the training program would require the support of the entire senior management team, as they would have to direct their departments to complete the training and document that they had done so. As our multidisciplinary team developed the curriculum, I provided regular updates to my colleagues and asked for their input throughout the process. With each vetting, they indicated their support of the initiative. So when the pushback finally happened, I never saw it coming.
Timing is everything. When the final vote on the training program arrived, another vice president, who had been supportive of the program, had just come from a meeting where his pet project was shot down. He was livid about his defeat and was not in the mood to approve my program. In fact, he made such an angry speech that a few others in the room weren’t up to arguing with him. My initiative was tabled.
In hindsight, I had made two mistakes. In the highly regulated world of health care, training programs are introduced continuously with little fanfare. I gave my program a catchy name to make what was, frankly, a tedious chore a little more inviting to the many people who would have to complete it. Giving mine a sexy name made it sound like a full-blown program that would consume significant resources, raising its profile more than was warranted.
The second mistake was assuming that when my colleagues smiled and nodded every time I presented the details, that meant they would continue their support no matter what was happening outside the conference room. My angry colleague being so riled up was not the time to remind him that the training met a critical need and was something we had to pursue.
Of course, angry outburst aside, the work still needed to be done. So, I waited a few weeks and went to visit my disappointed colleague once he’d had a chance to cool off. I reminded him that it was important for this program to go forward, and I asked him what it would take to get him behind the effort. We negotiated a few points and came up with a plan we could both support. I then asked him to present our changes at the next senior management meeting so it would be clear to everyone in the room that he was back on board. That time, the vote carried.
Nearly a decade later, I’m actually grateful to him for teaching me a valuable lesson. I had been so sure of the strength of my professional relationships that I’d just assumed everyone would remain consistent and true to their word, regardless of what it would cost them in an unforeseeable situation such as the one we found ourselves in that day.
As a result of this experience, when I’m developing a project now, I ask for and record votes at every vetting and make those records available for review. That way, if there is ever a disagreement about the status of one of my projects, there is a clear record of everyone’s position, making it more difficult for people to change their stance in the heat of the moment. I also log undecided votes when people haven’t made up their minds yet, but I’ve found that people usually form opinions about new projects pretty quickly. If I’d had documentation of everyone’s support for the training program, their positions would have been clear, so there would have been no need for me to go up against our angry colleague.
Second, I learned to wait until something is actually approved to give it an eye-catching name and brand it as a standalone program. When the training was finally approved a few weeks later, we gave it a new name — the result of a contest among the employees who would have to take it — which truly helped people understand what needed to be done and how to do it. But naming a program too early runs the risk of creating a sense among your teammates, who may be promoting their own initiatives, that there are winners and losers.
Most of us work in environments where there are many initiatives competing for limited resources of budgets, time, and attention. Sobered by my surprising upset, I’ve taken pains to formalize the vetting process and not rely on friendships and collegial alliances. In fact, the higher the stakes, the more formal the process I use. Not all industries may need a process as formal as mine, but it’s important to figure out the best way to get projects approved where you work.
Here’s an example of how I use this process to facilitate budget negotiations. To prioritize the requests for expensive IT initiatives whose demands far exceeded the resources available each year, I created a multi-disciplinary senior level steering committee to evaluate various initiatives and sort them by order of strategic and operational importance. Votes were all documented. When I entered into budget negotiations with the other SVPs, I was armed with a record of who supported each initiative. The relevant SVPs either sat on the steering committee or were represented. In this way, we avoided the seriously unpleasant task of making the case for each initiative in the heat of the budget battle. The work of the steering committee allowed a full vetting in a neutral setting — which is exactly what the budget room is not.
I’m happy to report that since adopting these two practices, I’ve never endured the same kind of defeat, even when the stakes have been high. Maybe that experience wasn’t such a failure after all.
By Allison Rimm