Stanford Medical Center’s Greatness: Leadership in the form of small things

My wife and I were standing in the hallway, outside the cafeteria, at Stanford Medical Center finishing up a phone call. After a drama-filled, longer-than-expected stay, our five-day old daughter was about to be discharged from the hospital. And as we were preparing to go home for the first time as a family, my wife and I were rhapsodically adulating the level of care and the quality of our experience at Stanford. It was quite unbelievable, really. The care, the professionalism, the empathy, the meals, the rooms, the people – all of it and more – were beyond-description incredible. Something not lost on us – two, anxiety-ridden, newly-christened parents. That’s what we were discussing as we stood along a bank of windows in a long corridor outside the cafeteria.

It was a busy hallway, one of the main corridors. And there were scores of people shuffling to and fro. Among the crowd there was a sharply dressed woman with a clipboard and an “M.D.” name tag walking our way with a purposeful pace. Suddenly she stopped, squatted, and scooped up two scraps of paper from the ground. They had been there for a few minutes. The custodian and her swiffer had just swept through a few moments prior, but the easy-to-miss litter had scooted over her broom unbeknownst to her.

It was a small, seemingly innocuous moment, this busy-looking doctor bending over to pick specks of dirt off the ground.
“Honey, did you see that?”
That! Did you see that? What just happened. The woman in red and black. Did you see what she just did?”
“No. What happened?”

She had just made a contribution to Stanford Medical Center’s greatness, that’s what she did. Picking up that litter surely is not in her job description. After a bazillion years of schooling, residency, and fellowships I’m sure no one ever suggested she should pick up trash as part of her duties. But it was exactly this type of attention to detail that made our experience so incredible: people doing things beyond what you’d expect of their job description. It was a hundred thousand small things, done by a hundred different people over the course of five days (well, the five days we were there, anyway) that added up to the one-word Yelp! review: amazing.

You know, though, that all those small things weren’t just a five-day charade for the sake of our modest family. Those types of small acts happen 7/24/365. Which makes the red and black clad doctor that much more amazing of a phenomenon. It’s a state of mind the Stanford Medical Center team has – to be on alert for specks of trash whether you’re a urology expert, a first year resident, or a custodian. It’s a sense of personal ownership to be constantly looking for means of making a patient more comfortable, a building more hospitable.

This Stanford doctor is exactly what leadership looks like. If I could put her in a bottle, carry her around to show people or use in trainings, that’s what I would do.

But how do you get your team – whether your a sales team, a D-I basketball team, a nursing team – to live this “small things” mentality? How do you get your team to take leadership into their own hands?

There are at least a few ways:

  1.  Setting expectations
  2. Training
  3. Holding individuals and the team accountable (inspect what you expect)
  4. Recognizing / rewarding

If I’ve written it once, I’ve written it a thousand times: “small acts performed well, repeatedly and over time, are the foundation for excellence.” The exciting thing about this aphorism is that the sometimes squishy and amorphous concept of excellence is something we can train for.

…something I’ll have more to say about next time.

[Featured image: “Drop” by  Marta Puricelli – …the collection of small drops that can fill a bucket or burst a pipe, small things add up in tangible ways]

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