Health Care Renewal is about problems with the leadership and governance of health care organizations.  Since the global financial collapse/ great recession began in 2008, it became evident that the problems we saw affecting health care leadership were similar to problems affecting other large organizations, notably financial firms.  Recently, I spotted a series of articles that raise more questions about how business leaders, and by extension, leaders of health care organizations are chosen and paid.

Doubts about Generic Managers

We have often questioned the wisdom of having health care organizations lead by people with little if any direct health care experience, little knowledge of health care on the ground, and little commitment to health care's core values.  We have called such leaders generic managers.

A New York Times article by Gretchen Morgenson from September, 2012, cited new academic work that questioned the abilities of generic managers.  The source article was Elson CM, Ferrere CK.  Executive superstars, peer groups, and overcompensation - cause, effect and solution.  Ms Morgenson summarized,

Mr. Elson and Mr. Ferrere conclude, contrary to the prevailing line, that chief executives can’t readily transfer their skills from one company to another.

Furthermore, Ms Morgenson interviewed Mr Elson, who said,

But we found that C.E.O. skills are very firm-specific. C.E.O.’s don’t move very often, but when they do, they’re flops.

But there is little evidence, according to Mr. Elson and Mr. Ferrere, that a hot market exists for interchangeable chief executives. First, they note numerous academic studies indicating that C.E.O.’s selected from within a company perform better than outsiders, especially in the creation of long-term shareholder value.

'There is no conclusive empirical evidence that outside succession leads to more favorable corporate performance, or even that good performance at one company can accurately predict success at another,' the authors conclude. 'In short, executive skills cannot pass the most basic test of generality: transferability.'

To be sure, this flies in the face of the widely held view that skilled managers have become generalists and are therefore far more interchangeable than in previous years. Proponents of this thesis argue that top managers today can accumulate a broad knowledge of economics, finance and management science, giving them the ability to manage any type of company effectively. Technological advancements also give chief executives access to untold amounts of data about a particular company that in previous times would have taken years to amass and synthesize, this view holds.

But the data on actual C.E.O. moves raises questions about just how portable C.E.O. skills really are. The Delaware paper cites several studies indicating that relatively few chief executives land new top jobs elsewhere. One study, a 2011 analysis of roughly 1,800 C.E.O. successions from 1993 to 2005, found that less than 2 percent had been public-company chief executives before their new jobs.
This data and these observations seem to broadly apply to business executives, but there is no reason to think they do not apply to executives of health care corporations.  Furthermore, given that on its face, health care is less like making automobiles than, say, the restaurant business is, there is no reason to think doubts this raises about the abilities of generic managers should not be even bigger in health care, and should apply not just to for-profit, but to not for profit corporations.  Yet the trend in health care seems to increasingly favor generic managers of not just for-profit health care corporations, but also hospitals and hospital systems, non-profit health insurers and managed care organizations, health care charities, disease advocacy groups, and even medical associations, medical schools, and their parent universities.  

Doubts about Executive Compensation

Peer-Group Benchmarking

We have often posted about amazingly generous compensation given to top leaders of health care organizations.  Health care corporate CEOs can make tens of millions of dollars, occasionally even more.  While CEOs of not for profit health care organizations make less, they still now can makes millions of dollars.  Ms Morgenson called the usual justification for these huge amounts of compensation the "pay-'em-or-lose-'em" myth.

Corporations are forever defending big executive paydays. If we don’t pay up, the argument goes, our sharpest minds will jump to our rivals.
This notion, or myth, depends on the argument that generic managers are the best managers, which appears to be largely unsubstantiated, as we noted above.

 In other words, the argument that C.E.O.’s will leave if they aren’t compensated well, perhaps even lavishly, is bogus. Using the peer-group benchmark only pushes pay up and up. 


Importantly, the study disputes the notion that executive pay today is a result of an efficient bidding process for finding and retaining a scarce and valuable commodity: managerial talent. 'In essence, this process creates a model of a competitive market for executives where it otherwise does not exist,' the authors wrote. 'Through the operation of a market, it is argued, wages are bid up to an executive’s outside opportunities.'

Instead, as noted above, since the skills needed to run one sort of company or organization may not readily transfer to other companies and organizations, even seemingly similar ones, such a market does not exist. 
 Incentives Based on Short-Term Financial Results

We have also previously discussed (look here) how contemporary economic dogma suggest that the only measure of success of a for-profit corporation is "shareholder value," which has come to mean the stock price over the short term.  There is reason to think that this focus on short-term economic performance has also become the major measure of success of health care organizations.  Another word for this phenomenon is "financialization." 

An op-ed in the UK Independent questions this focus because of its economic effects.  Anthony Hilton wrote about the views of Andrew Smithers,

His starting point was that the economy was floundering because of inadequate demand. Personal spending is flat for obvious reasons but the real culprit is the companies who are hoarding cash and refusing to invest.

Others have noticed the cash hoarding but explain it away by saying we live in uncertain times and companies will start investing again once they become more confident about the economic outlook. Smithers disagrees fundamentally with this. He says companies are not investing because executives are bonused to deliver short-term profits. Costly spending on investment projects is therefore anathema to them. Investment may deliver long-term prosperity but by that time they will have left the company. It also depresses short-term profits while they are still there.

We have in the last two decades, under the mantra of shareholder value and aligning the interests of management with shareholders, created a new breed of management incentivised to believe that what is good for them is good for the business. They dislike investment because it reduces their bonuses .

They don't invest surplus cash. They hoard it or they use it to buy back their own company's shares.

When the majority of the managements in publicly quoted companies start behaving this way, as they now do, we have a serious problem. They are sitting on cash which is the equivalent of six per cent of GDP. This deadweight of unused resources prevents lift-off and threatens to leave the economy forever trapped in the mire.

Smithers says this behaviour by management is a structural change — meaning it is something which won't go away. It makes this down- turn different from all that have gone before.
There is no reason to think that health care corporations are not hoarding money in the sense described above.  If so, they may be failing to invest in drugs or devices that would have helped patients in the future.

Because of the limited reporting required of large health care non-profit organizations in the US, it may be very hard to tell if they are similarly hoarding money, but if they are, the effects again might be to fail to provide patients long-term benefits they might otherwise have enjoyed.

The Ultimately Self-Destructive Outcome

Meanwhile, writing in the New York Times, Chrystia Freeland, the author of Plutocrats: the Rise of the New Global Super-Rich and the Fall of Everyone Else, explained why picking the wrong leaders  and paying them too much may be bad for everyone.  We have noted that an increasing fraction of the wealthiest one percent of the US are current and former corporate executives.  Ms Freeland wrote how domination by an increasingly wealthy and powerful elite usually dooms the countries they dominate.

what separates successful states from failed ones is whether their governing institutions are inclusive or extractive. Extractive states are controlled by ruling elites whose objective is to extract as much wealth as they can from the rest of society.

it is the danger America faces today, as the 1 percent pulls away from everyone else and pursues an economic, political and social agenda that will increase that gap even further — ultimately destroying the open system that made America rich and allowed its 1 percent to thrive in the first place.  


It is no accident that in America today the gap between the very rich and everyone else is wider than at any time since the Gilded Age. Now, as then, the titans are seeking an even greater political voice to match their economic power. Now, as then, the inevitable danger is that they will confuse their own self-interest with the common good. The irony of the political rise of the plutocrats is that, like Venice’s oligarchs, they threaten the system that created them.
So it is not merely that overcompensating generic executives has likely been one of the major reasons our health care is so expensive, inaccessible, and mediocre.  The larger problem of overpaying under skilled executives threatens to destroy our whole society.  How cheerful


The way forward seems clear.  It is just blocked by the interests of the rich and powerful elite which our current foolish policies have created.

In a health care context, leaders of organizations should only be those with clear knowledge of, experience in, and commitment to the values of health care.  Their compensation should be reasonable, and based on their ability to uphold these values first, with financial goals clearly second, and short-term financial goals probably not at all.  Pay should not be bench-marked to compensation of leaders of other organizations, especially not of vastly different kinds of organizations.

Whether there is any chance of such changes happening while corporate boards of directors, and non-profit boards of trustees are dominated by executives of other organizations is doubtful.  Thus we also need to change the governance of for-profit health care corporations to clearly reflect the long-term interests of the stockholders, who will only prosper if in the long run their companies provide products and services that help patients at a fair price and with minimal risks.   Thus we further need to need to change the governance of health care non-profits to reflect the needs of patients, their communities and other key constituencies.  That should keep us all busy for a while.

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