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Conscient Leaders: Interview with Jim “Big Red” Wetrich
For our leadership segment, we interviewed Jim Wetrich, author of Stifled: Where Good Leaders Go Wrong and CEO of The Wetrich Group, a healthcare management consulting firm providing advisory support and guidance—substantive, thorough, strategic, and tactical—to partner clients.
Tell us a little about your current role and how you got to where you are today as a leader and author.
I founded Wetrich Group in 2001. For the last 8 years, I have been coaching, consulting, and mentoring innovative leaders. I am a certified coach and recently joined the Professional Coach’s board of directors for the International Coaching Federation (ICF). Though my career had been mostly focused in healthcare, I am very much a student of business and love working with leaders with businesses from across various industries.
You recently published your first book. What led you to put pen to paper at this stage?
This book has been in the works for many years and something I have been wanting to do since I left my last full-time job at Mölnlycke Health. Stifled: Where Good Leaders Go Wrong is very much a reflection of my own career and experience with leadership. I have always had very strong feelings about certain things involving leadership. Following a 40-year career in the health care space, 10 of which were spent working in hospitals, including hospital administration, and hospital consulting, I also ran two large supply chain organizations. I also spent 22 years in the medical device and pharmaceutical business and worked with three companies – Abbott Laboratories, Reapplix, and Mölnlycke Health Care -part of the Wallenberg family Investor AB portfolio companies. More often than not, leaders don’t completely understand their impact on an organization and how their messages can be deemed inconsistent. Most of the leaders I have met and worked around have generally been well-meaning and well-intended people, but sometimes their actions have consequences, causing firestorms and controversies.
There are many books on different types of leadership like ‘authentic leadership’ and the rest. Still, I thought it would be interesting to point out some of the failures and troubles people get into when leading. I also think, imagine my first years in business in 1981, your boss told you what, how, why, and when to do your tasks; you worked for that boss, and they owned you, and this was the environment. Fast-forward 40yrs that doesn’t work anymore; it probably hasn’t worked for a long time, but a lot of people get away with the ‘command and control’ type leadership style. It is an entirely different world now, and with covid, everything has changed.
As you think of the qualities of a great leader or manager, what are some of those essential qualities?
It is a series of questions, who are you and what do you stand for; what is important to you, and what people need to know about what is important to you. Self-awareness is so critical, and that includes knowing what you do not know. I have been shocked by some of the messages from former GE leaders talking about ‘I wish I said I don’t know’ more often. Today with so much specialization and information, you can’t possibly get close to begin knowing everything about anything; it is not possible. So being cognizant of your limitations is very important.
Also important are humility, authenticity, transparency. There is a considerable gap with leaders not being open and honest with their employees either about the status of the business or their personal situation. I can’t tell you how many people I coach now who have been identified as high potential within their organization but can’t get any clarity on what that means–what is or if there is a success plan and how to continue to develop; this is a transparency issue. Integrity is also important; it surprises me there are still significant lapses with that. The last things on my list are putting other people first and yourself second, audaciousness, and grit.
How do you balance bringing the leadership strengths from the past and incorporate what works now?
Leadership involves a process of continuous development, growth, and improvement. I think some of the problems leaders get into is that they lean on what worked for them in the past and haven’t necessarily adjusted to what is working now or what will be working in the future. This was partly why I went back to grad school to get my MBA. I got my MBA when I was 52 because I felt, in the late 2000s, lots of things had changed. So, I wanted to refresh, retool, and reorient, and I am glad I did. It was a critical time in my life where I could sit and think of where I had been and think about what I would want to look like going forward.
How would you describe your leadership style and approach?
I generally like the servant leadership model and most of its tenets. I try to put people first, and the most important thing for me is that people grow and develop and to provide opportunities to make this happen. It may be that the growth may have to come from outside the organization. A downside for us being a small business is you can’t offer a lot of opportunities for many people. But it is about what is important to the individual. How can I help you grow to do the position you are doing now if you want to stay here or close gaps in your background to help you find opportunities externally if that is the direction you want to take. Though I understand it, we focus too much on the hard stuff like hitting numbers and targets—profit, sales, market share—and not enough on the softer skills, which is critical.
What would you include if you were to build a leadership starter pack for people leading this ever-changing, multicultural business environment?
It will be having as many case studies as possible on good practices of model organizations, psychological safety, integrity, and diversity. I will also add helping people speak their minds and speak up as leaders often assume that if people don’t speak up, they don’t have anything important to say and tend to minimize those people. It may be very much so that, referenced from an appraisal of my book, “sometimes the biggest or loudest voice in the room isn’t the best voice in the room.” So how are we making sure that we get people to participate; I love the term ‘Lean-in’ as all people need to lean in, need a seat at the table, and voices need to be heard as much as possible.
As you think about your book, the future of your work as a coach and leader, what are you looking forward to?
For me, one of the most exciting things is being able to branch out of healthcare and working with people across industries, differing businesses, and the globe. This is super exciting because I can get a sense of what is happening in diverse companies; surprisingly, is how much they are still operating under ‘command and control.’ When I was in grad school, someone worked in a huge, well-known company where the environment was you couldn’t just go mingling with and talking to people; if you wanted to talk with your bosses’ boss, you needed your boss’s approval. This just blows my mind, and it is still prevalent today; there is still this siloed bureaucracy and chain of command culture. It is so foreign for me going back to my time at Abbott, things were very open, and you could talk to anybody. So, I don’t quite understand that and believe that we must continue to evolve and democratize more employment.
About The Wetrich Group:
The Wetrich Group is a health care management consulting firm founded in 2001 by James G. Wetrich. They pride themselves on their experience, each of their associates has over 25 years of experience in a variety of senior leadership positions. They offer comprehensive advisory support and consulting resources to their partner clients. Through leveraging their experience, they provide their clients with substantive, thorough strategic and tactical guidance, rooted deep in sound execution. Their consultants focus on creating value for their business and provider clients. Learn more at wetrichgroup.com.
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