USC Interim President Wanda Austin, PhD, spoke recently at USC Verdugo Hills Hospital with health care leaders from Keck Medicine of USC and Children’s Hospital Los Angeles (CHLA) about leadership, change, and inspiring the next generation. On January 11, she took questions from participants in the Keck Medicine-CHLA Healthcare Leadership Academy, addressing the nature of leadership, building morale, and balancing work and family life, among other topics.

The answers below have been edited for length and clarity. This is part three of a series. Read more here.


Q: What are some of the best ways to encourage creativity and innovation?

A: One of the best things is to say, “Let’s look at some different ways to do this.” And the first time somebody comes up with a dumb idea, you have to resist the temptation to say, “Oh my god, that’s a dumb idea.” Because then you don’t get any more innovation. Nobody wants to raise their hand. You have to say, “Okay, well, that’s interesting. I can imagine a scenario where that might work.” You want to encourage that it’s a safe place to say their dumb idea, no matter how dumb it might be. Because maybe there’s a nugget in there that actually isn’t so bad. You say, “So, we can’t do that, but this idea about how we could improve that process, that’s a great idea.” Maybe there’s a piece of it that’s important. But you just have to model the behavior so that someone won’t be embarrassed or chagrined because they said something that may not be well-executed.

It’s like kids. They have no filter. You say, “Well, let’s build a house.” Well, they’ll do something that is totally unfeasible, but it tells you about what they think is important, about what they would like to fix, what they would like to change.


Q: What are your strategies for helping to improve morale when it’s low?

A: It’s about rebuilding the trust. Because when morale is low, it tells you that somehow, people feel like they are disappointed, or didn’t get what they expected. There’s a loss of trust and you have to rebuild it, a little bit at a time. The rebuilding process starts with asking, “Okay, tell me what we did wrong and let me see if I can commit to making sure we don’t do that again.”

I think it’s really important to communicate the expectations, how you expect people to show up, how you expect yourself to show up. Be willing to tell people, “Hey, if I show up in a way that you think is not right, please come to my office and tell me.” That builds trust that you can count on your team to be honest with you, and you get the opportunity to be honest with them.

I tell people all the time, just because I have leader in my title or something suggests that I’m the leader in the room, it does not by any stretch of the imagination guarantee that I’ve got all the answers. It probably guarantees that I don’t have all the answers, because I’ve got 10 other things going on in my head while I’m dealing with whatever it is that we’re talking about.

It’s very important that you create an environment where people can come and tell you, “Gee, I didn’t understand what happened there, I didn’t understand how that decision got made.” And if you do that and from time to time have an opportunity to say, “Hey, sorry I got that wrong,” it builds tremendous trust. It just takes time.


Q: Is there something that you do for yourself or prepare for that day as a leader?

A: At the beginning of the day, we all plan what we think we are going to get done, and then real life happens and maybe we get two out of the 10 things done. But at the end of the day I try to take stock of what I wanted to get done. Has the urgency changed here? Do I need to reorder the priority?

I try to set some time aside at least once a week to go through my notes from the week, because you intend to get things done but they slip.

You need to have a little structure to say, this is my time for me to think. Sometimes I want to not think about who just walked in the door, but I want to think about ideas. And for me it’s usually, 6:30 or 7:00 in the morning. Because by 7:00, 7:30, the phones light up, the emails are coming in, and I’m into my day. So you’ve got to figure out what works for you, whether it’s morning or night. Sometimes it’s getting up and going for a walk. Letting the sun hit your face. Particularly when you’re doing tough things, it drains you.


Q: How do you find a balance between your professional commitments and your family needs?

A: You have to make time for your family. I missed a lot of birthdays and anniversaries and dinners. But you’ve got to make sure that, at least some of the time, that family has to be the top priority. Because our families make a lot of sacrifices for us to be able to do what we do.

And you need to say thank you, and you need to remind them that you appreciate that they are making sacrifices, that they are doing the laundry run and they’re picking up the groceries and they’re doing all those other things so that you can do the miraculous things that you do. And every now and then, you have to make it a point to say, “Hey, we’re going to go away. It’s going to be a day when I turn the phone off, and I’m just going to catch up with you, spend some time, just make sure I’m there for you,” because bad things happen. There is no guarantee that they won’t be there tomorrow. We shouldn’t take them for granted.

— Sara Reeve