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 one of a series.


Q: In your opinion, what’s the biggest challenge facing our USC leaders today?

A: The first challenge is to make sure that we have a shared vision of our values. When I first walked on the campus at The Aerospace Corporation, one of the things I felt was that I could be successful if I put in the work. That I would be judged on my merit, that I would be given the opportunities that anybody else had with the same amount of skills that I had. I think it’s very important, for us to be successful as a community, to have the shared vision that we value everyone — we recognize the potential that they have to contribute, and that we’re invested in their success. We want them to achieve their potential and we’re committed to helping them achieve it.

The second tenet of our values is that we all deserve to be treated with respect, whether you’re a patient, whether you’re a staff member, a nurse, etc. As leaders, you set the tone at the top. If it’s clear to everybody on your team that that’s what you expect, that’s what you get.

Another challenge we have is not to fear change. The way we used to approach medical problems may not be the way that we do it moving forward. We need to be open to new ideas, new solutions, new techniques, and not to do it in a way that’s fearful, like, “Well I know how to do this, so don’t come in here trying to change my process or my schedule.” We need processes in place that allow us to get the best results. Are people recovering as fast as they should be? Are we minimizing the amount of time that people have to be in a hospital?


Q: As a leader, how do we best communicate the university’s shared values across a large diffuse organization that’s spread out over Southern California and beyond?

A: You have to walk the talk. You have to show up, demonstrate those values and how you make decisions. Where is the fairness? Where is the transparency? Where is the opportunity to be inclusive, to solicit input from other people and to help them understand, “Hey, this is my thought process. I know that you were thinking that we were making a different decision, but let me help you understand why we have to go a slightly different way.”

The other thing is that, when you see someone getting it right, tell the world. Shine a light on it. When someone makes a mistake, we let them know about it right away. You know right away when something didn’t go well. But when someone does something great, frequently we don’t even say, “Hey, I saw you do something great, and I appreciate that you took the right approach on that.” We need to make sure that we are highlighting the successes and sharing them with other colleagues as a great example to follow.

The other thing we can do is just to talk with people about what they’re hearing. “There’s different ways in which we can approach this. Let’s talk about what’s the right way, the way that we want to do it.” And if one doesn’t work out well, you have to do the failure review afterward. You have to have the conversation later that says, “Okay, we got through that, but let’s talk about how we could have done better. If we had to do the exact same thing tomorrow, what would we do differently?” That’s a teachable moment, and it’s very personable, because people can now see themselves and see the opportunity to make different choices.


Q: Can you share some lessons that you have learned over the years on how to stay true to your values when faced with challenges in leadership?

A: There are consequences in leadership decisions. But the simple test is, if it’s on the front page of the LA Times, are you going to feel good about how you showed up? I’ve had that experience.

I come from a business where integrity really counted, and lives mattered and there was a lot that put people’s lives at stake. National security matters, because when a rocket blows up it means that you don’t get the satellite that you need to be able to see if someone in another country is doing something they shouldn’t be doing. And so, you might imagine there’s a lot of pressure from a lot of other people, saying, “No, no, don’t worry about it, let’s just go.”

And you have to go back to your core values and say, “Wait a minute. You can make that decision. It’s your decision to make, but you only get to make it after I’ve given you all the facts. I’ve given you my input about what I think you need to know in order to make that decision.” And sometimes those are hard conversations to have. It goes back to the importance of having the relationship, up front. So then, when you have to make that hard call, there is some comfort there.

The thing that I try to do is not make it personal. I’ll say, “Here’s what I know, and this is the reason why I came to this conclusion, or this is where my areas of concern are, or here are the things I think we need to do, so we can get more information to make a better decision.”


Q: What are your thoughts about being able to initiate change in an organization’s culture?

A: This is indeed a challenge for a place as large and diverse as USC. The cultures of UPC and HSC, for example,  are worlds apart. I have met with students and staff and faculty and adjunct faculty and doctors and nurses and everybody has a different view of the world. You have to get back to a common thread — what is it that we are all connected to, what is it that we’re all committed to? And once you can agree on that, you can have a conversation around that. What would make us better? If it’s that we want to be excellent, want to improve care, how would we go about doing that as a team? What are the things that you think are important?

And so many times, even though we’re busy, we have to set aside time in order to step away from the immediate, to have some time to say, “Let’s just focus on the bigger issue. What is it that we’re trying to accomplish? And what do we need to do?”

You know the minute you say change, people say, “Okay, it’s okay to change over there, but my stuff’s fine.” We have to have those difficult conversations, and it doesn’t happen overnight.

It’s a journey. It’s not a week’s journey. It’s not a month’s journey. Sometimes it could be a decade to get there. But one of the things that helps is if you can have some measurable metrics that allow you to see progress. So that you’re giving people feedback. We need to figure out ways to measure progress and to be able to give ourselves a pat on the back and say, “Okay, it was hard, but we did it.”

— Sara Reeve