Great Organizations Made Simply

I think of myself as a “D” student. Having worked at Duke University, Disney, and DaVita Healthcare Partners, I’ve been privileged to have had the opportunity to get an inside view of how complex organizations with strong brands, big reputations, and distinct cultures operate. And along the way, I’ve learned some important lessons about the role leaders can play in driving organizational success. 

During my first stop at Disney in the mid-90s, I saw how that organization began making great strides developing leaders by hardwiring accountability, all behaviorally-based, with a clear priority on data from customers and employees (called cast members). Then at DaVita, as Chief Wisdom Officer (the greatest title on earth!) I had the opportunity to work directly with Jim Kouzes and my full-fledged connection with The Leadership Challenge began. DaVita’s COO at the time was already an advocate of Jim and Barry Posner’s book, Credibility, and Jim was brought in to create with me a leadership development course using The Leadership Challenge® Workshop as a foundation.  The DaVita Way of Leading program became a four-day course that included the use of the Leadership Practices Inventory® (LPI®). Nearly two full days were dedicated to one of The Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership®—specifically, Inspiring a Shared Vision—as attendees focused on creating, rehearsing, and critiquing a vision for themselves, their teams, and the organization. 

I’m now in my third role at Duke University, specifically the Duke Clinical Research Institute (DCRI)—by far the largest academic research organization in the world. As Director of Engagement and Organizational Learning one of the clear highlights among my responsibilities is teaching our leadership curriculum and fortifying our efforts with a community of practice. And since I’m surrounded by many of the best and brightest medical scientists in the world, choosing The Leadership Challenge with empirical data from over 4.5 million users has provided both credibility and is a clear differentiator among the learners I teach. 

We launched our DCRI program first with the executive team: our Director/CEO and CFO, several faculty physicians, and leaders in Clinical Trials Operations, Human Resources, and Statistics and Technology. Next, every director and assistant director took the course. Now Leading at the DCRI is a 2-day elective course open to all who manage others or lead clinical trials project teams. The LPI is completed prior to the start. Reports are generated and reviewed on Day One, along with a thorough review of the first two Practices. Day Two completes the remaining three Practices and includes an action-planning step as well.

 Now in our second year, this unprecedented commitment to leadership development has resulted in a serious and effective cascading of The Five Practices throughout the organization. We even created a crosswalk between Duke University’s expectations of managers and The Five Practices, creating a Management Fundamentals refresher course. 

Looking back on my experiences at DaVita, 20 years with Disney, and now my daily role at the DCRI, I realize how they have all contributed to my current thinking around simplifying what it takes to create and maintain a great organization. Because when we see rapid advances in technology, multiple generations in the workplace, mergers and acquisitions, a global economy, and just plain change, in my view we could all use some simplicity!   


DaVita, Disney, DCRI—the one thing all these great organizations have in common is that they lead with beliefs.  Whether they are called Values, Mission, Vision, or Common Purpose, these beliefs are the ultimate gut-check. They are the critical decision-making tool, and must be more than words scrolling across a screensaver or on the wall next to pictures of deceased board members. In its simplest form, I like to think of it as Beliefs that inform Processes that drive Successes, as illustrated in the graphic below: 

One quadrant of DCRI’s balanced scorecard is Academic Impact, which literally defines why we are all here: “To develop and share knowledge that improves patient care around the world through innovative clinical research.” That’s our mission. And as we consistently work to align processes with organizational beliefs and goals (a constant work-in-progress), The Five Practices model helps us find a common language for which I’m always looking for opportunities to include and reinforce. In fact, we are fortunate that the highest average LPI score among our DCRI leaders is Enable Others to Act—a great leg up in driving alignment and discussions. And our organizational priorities for the year, which are a component of everyone’s performance development plans, provide other opportunities for leaders to specifically Challenge the Process and to say thanks to teams who work on those priorities (to Encouraging the Heart). 

At the DCRI, we all strive to illustrate that what we do, and the processes we have in place, are key to drive our successes. At every turn, I encourage my colleagues to align The Five Practices with organizational goals. Whether working with our executive team or in leader or group meetings, in the elevator, and in public and private spaces, I consistently try to recognize a demonstration of one of The Five Practices in action. Every two weeks, I send an email or other communication to everyone who has taken the course to remind them about one or all of the Practices and to share examples of what I see around the organization. We have one class group that meets once a month for lunch just to check in.

At Duke University, innovation is an expectation. And now that we have demonstrated such tremendous success with The Leadership Challenge model and other leadership development initiatives at the DCRI, we’ve taken our commitment to innovation one step further. We recently launched the Business of Healthcare Academy (BHCA)—a series of courses for use on handheld devices. Hosted online through Medscape (part of the WebMD Health Professional Network), these online learning opportunities are available 24/7 to physicians and other healthcare professionals around the world. With courses in everything from leadership and healthcare policy to finance, I’m especially proud to be part of the BHCA faculty and that Jim and Barry allowed The Leadership Challenge curriculum to be the cornerstone of our Effective Leadership for the 21st Century course. 

Because all of us at DCRI can refer back to our Beliefs—our Mission—new initiatives like the BHCA are possible as we continue to strive to improve our processes and make a difference in patient care around the world. I wouldn’t say we’ve earned an A just yet. But, we don’t have a D…that’s always been my letter. 


Bill Shannon, M. Ed.
, is Director of Workplace Engagement & Organizational Learning at Duke University Clinical Research Institute, and Duke Translational Medicine Institute, part of the Duke University School of Medicine. A member of the faculty of the university’s new Business of Healthcare Academy, he was a presenter at The Leadership Challenge Forum in 2014.  He can be reached at William.shannon@duke.edu

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