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CIO Unplugged 3/28/12

March 28, 2012 Ed Marx 5 Comments

The views and opinions expressed in this blog are mine personally and are not necessarily representative of current or former employers.

Caught, Not Taught

As a parent, the most frightening rite of passage for me to tackle was not the sex talk, it was the car talk. As in watching my kids head down the street solo in a two-thousand pound, steel and fiberglass projectile. They had attended classes, studied a manual, and passed a test. But were they really prepared?

Not fully. They lacked one critical element.

In the workplace, I advocate professional development and have witnessed the benefits of classroom teaching. When I began to analyze this process, however, I realized traditional training suffered a maximum effectiveness. Think about this. After reading a book on teamwork, were you able to convert all the learned lessons into action? Why do some managers respond to training while their classmates do not? Why do leaders take life-changing courses, yet nothing changes?

Critical skills can only be caught, not taught. My children, for example, had the head knowledge for driving, but that information didn’t come to life until they took it on the road. Experiencing the streets helped them to catch—or ingrain—the skills for successful driving.

How do you help your team catch? Ability to drive is a necessity that comes with an inherent motivator—drive or be stuck living under my roof with my rules!

How can you create this driving-like context that motivates your staff to live out what they learned in the books? The following methods have worked for me.


Never fly solo. Do your best to always have a sidekick with you. If I have a team member in the hospital or a funeral to attend, I take an emerging leader with me to provide comfort. When I walk around to visit the team, I have a manager with me. They learn from the experience through observation and active participation.

Be vulnerable. When I have tough decisions to make or challenges to contend with, I open the kimono. I don’t shelter my team or pretend to know the answers. I include them. The young leader learns there is no voodoo or secret sauce. Some day they will face a similar issue and it will be familiar.

Share the stage. When I’m invited to speak, write, or interview, I often have one of my leaders with me. Sometimes observing, and other times co-presenting. One of our young directors had not presented before, so I had him observe me at a local university. The next time, we co-presented. Now he speaks routinely on the national stage.

Be transparent. Leverage social and business media. I Facebook friend any of my team who has interest. I connect with any on Twitter or LinkedIn. In the work environment, I mircoblog daily about what I am doing and why. This allows multiple avenues for insight. For instance, I may share my thought process on how I deal with setbacks.

Engage a mentor. Ongoing, planned partnerships focused on helping a person reach specific goals over a pre-determined period. Unfortunately, the art of mentoring has rarely caught on in the business world, healthcare included. Mentoring can be a difference maker.

Connect to others. As a leader, how do I impact the heart of my team? How do I create an environment where we can cultivate compassion? How do I help them view their job as more than a paycheck, but as a contribution to a patient’s life?

Ask questions. Whenever I’m around people I admire, I fire off a number of questions, then just listen and learn. I soak up wisdom.

Create hang time. It’s easier to talk when we’re not disguised in stuffy work attire. A non-business setting encourages conversation, but you must create these situations. I have surprised my team with an ice cream fest and invited individual members to attend employer-sponsored professional sports with me. I attend their symphony performances or listen to their garage bands at a local bar. I invite them to join my family for Broadway shows (we always buy extra tickets.) Make it happen!

Offer social opportunities. Do you learn etiquette from a manual? Emerging leaders who seek to become vice presidents should know how to handle themselves in a cocktail party situation and know the difference between red and white wines. My wife and I purposely host parties in our home to create a safe place in which to practice so they can learn to be comfortable mingling among executives. It’s also another occasion to get acquainted with and show appreciation to their significant others.


I’ve had the joy of watching my directs blossom in their careers. Although I invested greatly in their formal training, their development accelerated during active observation. In the last couple of years, several became CIOs. Others took senior leadership positions in professional organizations.

My kids turned out to be pretty good drivers. But if you ask them how they learned, they’ll tell you they caught it by doing it – by making wrong turns, slamming on the brakes at stoplights, and bumping over curbs while parallel parking. The manual finally made sense.

It was caught, not taught.

Ed Marx is a CIO currently working for a large integrated health system. Ed encourages your interaction through this blog. Add a comment by clicking the link at the bottom of this post. You can also connect with him directly through his profile pages on social networking sites LinkedIn and Facebook and you can follow him via Twitter — user name marxists.

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Currently there are "5 comments" on this Article:

  1. I’ve started to recognize your writing style long before your picture – love these articles as ever. Thanks!

  2. Ed, thank you for another great article.

    I missed your article on Mentoring last year as I did not yet know about HIS Talk. Could you please send me the one-page mentoring contract and list of “golden nuggets” that you have learned from being both a mentee and mentor which you mentioned in that article.

  3. As part of his team in Ohio I caught from Ed. 3 of us went on to become CIOs. 2 became VPs with national health systems. 1 is chair of HIMSS. I like to think he caught from us as well.

  4. All of this is excellent.

    May I add one more that may be obvious….instill in others an understanding that it is never okay to get involved in intimate relationships with co-workers who are direct reports. We think people know this. Leaders have an obligation to help everyone understand why this is inappropriate and wrecks organizations

  5. Talking the talk is easy, walking the walk in all circumstances is hard. Ed has done both and the results have paid off in his kids but also his disciples who are now playing it forward with their teams.

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