As executive vice president and chief transformation and digital officer at Novant Health, Angela Yochem is responsible for all digital health operations for the not-for-profit healthcare system, including 24/7 clinical services, a device company, data science, an innovation lab, a business growth function that explores new revenue streams for healthcare, and more. Yochem recently added to those responsibilities when she took on the role of COO and general manager of Novant Health Enterprises, a new spinoff with ancillary ambulatory locations spanning 13 states.
When we spoke for the Tech Whisperers podcast, we talked about those “answer the call” moments that shape and define a career. The 2021 CIO Hall of Fame inductee shared her inspiring journey from CIO to P&L leader. We also dug into her diverse accountabilities and ownership of classic IT, all things digital, new business growth, the digital health line of business and, most recently, distributed operations in adjacent businesses. After the show, she shared some more insights and advice from her personal and professional playbooks. What follows is that conversation, edited for space and clarity.
Dan Roberts: Many CIOs are still battling the old narrative—you’ve called it an artificial construct—that IT is a cost center. As someone who’s now leading P&L and commercializing many of the exciting digital products and services that Novant Health has built, how have you been able to change that narrative?
Angela Yochem: It’s important for business leaders to understand that there is a strong digital underpinning to all successful products and services. It’s impossible to separate the evolution of business from the advances in technology and our unprecedented access to data.
This is true whether you’re in a digital business, selling a product and engaging with customers and getting paid through digital channels, or in a more traditional business. Nothing is designed, manufactured, and sold without a highly automated research process, highly automated digitized design process, highly automated sourcing and manufacturing process, highly automated distribution process, and so on. Not to mention the advanced insights and predictive modeling that should drive all major and minor decisions, as well as personalized engagement with stakeholders of all types, and so on.
All aspects of a business are dependent upon and differentiated by the sophistication of the underpinning technical capability. This notion that the technology organization exists for some reason other than applying technical advance and support to business evolution is erroneous.
It’s a mindset that persists in many organizations. What needs to be done to shift it?
Many senior executives “grew up” in their careers at a time when technology was really doing little more than just tracking personnel files, allowing for basic taking of orders, shipping of goods, billing for services, and the like. They grew up at a time when what you did was try to squeeze that division into running with the smallest budget possible so that you can apply the real dollars to the innovations that were happening elsewhere.
Today, the script has changed. Companies apply money to the digital capabilities that will differentiate their products and services. And that is something that must be factored into every business leader’s budget and projections for what their margins are going to look like. Yes, there may be an aggregation of technology costs inside of an IT cost center, but the decisions to spend are being made by the executive teams of these companies.
For that reason, it’s important to have at least one member of the executive team who understands the technical underpinnings and what will need to be done as great ideas are floated. You would also hope that this person would provide opportunities that may not be reasonable to expect other business leaders to foresee as part of those executive team conversations for spend prioritization.
It takes courage to have the hard conversations and make bold decisions at the enterprise level. And sometimes the tough calls can create cynicism and change resistance in our people. What’s your advice to leaders in these situations?
It’s important that leaders in every domain space understand that the leadership of that domain is just one hat they wear. The other is a leader of the entire company. And the decisions that have to be made for the greater good will not always be in the best interests of growth for their domain.
Sometimes the best decision for the greater good will require that one derails plans made within one’s own domain. And this is hard, because it means you have teams of very smart, driven, amazing people solving some of the world’s most difficult problems, full steam ahead and then a project stops. And it’s not because it’s not great work and it’s not because it’s not appropriate work. It’s because it is ever so slightly less of a priority than something else. And they fell just below the waterline.
Delivering that message and keeping those smart, brilliant people engaged, energized and interested and pivoting to something that may be less interesting to them but is still extraordinarily important to the company—that deeply personal engagement is required from every leader. The larger organizations become, the more difficult that degree of engagement can be. It means you’re almost always being asked very difficult questions. You need to be very clear in your in your mind about the answers to those questions so that there’s clarity across the board.
You’ve been very intentional about how you communicate and create value in your organization. A good example is the rebranding exercise you went through to develop the umbrella of DPS, or “Digital Products and Services.” How has that changed the conversation around technology at Novant Health?
It’s been called rebranding by many, but I would suggest it is a more appropriate naming convention. What we would have historically called IT or IT services remains, we just don’t refer to them as IT. Our Digital Products and Services organization also contains teams focused on new business growth—identifying new streams of revenue that are adjacent to the services we traditionally provide. They do all the market analysis, analysis around operational feasibility and long-term financial viability, and all of the work and engagement with various subject matter experts.
We have a digital health business inside of DPS, which includes all 24/7 virtual clinical services, with all of the operations of that business, including dozens of physicians, nurses, pharmacists, and advanced practitioners as well as operators. We have a device company that sells solutions directly to consumers and to corporate entities. The physicians responsible for clinical informatics, which is essentially the strategy for incorporating advanced tech into clinical environments, are also inside DPS.
The expectation across the organization is one of collaboration and cross-functional consult. We expect those leaders who serve the traditional IT capabilities to participate in the broader digital conversation and delivery activity across all of these areas. So all of the groups live inside Digital Products and Services, which isn’t IT but contains IT, and that allows our IT team members to engage in a much broader context.
With so many things coming at you, what is the thought process or lens you look through when evaluating new opportunities, whether it’s a new role at your company or a new industry?
There are three things I consider. The first is mission. I’ve had the great privilege of working in a variety of industries, for a variety of companies. One of the things I’ve learned about myself is that if the company is trying to do something meaningful to make our communities better, if there’s a mission that supports growth of communities and health of communities in the broadest possible sense, those are the things that motivate me. I love to know my work is doing good in the world.
The second thing is impact, and when I say impact, I mean personal impact. If any number of leaders could fill a role and keep the lights on, then that role is less interesting to me than a role that very few people could do well. Roles that require transformative leadership, deep digital expertise, a creative mindset and courage – these are the roles that are hard to fill, regardless of the associated title, be it CEO or CDO or COO. I want to make sure that my particular talents are needed to have an impact for the company and make a difference to the stakeholders.
And then lastly is growth, which we spoke a little bit about in the podcast. I need to make sure that I am growing and learning while also contributing to the growth and evolution around me. Everyone concerned should be better for us having been engaged. I want to be a better version of myself, and I want the company and our businesses and our team members to be better off than they were when I joined. So, it’s a mutual growth opportunity that is important to me.
For more lessons from Yochem’s leadership playbook, check out episode two of the Tech Whisperers podcast.