Episode 89

Assessing Executive Potential

with Alexis Stiles

December 1, 2022

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Alexis Stiles
Global Healthcare Practice Leader, Spencer Stuart

Alexis Stiles leads Spencer Stuart’s Global Healthcare Practice. She is also a member of the Firm’s CEO and Board Practices and currently chairs the firm’s Nominations Committee. Prior to Spencer Stuart, she was an Engagement Manager for McKinsey & Company. She received a Bachelor’s in Psychology and an MBA from the University of Michigan.


Don't let anyone else make all the decisions for you, really purposefully think about your career and have some goals in mind.



Gary Bisbee, Ph.D.: [00:00:00] Well, good afternoon, Alexis, and welcome.

Alexis Stiles: Thank you, Gary. It’s great to be with you.

Gary Bisbee, Ph.D.: Well, we’re pleased to have you at this microphone. Why don’t we start right off with your role at Spencer Stewart Global Healthcare Practice Leader. Can you share, Alexis, what does that role entail?

Alexis Stiles: Sure, happy to Gary. Thank you. So the global healthcare practice leader at Spencer Stewart essentially is the individual who oversees. All of our work and our consultant and associate team that work in the healthcare practice broadly, and that includes three primary sectors biopharma, medical technology and healthcare services. And then also where there are intersections with digital health and private equity. So essentially everything we do that touches healthcare worldwide is under my.

Gary Bisbee, Ph.D.: So if I could ask what percentage roughly of the business is outside the US and then inside the.

Alexis Stiles: Yeah, it’s a good question. As you can imagine, what on healthcare services in [00:01:00] particular were fairly heavily weighted towards north America, and so work practice is about 70, 75% in North America, and then the additional 25 to 30% in AMEA and apac with a small amount in Latin.

Gary Bisbee, Ph.D.: You know, you’ve got a fabulous background. Having spent time at Duke University Health System in McKenzie. Has that been useful to you as a search consultant that is a leader of the group?

Alexis Stiles: It has been actually tremendously helpful to me both in terms of just understanding how academic medical centers run the different component parts that I learned early on in my. My initial roles at Duke and particularly just given the structure and the time in the nineties when we were going through some original thoughts about healthcare reform and transformation and some of the early days in primary care development. And then certainly into McKinsey where I had the opportunity to work with a number of different clients. So it just broadens your exposure. And also had the opportunity to work with a number of different healthcare clients [00:02:00] from from PBMs through to payers, through to healthcare delivery systems. And I think that, you know, all comes together to give you a much broader perspective on the overall.

Gary Bisbee, Ph.D.: most of us don’t really understand the role of a search consultant. I mean, we know what the outcome is, of course, but has the role of a search consultant. Evolved over, let’s say the last decade or so.

Alexis Stiles: For sure and and I will date myself in saying that I’ve been in the industry almost 20 years and certainly has changed quite a bit since I first started. Where a lot of the, you know, early, early days of search was truly about search, which is identification of individuals, and then really being able to get to know them and bring them to the table. Now with the advent of LinkedIn, with with all the different apps that are out there the actual advent of search is a little more easy to acquire and it is now far more. Really the true assessment, understanding individual’s capabilities, and then the recruitment process, and being able to really make a good match [00:03:00] between an organization and an executive in bringing their skills and capabilities to the table.

Gary Bisbee, Ph.D.: Yeah, that makes good sense to me. Well, why don’t we focus on North America and spend a little bit of time on our large health systems. Alexis has the role of the CEO in the large health systems. How have you seen that evolve over the last let’s say decade or so?

Alexis Stiles: Sure. But I think a lot has changed in the last two and a half to three years just in terms of expectations and the different priorities that are falling on many of our CEOs. And you can see that can continue to evolve from the crisis to number of the you know, racial unrest issues that happened to the, you know, the quiet quitting and the burnout of frontline staff. It’s requiring CEOs to be quite engaged with what is going on in their organization and quite a bit more visible than perhaps they were 10 years ago, when you could have a whole team and be a little bit more distant engaging with what is truly happening at the [00:04:00] front lines. I think you’re seeing. A lot more CEOs being quite visible, be that, you know, fully there in person, be that using video technology to be able to communicate more readily as well as being able to be a bit You know, more honest, engaging and inspirational. Many health systems are really looking for their leader to be clear around their mission, their vision, the inspiration for why everyone’s coming in to work every day in order for them to feel like they’re truly giving back and, you know, tapping into their own purpose. And that has certainly become front and center these days.

Gary Bisbee, Ph.D.: I would view you as a student of CEOs in a sense of their roles and so on. How about the boards of directors, of the health systems that you work with? When you would be recruiting a ceo, are they able to kind of perceive this shift that you’re talking about and these changes you’re talking about in what’s expected as ceo?

Alexis Stiles: I, I do believe really quite a bit because there’s you know, there is [00:05:00] a heightened awareness of what’s going on in the industry. They’re hearing far more from the leaders inside of the organization as well as many of the frontline staff. And so there’s actually a, you know, a heightened sense of urgency and. Sense of transformation that they’re looking for their leaders. You know, there are clearly all the other issues that go around with fiscal stability, which is certainly front and center on many people’s minds right now. There’s a fair amount around the continued community engagement and certainly a much heightened sense of engagement around philanthropy and development.

Gary Bisbee, Ph.D.: Right. The CEOs Seem to have adjusted, I guess you could say, to Covid or reacted to Covid. And how do you ch how do you assess a CEO candidate’s flexibility and ability to adapt to changing circumstances like they’ve had to go through the last several years?

Alexis Stiles: Yep. It’s a very good question. So it is a combination of multiple different methods, both. [00:06:00] Competency based interviews is spending time with executives to understand how they manage through covid as well as other comparable things that, that come up day to day in any executive’s you know, career in terms of having to deal with Things that you weren’t necessarily expecting and how did you adapt and respond to that and you know, who you brought in, how you thought about it, how you made the decision and how you moved forward is kind core to how we’re talking with executives. We will also spend a fair amount of time just looking frankly, at results. And what has been the track record of being able to adapt to some of those situations? What the outcome was. And then we’ve actually spent a significant amount of time investing internally on what we call an executive intelligence assessment that is really testing executive’s potential. So it’s not designed to do a personality test or a retrospective review of their career, but more around their potential with conceptual thinking, analytical thinking and really being able to deal with. Making decisions in the gray area because [00:07:00] that is far more what we’re really expecting of executives these days.

Gary Bisbee, Ph.D.: I’ve spoken to CEOs in corporate situations when they’re being considered for a new position. Increasingly they’re asked to write out their For the company. Does that happen in health systems these days?

Alexis Stiles: Yeah it’s actually been, you know, relatively the norm in academic health systems for some time to when you get down to finalists for them to actually articulate pretty detailed their vision and what that also might imply around the support that they need, et cetera. It is certainly becoming. More of a, an issue because the biggest thing for any CEO to be successful, as you know, is to have their board fully aligned and supportive of the vision. So whenever something comes up there is, you know, clarity of the overall direction, and then how to work through that and support the CEO and being able to move things forward.

Gary Bisbee, Ph.D.: The boards have suggested career paths or preferred career paths for CEOs looking more at the characteristics like you were referring to.

Alexis Stiles: Yeah [00:08:00] we’re often having conversations that we actually recommend making sure that you’re looking at the competencies and characteristics, because we do find it’s not always. You know, usual suspect was always the number two was gonna be able, you know, was the best position to move it and the number one, and while that may be true, you actually can find a significant amount of potential that may be a layer down in what we call skip candidates who bring a lot to the table in terms of their potential and ability to really step into the CEO role. So we’re seeing more openness to looking at different types of profiles in terms of how they may have grown up and as opposed to just the classic. Operational route to the top and seeing people either who come through medical lens or through a finance lens who have the ability to ascend into the top spot. And it really is based on that potential and being able to do a bit more of the assessment around that to, to ensure that the board then is comfortable making that different choice than what would’ve been historically made.

Gary Bisbee, Ph.D.: So we’ve seen some examples [00:09:00] recently of CEOs of health systems moving into a more corporate or finance setting, thinking of Amir, Ruben, David Feinberg Mark Harrison, so on how’s that changing the ceo, current sitting health system, CEO’s, thoughts about tenure and next steps.

Alexis Stiles: Yeah I think that and many other things, just in terms of how people think about their careers these days has really shifted the dynamics. When people think about tenure, I think there’s, you know, there, there’s still a bit of the you know, perception that CEO should come and stay for 10, 15, 20 years and really, you know, enjoy a long career. And while there are a number who’ve been quite successful, I think you’re seeing more and more of the five to seven year, 10 years. And then looking for a new challenge and, you know, seeing what else might be out there. And there’s certainly a market that supports that. So I think you’re gonna continue to see more change, more transformation. Yeah I think it’s interesting for the industry, I think it’s actually dynamic for the industry because you are, you have a lot of attention right now going looking [00:10:00] at the healthcare industry. You have a lot of investment looking at how to transform and revolutionize a bit of the healthcare industry. And I think that’s that’s good because it just kind of creates more energy, more people thinking about it, more people making movement, more people willing To switch into a new organization and bring different ideas and thought processes. And while I think there’s a, you know, there, there is a lot to be said for the stability of some of the CEOs. There’s also you know, a renewed enthusiasm and energy going on right now with a bit more of the shorter term transitions that are taking.

Gary Bisbee, Ph.D.: With Covid putting a lot of pressure on these health systems, has there been any movement toward. Physicians being more attractive as a CEO or not?

Alexis Stiles: For sure. And I think that really has started, you know, a couple decades ago. Both, both in terms of. A number of physicians who have aspired to move into leadership and management roles, and certainly a fair number who’ve gone back and gotten either leadership degrees or moved into leadership roles early in their career. But [00:11:00] there’s also a sense of that engagement, particularly with the physicians or with the clinical team that having a physician. Is perceived to be a strong benefit because they know what it’s like to live in that environment and have the ability to relate to the clinicians as well as, you know, bring usually a pretty broad perspective to the roles of.

Gary Bisbee, Ph.D.: Okay. Why don’t we move to boards of directors if we could. Spencer Stewart has a very active governance practice. How do you think about characteristics of a top tier board member, Alexis? Are there’s certain things that seem to make board members more successful?

Alexis Stiles: Sure. I do think first and foremost, you know, in these, in today’s day and age most boards are looking for board members to bring some skills and capabilities to the table. Be that from the role that they held in the past or the environment that they’ve worked in, and they’re bringing either kind of digital experience to the table CEO experienced the table. So there’s a bit of the background and expertise [00:12:00] to be able. Both serve as a board member, but also serve as a strong advisor to the ceo. I think it also is imperative for board members these days to really make sure that they’re doing the preparation work, that they’re engaging with their fellow board members, that they’re inquisitive, that they ask really good questions about the business and know enough to be able to, you know, truly serve in that governance um, governance role versus trying to be the management side of the equation. But to, you know, ask the tough questions probe with their fellow board members and really work as a strong body to. Support the ceo, but also, you know, challenge appropriately. And I think there’s, you know, there’s been much of an evolution, particularly in your not-for-profit systems that have historically had more of a volunteer board that are transitioning to really look for individuals with specific competencies that they’re bringing to the table to help enhance that dialogue and discussion in the board.

Gary Bisbee, Ph.D.: Well, could we move to women leaders in [00:13:00] healthcare? From the standpoint of medical school admissions, it’s 50 50 basically men and women. So, we’ve made good progress there. If we look at senior executives in health systems, not nearly as Good a result there. I think our kind of informal survey is maybe 20% of health system leaders are women. We’ve seen some more notable examples of women leaders in Walgreens and CVS and so on, but how do you view Alexis, cuz you’ve got a great view of this. How do you view the progress that we’re making in terms of women leaders?

Alexis Stiles: Yep. I think, you know, there’s I think you’ve highlighted the statistics, which is we a still a long way to go of making sure that we’re both promoting, creating opportunities and supporting female leaders as they develop in their careers and their ability to, you know, manage successfully a career and career progression. I think you are seeing some most recent notable you know, dean of medical [00:14:00] school, female dean of medical school announcements that have significantly upped the ranks in the last two or three years, which is exciting and fun to see. And I do think you, you know, it is continues to be a a frankly a requirement in what I do to make sure that you’ve got a diverse slate. But it’s also the encourage. Of executives to, to put themselves out there and to really you know, own their career and look for opportunities to be able to grow and develop. And that, I think, continues to be a journey of making sure folks have the right mentorship. They see this as a career path and something that they can manage personally and professionally.

Gary Bisbee, Ph.D.: Yeah. Along those lines, what do you advise men who want to be supportive of women leaders? What do you advise men? What can men do to be more supportive?

Alexis Stiles: Men, men can actually do quite a bit. And particularly to serve as mentors to women and frankly active mentors of women. I’ve seen some really great examples of male leaders who’ve been quite successful in their career. You know, mentoring more junior women [00:15:00] and helping break down some of the barriers or some of the perceptions of that individual and promoting them. And that doesn’t mean that they’re, you know, out campaigning necessarily, but they are promoting their skills, their capabilities, their their potential as a leader and encouraging both them as well as organizations to consider them for for key positions.

Gary Bisbee, Ph.D.: I hear leaders talk about opportunities for women and so on. I wonder sometimes if we’re spending enough resources in our organizations to really do kind of a good solid job developing women leaders. Do you have a feel for that, Alexis?

Alexis Stiles: You know, I think there’s some organizations that have really put, you know, a fair amount of training and development and just awareness into the different needs of men and women as you think about their leadership journeys. And then there’s a fair amount that. That frankly have not. You know, there, there are a number of organizations that have cropped up to really help, you know, support [00:16:00] women leaders and be able to give them a platform and, you know, fellow women that they can have as, as colleagues and confidants as they face challenges in their own career. And I think those are particularly helpful to be able to bounce ideas off of. But I think there’s, again, there’s still a lot to go. There’s, you know, a lot of differences in terms. I, one of the things we always talk about is there, you know, women look at a position description, they look at all the, you know, experience requirements and they say, oh, I have nine of 10, I’m not qualified. Men look at it, they say, I’ve got five, I’m good. . And I think making sure that there’s that kind of natural bit of imposter syndrome or overachievement or I haven’t checked all the boxes in order to move forward, just holds a lot of women back unnecessarily. You know, in some ways you need a little bit of that push from others to put yourself out there as well.

Gary Bisbee, Ph.D.: Yeah. On a more personal level, what advice did you give yourself as your leadership career has evolved?

Alexis Stiles: It’s a good, it’s a good question. I don’t, you know, you. Advice you [00:17:00] give yourself and then reflect on. I wish I had taken some of the advice uh, earlier always is the case, but but I do think, you know, it’s sticking with so both just high integrity and sticking with what you believe is the right thing to do. I also think it is continuing to ask questions and push when you feel like, you know, there is an idea that you have or an issue that you wanna raise, or something that you believe is truly important to be able to share and not to hold back. Because, you know, oftentimes that can be an intimidating moment and. It’s those moments where you actually put yourself out that people recognize it. And because, you know, perhaps sometimes you’re not always the loudest voice in the room. And taking that opportunity and time to really say the things that are both most meaningful to you, but also gonna be quite impactful for others in the room.

Gary Bisbee, Ph.D.: Yeah. Along that line, I can. Interviewing Dr. Janice Nevin from Chrisa. And of course you know Janice. And she was making the point that if there’s an opportunity or if you think there’s an opportunity, it [00:18:00] probably is an opportunity and you should pursue it. And sometimes women aren’t, you know, as aggressive at doing that. Have you found that?

Alexis Stiles: For sure there’s many women who wait to get asked and then say, well, no one ever asked me to do it, even though they, you know, clearly identified an opportunity and many. I’ve also learned along the way as you get to get a little bit more experience and learn about organizations that almost anyone loves when someone else raises their hands and dives into an area of, you know, something that’s either complex and no one has tackled because everyone sees it. But people aren’t necessarily willing to address it. And I think raising your hand, taking ownership of key issues, and again, if it’s important to you, you’ll put the time and energy to make sure that it’s right. And then be recognized for.

Gary Bisbee, Ph.D.: Alexis as expected. This has been a just a terrific interview. We do appreciate your being with us. I have one last question. And dotted throughout your discussion earlier has been advice for leaders generally, not just women, but certainly [00:19:00] women. Let me ask the specific question. What advice do you give for up and coming women leaders who really kind of have the bit in their teeth and really want to be successful? What kind of advice would you give them?

Alexis Stiles: I do think you own your own career, so you know, don’t. Anyone else make all the decisions for you, really purposefully think about your career and have some goals in mind. That being said, don’t be so stuck on those goals that you don’t take interesting opportunities that come your way. I’m someone who’s usually, if you’re, you know, if it. If it’s something that’s gonna increase your skills, even if it feels a little off of what you are doing today, if it’s gonna add skills to your toolkit, if it’s something that’s exciting and interesting, if you’re gonna be working with people who are gonna support you, absolutely do it. Don’t do it for 20 years, but maybe, you know, , do it for a period of time. And look for ways to then parlay that into other opportunities and experiences because your career is a cumulative series of accomplishments [00:20:00] and environments that you’re in. And all of those are additive to be able to continue to advance your career. So it’s both owning it but not being so dogmatic about you know, the path that you need to take. Because sometimes those circuitous paths actually land you in a very different spot.

Gary Bisbee, Ph.D.: Very important and terrific advice. Thank you, Alexis, and thanks for being with us. Much appreciated.

Alexis Stiles: Thank you for having me. It was my pleasure. Thank you, Gary.

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