Dr. Michael Jaff | Crain's Boston

In this ongoing series, we ask executives, entrepreneurs and business leaders about mistakes that have shaped their business philosophy.

Dr. Michael Jaff


Newton-Wellesley Hospital is a teaching medical center licensed for 265 beds providing medical care for residents of the Boston area. The organization also has close clinical collaborations with Massachusetts General HospitalMassGeneral Hospital for Children and Brigham and Women’s Hospital.

The Mistake:

I had had a long career as a clinician, as an academician and as a clinical researcher. I had spent some time at Harvard Business School and had gained some administrative responsibilities along the way and then entered this opportunity at Newton-Wellesley Hospital—something clearly on a much larger management scope than I'd ever had before.

When I came to Newton-Wellesley I spent time with whoever I could—doctors, nurses, secretaries—anybody who could give me a feel for the engine, the culture, the mission, the drive of Newton-Wellesley. I wanted everybody to know that I was eager to listen to what they had to say and so I made it very clear that I have an open door policy, that I'm available by email, that it doesn't matter who you are, I want to hear from you.

Relatively early in my tenure, when I was still learning how to get from the parking garage to my office to the restroom to the coffee shop, I had an opportunity to meet with a group of of employees who work here in a very important role, but not one that gets a lot of high press. I met with them during one of their routine staff meetings, so their manager was there and they were all there.

I told them what I had started to learn about the place and what the culture was like, and then I said to them, “I'm a really good listener, and I'd love you to tell me something that you've learned while you've worked here that you think could be made better.”

At first no one did. So I said, “Come on, I promise you that I'm not going to judge you for this,” and finally one person raised his hand and made a comment about something. It was exactly what I hoped for—it was something that he would know in his job that would be hard for me to ever know, and it was important.

I left that meeting feeling really good. And I continued about my way over the course of the next several weeks and then I got a call from my secretary saying that there was an employee here who was demanding to meet with me. So I left what I was doing, came down and there was the employee who spoke up at that staff meeting. I was obviously very happy to see him because he was the one who had the courage to speak up, and I brought him into my office and said, “Great to see you, what can I do for you?”

With tears streaming down his face, he said that his time's been ruined here from that day—that by speaking up, his supervisor felt that he was accusing his supervisor of not doing something that he should be doing. But he was merely responding to what the president asked him to do: come up with a constructive piece of advice on something that could make the flow of patients better in the hospital. It was very tough and he was really devastated by this, and was asking for my help. I was caught completely off guard.

I think the mistake I made was I tried to reassure people about something I couldn't really promise them. It never entered my mind that if I got an employee to make a constructive comment that someone else in their group would view that as destructive.

Talk to people individually as much as you can.

The Lesson:

What ended up happening was he took some time off and ended up coming back. Things have calmed down, but it was a tumultuous time. I apologized right away. I told him that this was in no way my expectation. I said I would do whatever I had to do to clear the air.

He knew that it wasn't my intention, but nonetheless I would never have thought about this had he not come back and told me.

I think the way to learn the culture of a place, which is critical to do when you come in in a leadership role, is to talk to people individually as much as you can. There's no risk. If I had sat with that person in my office alone, and he had told me that same thing, it wouldn't have been ascribed to him. I would not have called his boss and said, “Hey what are you doing to this guy?” I would have used that as an example of something that we could operationally change. But to challenge a group that's not accustomed to speaking out in front of their manager, it's a dangerous thing. It's much more effective to do it one-on-one or in small groups. Let people meet with you privately, email you ideas, talk about things in a less formal way. I think it's a very important lesson for any new leader.

Follow Dr. Michael Jaff on Twitter at @docmrjaff

​Photo courtesy of Newton-Wellesley Hospital

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