Do surgeons have a God complex? Are doctors stubborn, control freaks?  Sometimes, yes. But it’s not necessarily a bad thing.

A surgeon, making life or death decisions during a heart transplant, for example, can see things go terribly wrong in the matter of a millisecond.  Inevitably, the patient wants a supremely confident and competent doctor who is in total control.  It makes sense and it saves lives.

But what happens when the same surgeon is promoted to manage other doctors, or in the case of Dr. Rakesh Suri, asked to become the CEO of the entire hospital?  And what happens when said hospital is a major global expansion of the world-famous, highly innovative Cleveland Clinic?

According to Dr. Suri, this is when a surgeon must make a quantum shift in attitude and perspective. The CEO must create a vision that inspires others.  The CEO must rely on others to accomplish goals.  The CEO must use soft skills like empathy and self-awareness to better understand and influence others. The CEO must create a uniquely fertile organizational culture in which people are encouraged to work together.

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To say the least, this is not an easy transition.  The new leader must abandon the doctor’s God complex, learn to be vulnerable, and create a safe space for others to speak up and express themselves.   In Dr. Suri’s view, this is the only way to facilitate a culture of continuous learning and results–on the road to creating a brand new ‘innovation factory.’

Let’s take a step back.  Replicating Ohio’s world-famous Cleveland Clinic in Abu Dhabi was a bold vision by any measure. Born of a 2006 partnership agreement between Mubadala Investment Company and Cleveland Clinic, the idea was to bring a multi-specialty hospital informed by nearly 100 years of clinical excellence to the heart of the Arabian Gulf.  This service line prioritization required a focus on treatments that were previously unavailable in the UAE, including transplant surgery and advanced oncology options, which would obviate the need for patients to travel overseas.

The hospital’s founding partners aimed to build a medical hub where global experts could innovate new ideas, techniques, and knowledge that could be imported back to the United States—and shared around the world.  The hospital soon became an innovation factory.  ‘In the race for excellence, there is no finish line’ became the mantra of the hospital, helping to ensure all caregivers remained fixed on the horizon and didn’t slow their pace at the first set-back or success.

For leaders across the Clinic, Suri’s key instruction was to ‘burn-the-boats’ – to avoid giving people a route back to old roles or processes with which they had become comfortable, or permitting staff workarounds. This new approach began during the recruitment process when candidates were told they had to forfeit academic titles in other organizations and fully commit to their roles in Abu Dhabi. This burn-the-boats approach was a non-negotiable mandate.

A culture of candor was continuously reinforced by Suri, and cascaded across the organization at every level – and particularly those involved in hiring and development – to be honest with applicants and top prospects about how challenging the job could be. Suri didn’t sugarcoat how tough the job would be, and looked as much, or more for character than competence. The best candidates appreciated honesty and high standards.  They showed up ready to support team-based innovation from the first day.

Additionally, teams were encouraged to celebrate failures during the innovation process.  Again, this was the direct result of Suri embracing his own vulnerability. Organizational ‘stars’ and influence makers shared stories of early failures, what they learned, and how they adjusted, particularly examples from the days before the opening of the hospital.  This culture of candor helped create a non-judgmental environment for next-generation leaders to venture out of their comfort zones, learn from others, build trust, and ask for help when needed.

Group facilitation and mindfulness training enabled team members to uncover unconscious biases, hidden baggage, and preconceived notions. This proved to be a powerful technique that elicited raw emotion, self-reflection, and enhanced empathy. Leaders had the opportunity to understand their bright and not so bright sides – by naming and reflecting upon their reactions and emotions.  In turn, this helped them become more effective leaders.

The end result was a culture at Cleveland Clinic Abu Dhabi that inspired people to continuously reflect, become more self-aware, confront anxieties, and create a plan to bridge development gaps. By dealing with concerns directly, caregivers were able to reduce the amount of disruptive behavior at key moments in the hospital’s development. Long-term team-members were able to pivot toward more collaboration, team empowerment, and self-awareness.

What do you think about the culture that Dr. Suri created at the Cleveland Clinic, Abu Dhabi?  Share your thoughts.

*This interview is presented by CEO Fellows in partnership with N2Growth- Request to join our exclusive leadership forum and have conversations with our Culture Champions, here. We invite you to share your story and get feedback from iconic leaders like Dr. Rakesh Suri, executive advisors, top leadership professors, and gifted students from around the world.