Pediatric Surgeon Brings EMBA Lessons to Children’s Hospital

When Wolfgang Stehr is at work in the operating room at UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital Oakland, he’s at the center of a complex ballet, performing delicate surgeries with a highly-skilled team.

The stakes are high. Stehr, the hospital’s division chief of pediatric surgery, operates on around 20 children per week, from one-pound premature babies to 200-pound teenage gunshot victims. When things break down, egos may reign, tempers may flare, and miscommunication over logistics such as scheduling may lead to resentments.

“I wanted to improve the communication among our nurses and doctors, to break down silos in the hospital, and create a better experience for the patients and staff,” said Stehr, whose hospital is one of six Level 1 pediatric trauma centers in California, treating about 10,000 patients last year. “I wanted to become a better leader.”

Stehr found the tools to transform both himself and his team just a few miles down the road from the hospital, at Berkeley-Haas, where he’s in his second year of the Berkeley MBA for Executives Program.

Care, community & positivity

In August 2015, Stehr participated in a Leadership Communications course, taught by Lecturer Mark Rittenberg during the EMBA Program’s immersion week in Napa, Calif. One of four core leadership classes for all MBA students, Leadership Communications tackles four areas: showing up and choosing to be being present; paying attention to “heart and meaning;” telling the truth without blame or judgement; and being open and not attached to outcome.

Pediatric surgeon Wolfgang Stehr
Wolfgang Stehr in front of the UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital Oakland Photos: Noah Berger

“By the end of the class I was so inspired by the work, how it made me think about my colleagues, and even how I felt about the world,” says Stehr, who began chatting with Rittenberg on the second day of the workshop about his leadership goals.

“Wolfgang told me, ‘We have a problem at the hospital. We need to bring the same level of care, community, and positivity toward each other that we bring to the children,’” said Rittenberg. Indeed, research has linked better communication among healthcare teams to better patient care; a 2015 article in the Columbia Medical Review found doing so can reduce the length of hospital stays and create more positive patient health outcomes.

David Durand, chief medical officer at UCSF Benioff Oakland, says Stehr started raving about Rittenberg’s class immediately. “He asked: can we roll this out to some groups within the hospital?”

The heart and mind of a leader

By last March, Stehr had convinced hospital leadership, and they agreed to give Leadership Communications a try. A total of 25 hospital doctors, nurses, and staff kicked off a three-day workshop, run by the Berkeley Executive Coaching Institute.

Rittenberg, a former professional actor who founded the Coaching Institute, uses theatrical activities to build bridges and develop respect among groups that have over the years ranged from Israeli and Palestinian students to Facebook and Salesforce execs. With UCSF Benioff Oakland he focused on developing “the heart and mind of a leader,” by getting staff to engage with each other.

“We had them share what they most wanted their colleagues to know about them, what holds them back, their biggest dreams for themselves at the hospital, and what they wanted to be remembered for at the hospital,” said Susan Houlihan, EWMBA 11, a coach with the Berkeley Executive Coaching Institute who is working with UCSF Benioff Oakland.

During the workshop, Stehr and his colleagues explored the difference between verbal and nonverbal communication—everything from a person’s tone of voice to eye contact to facial expression, all factors that can impact communication in the OR, where it’s critical to be calm and present.

Leadership communication: Starting with simple things

By many accounts, the workshops are starting to transform the hospital’s operating room environment, helping to build more trust.

Chris Newton, trauma director at UCSF Benioff Oakland, who is works in the OR with Stehr, called the workshop “phenomenal.”

Wolfgang Stehr at Oakland Children's
Wolfgang Stehr takes a break to chat with nurses

“A small percent of the core staff here did this, but those core people are changing the culture of our little world overnight,” he said. “It was the simplest things that made the biggest difference: How you talk to each other in the hallway, how you solve a problem, how you see other people and walk in their shoes.”

The tools have enabled the staff to approach problems with “curiosity instead of judgment, which could make you go down the wrong path,” said Scout E. Hebinck, a nurse and clinical educator in perioperative services.  “People talk about their experiences in the workshops and how it’s changed them,” she said. “This has made people’s trust go up across the board.”

Durand said he expects the hospital, which has sent a total of 60 people to two Leadership Communications workshops so far, to continue to see benefits. “With Mark’s workshop we saw two things happen: we’re working together and getting to know each other and this brings a lot of value. Also, the communications tools and how we use them have proven really valuable for the team. It’s taken on a life of its own.”

Each month, workshop attendees hold follow up meetings to revisit key leadership concepts. Stehr believes what they’ve learned will only stay fresh if they “keep the fires burning” until they hold a third workshop in December.

Stehr and Rittenberg have also taken the leadership message on the road, most recently speaking to doctors at Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston. The pair plans to continue spreading the word at hospitals about how valuable authentic communication can be for staff and for patients.

Meantime, when Stehr walks the halls at Haas, he scans the posters in the hallway, of Berkeley leaders like Annie’s President John Foraker and Ghana-based Ashesi University founder Patrick Awuah, and ponders what his own legacy will be.

His goal is lofty: “We can revolutionize health care through trust and connection with each other,” Stehr said. “This can be as powerful as any new procedures, treatments, or antibiotics.”