Interview with Sue Schade, Interim CIO, University Hospitals, Cleveland, OH

May 2, 2016

DCA recently had the opportunity to interview Ms. Sue Schade, Interim CIO, University Hospitals, Cleveland, Ohio.  Ms. Schade is also a nationally recognized health IT leader and a founding advisor at Next Wave Health Advisors providing consulting, coaching and interim management. In 2014, Ms. Schade was recognized as the CIO of the Year by HIMSS and CHIME.

Please tell us a little about yourself:

In terms of my work experience, I have over 30 years in Health IT Management. I started out as a programmer (way back when) and I’ve worked for several large integrated health systems in Chicago, Boston, and Michigan. I’m currently doing an interim CIO engagement at University Hospitals in Cleveland.

My non-provider organization experience was running the software division for a vendor that was a few years old at the time I joined them. I spent some time doing consulting for Ernst and Young. I’ve also been very involved in a lot of industry activities, serving on boards and committees to give back.

On a more personal note, I’ve been married forever (40 years) and have two grown daughters, three granddaughters and a grandson on the way!

As of January, I started my next chapter to focus on consulting, leadership coaching and interim management. All with the idea that I can live where I want, which is back in New England close to my daughters and grandkids, and hopefully work less than full time over the course of a year and have more flexibility.

You have over 30 years of experience in HIT, what/whom do you attribute your success to?

When you say whom, certainly I’ve had mentors along the way; people I have either worked side by side with or as my boss. These have been some really solid people who have been able to give me good advice and who have been supportive and helped me stretch. Knowing how I have been supported in my career is why I have been so willing to do the same for others, to give back now that I have something to offer.

I would also comment about tenacity and drive. As my husband says, I am a “workaholic”. He has accepted that and he knows that wherever I work I’m going to work hard and put in long hours. So he wants me to make sure I am happy and that I respect the organization and the people I work with. This is great perspective because it’s hard to maintain that kind of work ethic when some of those other things are missing.

So, tenacity, drive, and passion for what it is we do in healthcare, loving the change that technology brings, and being able to make a difference in people’s lives are all what I attribute my success to.

You have spoken and written blogs on ways to encourage women in pursuing careers in the STEM field with examples such as providing technology based gift ideas for young girls.  What other ways do you think could be used to enlighten more women about this field?

One thing I want to emphasize here, is the need to get girls interested in technology and STEM fields early.  I think the middle school age is a very critical time, especially from a gender perspective. How you are steered, how you’re encouraged. You are getting a better sense of yourself as a girl, and what you want to do. You are very influenced by others and what they think of you. I just think that getting girls interested young, having programs for them, and continually encouraging them is very important. Whether it’s by their parents, teachers, or an organization.

What is your philosophy and/or methods with regard to retaining top IT talent?

A couple of things come to mind. I truly believe that hiring decisions are some of the most important decisions that anyone in management makes.  At the same time, it can be a crapshoot. How much time do you have to really get to know that person, how many people need to talk to that person before you make the hiring decision. You have to take into account as best you can everything you have available to you — the interview, references, their background, etc. Making the call to bring in the right person is a big decision and if it doesn’t work out, it’s best to figure that out sooner rather than later.

In terms of retaining top talent, you have to constantly provide challenges, support and help them be successful.  One of the directors in the organization here who started the same day I did, is very strong.  He’s dealing with a lot of challenging projects as he gets up to speed.  I had a conversation with him recently to check in because I was seeing emails and presentation decks that he was working on coming through after mid-night during the week. We talked a little bit about that and I asked him what support he needed. The key point here is that you need to stay close to your people and make sure that the work load is sustainable. That is part of preaching the work/life balance, and I say preach because sometimes it’s “do what I say” not “watch what I do”. That is coming from a workaholic!

Making sure your people feel supported, have what they need to be successful and that they are constantly being challenged is very important. If someone has the next, right, great opportunity in their career outside the organization and you don’t have that next step to offer them, that’s okay! That may be the best thing for them. I continue to be supportive of people who make the decision to move on. I understand that it is what is right for them. At the same time, I am also happy when people decide to make moves within the organization. I always say great, you have a step up, or a lateral move, but you are staying in the family. Regardless I’m always happy for them and their next opportunity.

What are some challenges you are facing being an Interim CIO?

When you’re an interim from the outside, it’s an opportunity to get into the operational issues you need to deal with, as well as providing a consulting component. The executives here are looking for my perspective and view on things given the experience I have had in other leading organizations. I really like that part of being in an interim.

A really generic challenge is trying to figure out what makes sense to take on and change or start new. As opposed to thinking, I’m interim and I’m here for “x” amount of months so I’ll let the new CIO make those changes. I jump in and focus on the key problem areas. I can be a change agent and I am doing some of that here. It’s recognizing what makes sense to address now vs. wait on.

I have had meet and greet sessions with the senior executives and hospital presidents. The four questions I ask them are:

  • What is working well?
  • What is not working so well?
  • How can I have the greatest impact during my interim period?
  • What are the key criteria to look for when searching for the new CIO?

Those are four questions that have been able to elicit a lot of good perspective and input. It’s helping shape what I am focusing on and what I’m trying to change.  Around week five, I’d already had many of these meet and greets and I figured out what my focus should be during my interim period.  As an interim, you need to quickly be able to get to know the organization, get to know the people and get to know the culture. You don’t have a lot of time to ramp up. You’re in the thick of it quickly, but it’s important to understand the people, issues and culture!

Congratulations for being selected as one of the Top Healthcare IT Experts by Health Data Management in December 2015.  How has life changed as a nationally recognized health IT leader?

That is an interesting question! I think my network is even bigger than it was before. I’ve met a lot of people that have somehow found me and want to connect. I feel like I’ve reached this point in my career and within the industry, where I garner a lot of respect from people. I get a lot more calls and requests to do a variety of interviews. I’m really enjoying all of it.

What advice would you give up and coming healthcare IT talent…Those who have recently graduated or will graduate?

You have to be open to possibilities. You need to make sure you own your career because no one else does. In regards to new grads and up and coming talent, the message is network, network, network. Build your network and work it. Find role models you want to learn from and be like. Probably one of the greatest compliments I get is when someone says “I want to be Sue Schade when I grow up”.

The last point is patience.  I have had progressive responsibility over my career and have done well. Don’t expect that you can be somewhere for just 6 months, a year, or even 18 months and that your boss will think you’re ready for the next step. I guess I don’t want to quantify reasonable intervals, but I would emphasize patience as you grow in your career.

What are the most important characteristics an IT leader needs to be successful?

You need to be a business leader in your field or industry and not just the expert in the IT domain. Know the business you are in. Being viewed as and respected by your peers and the executive team, as someone who contributes not just in delivering on the IT agenda, but making a greater contribution to the business.

The ability to build effective relationships with your peers (in the c-suite so to speak), and making sure you have a really solid alignment between the IT work and the strategic goals of the organization is very important.

How has healthcare IT changed since you entered the industry, and where do you see it going?

Back in the day, it was all about the mainframe. Over time we know how the environment has changed from a technology prospective and we’re still dealing with a lot of the same core applications and systems. We’re dealing with a lot of integration, but we’re moving to that next generation of IT within the healthcare arena. There is a greater emphasis on virtual health and mobility. We’re certainly being shaped by consumerism and the increasing expectations that everybody has of what technology can do for them.

Obviously with payment reform and value based care, the demand for more technology solutions, taking costs out, analytics, the ease of access for our patients — all of that is going to increase. It’s an exciting time! Healthcare IT has always been exciting and it’s getting more exciting as time goes on.

Thus far in your career, what do you feel is your greatest accomplishment?

This is always a hard question to answer. When I was recognized in 2014 as the CIO of the Year by HIMSS and CHIME, that was definitely a peak in my career! I have gotten a lot of different recognitions and been named on a lot of different lists, but that was definitely a highlight. I am committed to developing the next generation of HIT leaders and doing what others have done for me. My biggest and proudest accomplishment; being a role model! Hopefully I will leave a legacy as a leader, specifically a female leader within the HIT field!

Follow Sue’s blog, Health IT Connect at