Great Manager Profile: Doug Eckman

By Aja Couchois Duncan on August 24, 2012
Doug Eckman, MBA

Doug Eckman

Editor's Note: This is the fourth profile in an occasional series to highlight UCSF's great managers as determined by scores in the 2011 employee engagement survey administered by Gallup.

Doug Eckman, MBA, works at the intersection of dual bureaucracies. As director of operations for UCSF School of Medicine, Dean’s Office at San Francisco General Hospital and Trauma Center (SFGH), Eckman must navigate both the university and the city’s Department of Public Health, which oversees patient care and operations at the public hospital.

Despite the complexity and perhaps because of it, Eckman loves his work. He excels at helping people find common ground and at bringing out the best in his team. “I think it is important that people enjoy what they do,” he says. “Also, I think it should be challenging, as people do better when they are challenged.”

Eckman has been honored for his strong commitment to encouraging his staff to reach their fullest potential, receiving the 2005 Chancellor’s Award for Exceptional University Management.

Born and raised in Grand Forks, ND, Eckman is the son of a locomotive engineer and a non-practicing nurse. When he was 17, Eckman, the oldest of seven kids, won a full scholarship to Columbia College and moved to New York to study philosophy. Following a series of “adventures” that included stays in Hawaii, Colorado and Minnesota, his migrations ended in 1976, when he came to San Francisco and got a job at the former Children’s Hospital (now part of California Pacific Medical Center).

From there, Eckman moved to SFGH, where he worked as a respiratory therapist on the night shift and eventually became the manager of the department – a place where he says he made a lot of mistakes and learned a lot. He worked in the emergency department and in intensive care units, which served as an excellent training ground for Eckman’s operational and people management skills. He also earned an MBA in Management from San Francisco State University.

On-the-Job Development Encourages Creative Solutions

During the recent Employee Engagement Survey, Eckman’s team scored highest in the area of learning and growing on the job. Notes Eckman: “I’m a big fan of education. If there are courses or classes or professional meetings they want to go to, I don’t say no. I will even suggest, and sometimes insist, they attend these activities in their performance appraisal for professional development.”

Guide for Great Managers

A Great Manager Resource Guide outlining some strategies for setting expectations and providing feedback and recognition is available here [PDF].

But true learning takes more than courses or conferences; it requires on-the-job development. And it is this aspect of Eckman’s management that’s most often cited by his team members as the source of their growth. Eckman says “people should be allowed to make mistakes because that is how we learn.”

Mark Addis, director of biomedical engineering who came to SFGH over three years ago and was new to both UCSF and his role as a manager, has benefited from Eckman’s management style. “He takes a mistake I’ve made and offers suggestions about how to do better in the future,” Addis says. “He doesn’t tell me what to do, but offers some examples of how people have done it effectively.”

As a result of this approach, Addis has grown a great deal. He’s gone from heading a department regularly threatened with outsourcing to running a successful and cost-effective unit with highly trained employees.

And the benefits continue on to the hospital and its patients. Back when the anesthesia machine servicing was outsourced, the contractor wouldn’t report the machines during a procedure. Now that the work is being done in-house, the team can work with the anesthesiologist during an operation and “technicians are getting feedback about what a great job they are doing,” Addis says.

Eckman describes it this way: “If people can figure out how to get their needs met and serve the goals of others, it is amazing the creativity they can tap into. As a manager, it is my job is to be sure that creative solutions on one side do not have negative effects on others down the road.”

To further challenge his team and support its growth, Eckman engages them in group problem-solving activities. “If people are complaining about something, I say OK, let’s get a small group together to examine the problem.” After allowing them time to truly analyze the problem and develop recommendations, Eckman observes that “they come back with ideas that I wouldn’t have thought of and because they came up with them they supported the [resulting] change.”

Eckman is deeply committed to the learning and professional growth of his team.

“To the extent possible, let them [your staff] pursue their interests. Don’t put constraints on that. [There] should be a really good operational reason to say no. To the extent possible, let people create their job, by building on the foundation of the original job description. If you restrict them to the minimum, the job description, then you are only going to be getting the minimum from them,” he said.

Theme of Respect, Trust and Support

The same philosophy is held by Eckman’s manager, Cathryn Thurow, MHA, the School of Medicine’s Assistant Dean of Administration and Finance for SFGH. She sees her role as supporting Eckman in his professional interests and growing his responsibilities. Since they have been working together, Eckman has become a mediator and a hearing officer and more recently was asked to provide administrative oversight for the clinical labs.

Equally important to Thurow is supporting Eckman as a person. She ensures the Dean’s Office is a supportive work environment and provides flexibility, when possible, to accommodate personal needs. “Doug really appreciates that,” says Thurow, who adds with a smile, “I let him do his job. I am not a micromanager.”

This theme of respect, trust and support is repeated over and over in the Dean’s Office. The key ingredients being: managers who respect one another’s skills, trust one another to do their jobs effectively, and support and encourage their teams to apply their interests and talents in new ways.

Sue Carlisle, MD, PhD, the School of Medicine’s vice dean for SFGH, sees the benefits that trust and respect have on the overall operations at the public hospital. “We are an interesting intermesh of city and university. Because he [Eckman] is trusted, the people who report to him see him as a role model of how to do their work. The trickle-down effect both from trust and modeling in the staff makes us a much more cohesive team with the city staff and much more effective in achieving our goals.”

Mary Clancy, clinical laboratory manager at SFGH, outlines the successful elements of Eckman’s management style. “Doug is very fair and thoughtful. He gives guidance and lets you follow up. I trust him very much. If I need help, he’ll be right there.”

When asked how Eckman’s management style affects the results of his direct reports, Andy Brunner, UCSF Risk Manager at SFGH, says he has enough confidence in my abilities to let me work independently, but he is always available for advice and ensures that I have the resources I need to do my job.  He recognizes me as a professional and is more result- than process-oriented, which I appreciate.”

As Curt Denham, director of finance and a member of the dean’s office management team, describes it: “Everyone is treated well. Everyone is considerate and appreciative.”

Perhaps the key to Eckman’s effectiveness as a manager is that he measures his own success by the level of enjoyment his team members have in the work they do. He believes that his role is to cultivate the sense of enthusiasm and enjoyment that comes from being engaged. He says his years of experience have taught him that “good problem-solving doesn’t come from unhappy people.” 

Photo by Susan Merrell