Ignite | Spring 2022

Donald Malone Jr.: Having Tough Conversations

Talking with Donald Malone Jr., M.D. (’85), one could easily forget that he leads all of the Cleveland Clinic’s hospitals across the state of Ohio. He speaks as if he had cleared his calendar and had all the time you could want to chat. Energetic and engaged, he’s also relaxed enough to make you feel he’s fully in the moment, intently listening — which makes sense, given his training in psychiatry.

Donald Malone Jr., M.D.In recent years, Dr. Malone has transitioned from work as a clinical psychiatrist, helping patients who may be in desperate need, to managing labor negotiations and brokering conversations and collaborations with individuals and institutions. His natural inclinations have helped: “I tend to be calm as the situation gets more tense,” said Dr. Malone in an interview.

His training ground in management came at Lutheran Hospital in Cleveland, a medical-surgical hospital with two areas of expertise: orthopaedics and behavioral health. In 2010, Dr. Malone became chair of the Cleveland Clinic’s Department of Psychiatry and Psychology, which has the largest inpatient footprint of any such department in the region.

The leadership experience prepared him for the next step: becoming president of Cleveland Clinic Ohio Hospitals and Family Health Centers. At that level, he says, “You can’t look at all the details. You’re entirely dependent on your colleagues and all the other presidents of the institutions. It’s imperative that you have leaders that function highly. You need to assure good leadership and set direction.”

Even though he knew many of his colleagues already, he went on a listening tour to the hospitals across the state when he started the new job. “I think it’s very important to listen to the folks that you’ll be working with — to understand their motivation and what makes them tick,” he says. He has found 360-degree evaluations (conducted by colleagues) to be valuable, too.

The nation desperately needs clinicians of all kinds to be leaders, Dr. Malone told the audience when he was the speaker for VITALS (NEOMED’s thought leadership series) in April.  Although he describes his own path to leadership as accidental, he encourages those starting their careers to pursue that road purposefully.

What would he tell those who aspire to his level of leadership? 

  • Give other people credit for the work they do. People will go to the mat for you if they know you are behind them. 
  • Firing someone, demoting someone, telling somebody they didn’t get the position they wanted — those are hard things to do. But the faster you have those difficult conversations, the better.
  • If you can’t do anything about a given request, be honest about it. Honesty and transparency go a very long way.
  • There’s no substitute for experience. Until you actually lead in the position and find out what are your strengths and your skill sets, you just don’t know. Sometimes people get impatient, and I tell them there’s grunt work involved! It took me 31 years to get to this position.

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