A Blue Ocean with Few Ships: Setting the Strategic Direction in an Emerging MarketSteven Combs | President and CEO, Maryland University of Integrative Health
With an aging population, a growing cultural interest in health, fitness and wellbeing and a shortage of medical professionals, the medical education space is more in the limelight today than ever before. And while some medical schools are starting to introduce more integrative and alternative offerings in areas like nutrition, the opportunity for institutions focused on education in integrative and alternative health practices is significant. The question for senior leaders, however, revolves around setting a strategic direction in a sea of possibilities, and then getting the team on board to ensure everyone’s rowing in the same direction. In this interview Steven Combs, the newly appointed president of the Maryland University of Integrative Health (MUIH), reflects on the reasons why this institution stood out to him and shares his thoughts on the opportunities he sees in this market.
The EvoLLLution (Evo): What drew you to the senior leadership role at MUIH?
Steven Combs (SC): It was almost an intuitive calling when I read the description of the position. I read a little bit about MUIH and felt, “Wow—that’s me!” This is an opportunity to merge my vocation and my application, my interests as a human being merging with my interests as a professional. When you have those things working together—when you have that kind of alignment—good things happen.
Evo: What do you mean by that? How does MUIH fit your personal interests?
SC: I’ve always been interested in approaches to health and wellness, and I’ve looked beyond the traditional models for healthcare. I grew up in Southern California, which is fairly open-minded about alternative treatments and also has a great deal of access to Asian culture. When I was about 12 years old, my mother was diagnosed with diabetes and I saw first-hand the connection between food and her moods, and the way that she was able to manage her affairs on a daily basis. As I got older, I became interested in athletics and I did a little bit of coaching, which helped develop my interest in exercise and physical movement as ways to promote peak performance. In addition to that, I was in a car accident started getting chiropractic treatments, which led to massage therapy.
I then moved to Hawaii for eight years where these practices were very much in use across the island, and I started doing acupuncture and working with a Chinese herbalist. I started to really see the connections between these practices and wellbeing. Some of the distinctions between Eastern approaches and Western approaches to wellness started to disappear in Hawaii, where both approaches are practiced commonly. People in Hawaii go back and forth between the two—you’ll have a primary care physician referring you to acupuncturists. It’s a much more fluid model.
All of us want to live longer, we want to live well, and with peak performance, we want to be at our best. These have always been part of who I am as a person. The idea of being able to work at a place that is dedicated to health and wellness, is open to complimentary ways of achieving health and wellness, and is helping to expand access to these highly effective, low-cost treatments that can help millions of people made me think that MUIH would be a good fit.
Evo: What are some of the unique market opportunities you’re hoping to move MUIH toward during your tenure?
SC: As a starting point, when it comes to academic program development it’s critical that the faculty really lead the charge. The academic programming is really something that resides with the faculty. That doesn’t mean that I won’t be urging them to consider some important areas of growth and that we won’t be moving in those directions.
There are new programs that are already in development, and as we get into some other areas like massage and naturopathy, there are some new programmatic areas we’re going to be looking at. There are also some populations that are underserved who we could try to create access for. For example, if you think about the K-12 space, how might we be able to help teachers who are going to be teaching nutrition and movement in their elementary and secondary schools? We could also be thinking about ways to better serve the military. Another area we could be looking at, especially from the perspective of supporting peak performance, is working with athletes and other folks who have to be mentally, physically and spiritually at their best, and who are working to go beyond some of their limitations. Then we have the aging population that is very underserved—we want to be helping folks with pain management, stress relief and preventing as many curable diseases as possible. There are numerous opportunities for us to serve new demographics.
Evo: Are you looking to expand in the non-credit partnership space?
SC: That will be part of it—I can see the corporate wellness component of this being lucrative. That said, I also see some other areas where we would be offering certificates and degree programs. For example, we could be offering certificate programs in areas where we not only help our students learn the various arts and sciences of their craft, but also how to be good at running a small business, how to create an integrative health community within their neighbourhood, how to network and work with other partners in other applied areas.
We want to help with the professional development of our students as well, and that might come in the form of certificate programs. There might also be some certificates that fit the in-between spaces. For example, you could have somebody who has chiropractic training who wants to add a new skill or competency, but they don’t want to enroll in a full masters or doctoral program. Maybe we can add pieces in nutrition or acupuncture or other fields that complement existing professionals.
Evo: What are the competitive advantages you see MUIH bringing to the table in the crowded and competitive medical education market?
SC: I don’t believe that the medical education space is crowded in the programmatic areas we’re talking about. Higher education as a broad industry is very crowded and I’m very familiar with that world. I understand how institutions are competing for an increasingly smaller number of qualified students. However, I don’t think that’s where we are.
The programs that we offer and the approaches that we offer are maybe not entirely unique, but they are certainly uncommon. The real opportunity for us is to get the word out to the market—to really tell our story and tell our students’ and faculty’s stories and let people know how some of these complimentary forms of care can be beneficial for people. It’s really a blue ocean out there and I don’t think there are many ships in our space.
Evo: In your experience, what are some of the most significant roadblocks senior leaders can face when trying to implement a new strategic direction?
SC: In higher education, people tend to have such difficulty with change. It’s rather ironic that people who are so progressive in their thought process find it difficult to let go of things, but I think resistance to change is the biggest issue standing in the way of strategic shifts. There are people in any organization—it doesn’t matter what industry you’re in—who benefit from the status quo and don’t want to change.
Evo: How have you and your colleagues worked to overcome these roadblocks in the past?
SC: From a strategic level, it’s important to build trust, and you build trust by finding the low-hanging fruit and trying for some early wins you can achieve together as a team. This way, you can demonstrate trust, that you do what you say you’re going to do, and that things will work out the way that you had hoped the majority of the time. Being open about information and transparency is the best way to build the culture of trust. The research tells us high-trust cultures are really where it’s at, and best way to build trust I think is through transparency.
Evo: Ultimately, what do you hope will be your lasting impact on MUIH?
SC: My impact won’t be measured by something that I do; it’ll be measured by what our graduating students do. When our students get out there and provide care to as many people as possible, when they make an impact on other people’s lives by managing their pain, by reducing their stress, by helping them with conflict in their lives, by being restorative and helping them to rejuvenate, that will be the lasting impact. I’m here to serve our students.
Evo: Is there anything you’d like to add about your hopes, your excitement and maybe your concerns about the role you’re about to step into at MUIH?
SC: When I came back for the interviewing process on campus, which was several days of interaction with folks, I found nothing but confirmation of those intuitive insights that I had at the very beginning. The people here at MUIH are terrific. When I walked in the building I could feel the healing presence in the building. I find people that are energized and excited and ready to move forward. They’ve got great attitudes, great skillsets and I couldn’t be more excited to be here.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.