Living like a leader: A day with Children's National Health System CEO Dr. Kurt Newman

Kurt Newman"When I became CEO, which was not in my career plan, I was chief of surgery. The executive suite was on the fifth floor, and I felt that that didn't necessarily fit with my style. So I moved my office down beside the cafeteria, right in the center of the hospital."


Between clinical objectives, financial concerns, patient needs and complex payer dynamics, there seem to be too few hours in the day for healthcare executives to address the diverse set of organizational goals they are tasked with accomplishing.

Kurt Newman, MD, joined Washington, D.C.-based Children's National Health System as a surgical fellow and rose through the ranks to become surgeon-in-chief and senior vice president for the Joseph E. Robert, Jr. Center for Surgical Care. He has served as CEO since 2011.

Dr. Newman took the time to speak with Becker's Hospital Review for our "Living like a leader" series, which examines the daily routines of influential decision-makers to offer readers an idea of how they manage their energy, teams and time.

Editor's note: Responses have been lightly edited for length and clarity

Question: What's the first thing you do when you wake up in the morning?

Dr. Kurt Newman: I lay there for a minute thinking just how lucky I am, give my wife a hug and then I start the day. As a surgeon I was jumping up really early and getting to the hospital to make rounds and get started in the operating room. One of the things I enjoy about my position now is that it's much more leisurely.

I usually try to do a little exercise or stretching and some meditation before I start the day. I started with formal meditation about a year ago. I wanted a more disciplined way to go about relaxation and stress relief and discovered transcendental meditation. It's been a very nice way of settling into the day.

Q: Do you get any work done before you get to the office?

KN: I usually try to clear the deck for any emails or text messages that have come through the night, and scan national and local news headlines to make sure I am up to date on anything that happened overnight.

Q: What's the first thing you like to do when you get to work?

KN: Well, I have an executive assistant who really, in some ways, runs the hospital. So, it's always important to check in with Carol and my chief of staff, Michelle, to make sure my schedule for the day is organized and I've got everything I need, whether it's a presentation or a briefing. Because, once the day gets going, the schedule sometimes goes out the window and lots of things come up. I want to make sure that the things I can prepare for are all set.

Q: Is there anything about the office setup or layout that you think is unique?

KN: When I became CEO, which was not in my career plan, I was chief of surgery. The executive suite was on the fifth floor, and I felt that that didn't necessarily fit with my style. So I moved my office down beside the cafeteria, right in the center of the hospital. Everybody's got to walk by it. I put a glass door in so doctors, nurses, patients and families have access to the office.

I wanted to send a more-than-symbolic message that my team and I are close to the hospital's operations. I didn't ever want it to seem as if I was too good for the people on the front lines. I want to be part of the day-to-day.

Q: How much time do you spend with your direct reports?

KN: As far as scheduled meetings go, there's a Monday morning meeting with the whole C-suite for about an hour-and-a-half. We go over what each individual is doing, what the group is up to. If there are different initiatives or strategies that require some preparation for that week or the rest of the month, we discuss them.

I have individual meetings with each member of the C-suite pretty much every two weeks. It's a time when they can give me direct feedback about how I'm doing and I can give them direct feedback about how they're doing in terms of leadership. Then there are different projects where groups of them are working together, and I'll participate in those too.

Q: How much time do you spend with your clinical staff?

KN: As much as I can. Being with the doctors and nurses is one of the things I enjoy most. I do some scheduled meetings, whether they're town halls or management staff meetings, but what I enjoy most is just walking around, visiting patients and families, or making an impromptu visit to part of the hospital I haven't been to in a while.

I try to also have a rotation where I get out to our extended campuses, physician practices or regional outpatient centers. We have centers throughout Maryland, D.C. and Northern Virginia. There are a lot of moving parts for this health system, and I try to get out there somewhere between two or three times a year. I miss the practice of medicine, so I like getting to see what's happening up front and center.

Q: What do you like to have done before lunch?

KN: I like to get my critical thinking done before midday. It's when I really have my best moments in terms of creativity. I find as the day goes on, it's more of a challenge.

Q: How do you think your routine is different from that of other healthcare executives?

KN: I can't really speak about other executives' because I haven't been in other C-suites but, having come up through the surgical ranks, I think my style is much more out and about and external. I enjoy people and learning. I can't say I'm an expert in a lot of the areas other healthcare executives are, such as finance or legal, but I do have a good understanding of how our hospital works. I have a really deep and fundamental understanding of how patients are cared for in our hospital, what the referral patterns are like and what doctors in the community are thinking about. I think that's the value I really add to our organization.

Q: What would you say is the hardest part of your day?

KN: Thankfully this doesn't happen every day, but the hardest part of my day is when we don't live up to our own standards. Whether it's how we've cared for a patient or how we communicated with family or how we've worked together as a team. I just feel let down, and I think that's one of the toughest things as a hospital executive to hear about a situation where we just could've done better. The plus side of that is we've built a culture where we recognize our shortcomings and our mistakes, and we are open and transparent about them and look for ways to solve them and improve.

Q: What's the most rewarding part of your day?

KN: I think the most rewarding part is when I get to be with a child or a family and see them turning their situation around, whether it's because they had a good experience here with an operation or a primary care visit. I see how kids are so resilient in the way they bounce back. It's just a lift when you see these kids run around this hospital. They're happy and playing and maybe they're facing some very tough obstacles, but they don't know that. They only know the reality that they're up against. They have so much courage, and it's just extremely rewarding to be in a place where that's happening.

People sometimes say to me, "How can you work at a children's hospital? It must be very sad. It must be very depressing. There's so many tough stories." It's actually anything but. There's music, there's art, there's clowns. There's just energy. There's this vitality that really lifts up the people who work here. It's very satisfying to see.

Q: How do you like to unwind when you get home?

KN: If I get home early enough, I get in a little extra exercise. I live near a park and trail, so taking a walk there is a great way to unwind, or doing a little bit of yard work. We have a cat that helps me unwind a little. But mostly I look forward to getting home and having dinner with my wife Allison, who's been such a big partner and supporter of the work I get to do. I like spending time with her and just talking about the day, our sons, and what's going on in our lives and community.

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