Carilion Clinic CFO Don Halliwill's advice to other finance execs: 'Hire people who are smarter and more talented than you'

For Don Halliwill, the CFO role is more than a job. It's an opportunity to serve patients where he grew up.

Mr. Halliwill became CFO of Roanoke, Va.-based Carilion Clinic in 2013. Prior to that, he worked in various roles across the organization, including CEO of Carilion New River Valley Medical Center in Christiansburg, Va., and as director of finance for Carilion's New River Valley Region.

Mr. Halliwill spoke with Becker's about changes within the healthcare industry and the mentors that have influenced his leadership style.

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

Question: What do you enjoy most about being CFO? 

Don Halliwill: As a financial leader, it's … motivating to come to work every day and know that you're contributing to an organization that's doing great things for the community. When you add on the fact it's been my home community for most of my life, it's rewarding to think that in my finance role, I'm supporting our physicians, our nurses and … our other employees in making a positive difference in people's lives. As an accountant, I don't know that I could feel that kind of connection with my communities other than working with an organization like Carilion Clinic.

Also, I work alongside fantastic, talented leaders. It's exciting to be … a finance person who gets to sit beside a neurosurgeon, orthopedic surgeon or a hospitalist and talk about how, from both the finance side and care delivery side, we can do things that are new, different and innovative to improve the health and wellness of our patients.

Q: What philosophies, events or people influence your leadership style?

DH: I have had great mentors throughout my career, going back to my first job in a bowling alley when I was 15 years old. I've learned so much from the people I've worked for, none of whom ever really made me feel like I was working for them. At Carilion, I serve a region that's really my hometown. I grew up in and around Roanoke, Va., where we're headquartered, and so our patients are my neighbors, they're my friends, my friends' parents. That helps drive the way I think about what the organization does and its value. My philosophy is that our organization really doesn't have any money. All the money we have belongs to our patients, so when we think about decisions we make, we should always think about the fact that we're making decisions with our patients' money, our neighbors' money.

Q: What is your top strategic or financial goal moving into 2019?

DH: It's never been more important that we have a hard-wired culture of financial discipline. You do that primarily with culture. But you also have to think about how your talent, IT systems and processes supporting financial discipline might be different today than they were 10 years ago. I'm an accountant by education, and of course in financial services we hire a lot of people with finance and accounting backgrounds. But like many other health systems, we're wondering if we need to also hire mathematicians, computer scientists, engineers; our work is changing rapidly and our talent and structure must also evolve. Do we need folks with more of a knowledge base and orientation toward technology who may not have taken an accounting class ever?

More broadly, the continued shift and accelerating pace of shifting services to nonhospital-based [retail] settings…[is] a big move for us.

Q: What major changes in healthcare have you seen in recent years that you would have never expected when you started in the industry?  

DH: First and foremost is technology. Technology replacing buildings, replacing bricks and mortar I think is a really specific impact. Technology replacing people or processes or accumulating data and sharing data, all of those are important, but the fact that we're now at a point where people are using technology in place of needing a building, that's a pretty big thought. And that's a real challenge for us in the industry because it speaks to the notion of capital abandonment, or at least significant re-purposing.

And then I think the changes in the workforce in more recent times continue to surprise me a little bit and challenge me. Many of us grew in a time where we try to figure out ways to put up barriers to change so it wouldn't disrupt the way we've operated … but the workforce is not something you can put barriers against. Maybe we should be thinking about how we use changes in the workforce to our advantage as opposed to fighting that change.

Q: If you could pass along one nugget of advice to another hospital CFO, what would it be?

DH: Do your best to think about the patient. As a finance leader, you recognize and remind others that there are always resource limitations, so you can't do everything you'd like to do for everybody all the time everywhere. There's just not enough money. But that doesn't mean you should ever discount the patient. The patient always has to come first. As a nonprofit organization, Carilion exists only to serve the needs of the patient, so think about the patient.

I think it's hard sometimes for finance folks to think past the current plan or budget, to think longer term. So, think about how decisions you make today will affect things five years, 10 years from now. It may not make a huge positive impact in the short term, but in the long term there could be value there.

Lastly … try to hire people who are smarter and more talented than you are because there's never enough talent and there's never enough help. It's great to feel like you're working alongside people who can teach you things and learn things from you at the same time.


More articles on healthcare finance:

Cutting costs top 2019 priority for healthcare finance execs & other survey findings
New Hampshire's price transparency website helped patients save money
How 3 healthcare leaders would improve the revenue cycle process




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