NYU Langone Health CFO Daniel Widawsky on navigating challenges Sinatra-style

Daniel Widawsky is approaching one year as senior vice president, vice dean and CFO of New York City-based NYU Langone Health.

In this role, he oversees the hospital and medical school finance departments. 

Mr. Widawsky joined NYU Langone Health in July 2018 from EFO Capital Management, an investment and management firm, where he was director.

He also was comptroller for the City of Chicago; managing director and partner at Citadel, an alternative investment management firm and market maker; and head of tax at NBC and GE Consumer Finance.

Here, Mr. Widawsky explains the challenges of his role, discusses his goals for 2019 and reveals the people and events that have influenced his leadership style.

Note: The following responses were lightly edited for length and clarity.

Question: Since joining NYU Langone, what has been one of your proudest moments as CFO?

Daniel Widawsky: What has worked best over the past eight months is how the team has come together to address changes and readdress challenges. The entire leadership team has reset our baseline to rebalance our revenue and expenses, to increase our throughput, to do more so that we can take care of more people and discover more and teach more. It starts with communications to identify and fix the gaps; it runs on teamwork to build a better model together; and it ends with results to do more mission — again patient care, research and education.

Q: What is the greatest challenge you faced as CFO in 2018? Do you expect this to be your biggest challenge in 2019 as well?

DW: Ironically, the greatest challenge is quite often the greatest opportunity. The changes from year to year in reimbursement rates, proposals to change the 340B Drug Discount Program, proposed changes in the budget for support for indigent care — it makes long-term planning more challenging. Uncertainty drives inefficiency. And it makes it more difficult for us — for everyone — to build a stable platform on shifting ground. But at the same time, every challenge is an opportunity to spend more on what's core to our mission and less on everything else; to be more nimble so we can stay the course in spite of some of these changes or proposed changes. Most of our patients are funded through government programs. NYU Langone Hospital — Brooklyn, formerly known as NYU Lutheran Medical Center, is in Sunset Park in Brooklyn with a high concentration of Medicaid patients, and Medicaid provides the lowest reimbursement rates with which to fund our operations. So, we've got to make it work. If I can paraphrase [Frank] Sinatra, "If we can make it there, we can make it anywhere." That's both the challenge and the opportunity for us.

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

DW: In my first leadership role more than 20 years ago now, my dear friend gifted me a copy of Max De Pree's Leadership Is an Art. I've kept it close by ever since. It's really a series of lessons for how to listen, how to inspire, how to lead — not how to manage. People are the heart and spirit of any organization, and with a shared mission and with the resources and autonomy to pursue that mission, both our team and organization will realize the potential.

At the same time, while I was at NBC, I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to observe [American business executive] Jack Welch Jr. in action. He had three attributes that in tandem were effective. He was curious; of course he was smart. But most important, he was dogged. Until he had an answer, an explanation, a way forward that made sense to him, he wasn't going to move on. He didn't want to be the smartest person in the room, the one with all the answers. On the contrary, he wanted to be surrounded by the smartest people in the room to challenge them and be challenged by them. It was formidable to witness.

Q: NYU Langone operates campuses across multiple boroughs; how does your financial strategy differ by area?

DW: Whatever the borough, whatever the location, the strategy is the same, the protocols are the same, the standards of care are the same. Every patient receives the same world-class quality of care. Your care shouldn't depend on your ZIP code, your income bracket or your insurance company, and our financial strategy simply matches the rest of our fundamental care strategy.

Q: How does NYU Langone's role as an academic medical center affect your responsibilities as CFO? 

DW: It makes it more complex. An academic medical center rests on patient care, research and education, or teaching, and while each mission shares benefits to and benefits from the other missions, the clinical mission is also the business which drives so much of the funding for the academic medical center. So, it's important we recognize the needs of each mission and the resources from each mission. The challenge is matching these needs and the resources. It's a balancing act that requires agility and equilibrium — skills we try to match daily in finance.

Q: Last year, the NYU School of Medicine announced its intention to offer full-tuition scholarships to all students. How has this affected the medical center financially or otherwise?

DW: In terms of how it's affected us financially, less than you would have thought. Given the generosity of so many of our donors — who've been focused along with our dean for 10-plus years on making tuition scholarship a reality — the scholarships will be self-funded without requiring financial support from the clinical mission. The real financial impact is on our students who won't graduate with the burden of massive debt. While these students are in residencies, that debt just accumulates and grows, and it makes it difficult for them to pursue the career they may have otherwise wanted to. My hope is that we're not an outlier and that other institutions will follow our lead, really, for the benefit of the profession.

Q: What advice have you received since starting the CFO role?

DW: Others have been generous and patient, providing me with guidance and advice, and really none more than from my colleagues in finance and throughout NYU Langone Health. Where I've gotten the best input, it's from the leadership, but it's also from the folks on the front line. The associate on the loading dock who helps me understand the logistics of bulk deliveries of medical supplies from the distributor to the care unit to the registered nurse who shows me how to take care of patients with dignity and compassion to the surgeon who shows off the use of robotic instrumentation to reduce recovery time. I've really been guided by the best here, and hopefully, I've brought a little bit of wisdom from my prior experience. I'm not shy about challenging conventional wisdom or calling dogma into question. If what we've done in the past makes good sense as supported by the data and drives our missions forward, then I'm good with that past practice. What doesn't work for me is a response that starts with, "That's how we've always done it."  There are always ways we can find more to realize our potential to improve what we do day in and day out.


More articles on healthcare finance: 

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MedPAC reports to Congress: 8 takeaways
Trinity Health CFO Ben Carter talks markets, mission and sustaining momentum


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