When it comes to party politics, some CEOs put on more of a poker face than others

Keeping your political opinions out of the office is plain old common sense to most professionals. But the stakes might be especially high if you're a hospital executive.

Executives exercise discretion about so many aspects of their lives. It's a mix of corporate culture, plain old professionalism and concern that something could alienate them from stakeholders and affect the wider organization.
 
The growing hype and predictions about November 2016 make me all the more curious about moods in the C-suite during a presidential election. How hard must executives work to keep their political views out of a job that takes up so much of their lives? And if they don't, what's at stake?
 
Chris Van Gorder, president and CEO of San Diego-based Scripps Health, leads a tax-exempt organization. This means Scripps cannot engage in political campaigning, but that hardly makes Mr. Van Gorder's job immune from incoming political pressures. He still gets bombarded with political emails, letters and requests for donations to candidates.
 
He helps ensure the system is in compliance with the IRS and maintains a politically neutral position, but as an individual, he takes that impartiality one step further.
 
Even as a citizen — as Chris Van Gorder the California resident and registered U.S. voter, not the CEO — he avoids private endorsements and donations to candidates. A show of support made in private can still be interpreted as a Scripps endorsement, he says, and his actions could indirectly equate Scripps to any one political position. The Federal Election Commission's contribution database shows Mr. Van Gorder has pledged money on his own behalf only to the California Hospital Association, a total of $6,500 since 1997.
 
Some executives go an extra mile and take their party affiliation even further off the table. California residents need not disclose their political party when registering to vote, and many Scripps executives have registered either as Independent voters or refrained from specifying their party altogether. "When we are interfacing with Democrats and Republicans, it's easier for us to not be part of any political party and be neutral so we can focus more on the issues opposed to the politics of the issues," says Mr. Van Gorder.
 
Elephants and donkeys aren't much of a concern when you're sick. It's far-fetched to assume patients in need of care will choose a physician or hospital by combing through the FEC database and learning more about the CEO's side of the aisle.
 
Board members and employers, on the other hand — this piece of information might mean more to them.

Robin Singleton, executive vice president and practice leader for DHR International's National Healthcare Practice, has worked with healthcare CEOs in the executive search process for 30 years. She's noticed a few things in that time. "I can tell you where almost all of the CEOs I've placed stand politically," she says. Executives disclose their political stance, along with many other nuances of their backgrounds to her as their trusted advisor, but most keep the information discrete. They are also more likely to be involved in regional — rather than national — politics. All healthcare is local, after all.
 
But whether their party politics have a national or regional focus, Ms. Singleton recommends executives take caution. "They have to be really careful about whether they might be alienating someone by making this information public. That is real," she says. "As systems become larger, their overall impact to healthcare becomes more significant. This is especially the case for health systems seeking deep relationships with employers and payers in their local and regional markets. Many of these businesses have different interests at stake depending on who is elected."
 
Executives in for-profit or big, prestigious health systems might afford to express themselves a bit more freely without repercussions from the board or local stakeholders. Comb through the FEC database and you'll find many hospital and health system CEOs — including those at some of the most recognizable and largest nonprofit systems in the country — who aren't shy about their Democratic or Republican leanings. Executives have nuanced reasons for supporting one candidate over another, but such rationale doesn't appear in databases. We only see the politician's name, the year the pledge was made and the dollar.
 
"Those individuals may be a a bit more protected in that their organizations are extremely large and carry much clout," says Ms. Singleton. "It's just like anything in politics. The bigger and stronger you are, the more you can come out and play a little more safely."
 
The universal rule of not bringing up politics will likely fall by the wayside during the executive search process. CEOs considering a career move might see their political agenda come into question. It's naive to think board members aren't cognizant of politics when searching for a new chief, especially if the CEO candidate and hospital are from a red state and blue state — or vice versa.
 
Depending on their status, demographics, local economics and more, hospitals can thrive or close in the next decade based on politicians. For some, that means the questions of, "Do you like this law?" or "Do you want to see this thing repealed?" are hardly irrelevant. These are million-dollar questions, quite literally. These conversations might not happen in the boardroom, but they likely happen elsewhere in private, be it on the golf course or over dinner with one or two influential board members.
 
Healthcare is a fixture atop political agendas and campaign platforms. And despite my mixed feelings about 2016, I am interested to see how healthcare executives show their cards or play them closer to the vest.

Much like political candidates, they have their own negotiations to make, including those with themselves.

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