12 CEOs reveal what led them to their healthcare careers

It's a long road to becoming a CEO. Underneath all of the hard work, persistence and tenacity required to ascend to the top, every individual leader has something unique that drives him or her.

Becker's Hospital Review publishes a "Corner Office" interview each month. At the close of 2015, see what initially piqued 12 CEOs' interest in healthcare and set them on the track to becoming some of the industry's leading CEOs.

Howard Grant, MD, JD, President and CEO, Lahey Health (Burlington, Mass.): "There were two main things. The first was my mother's illness, which eventually led to her passing away while I was in college. The care she received at a very reputable academic health center was disjointed. There was inadequate communication between many of the clinicians and members of our family, discharge planning following hospitalizations was confusing and there was inconsistent communication between treating clinicians. There was one oncologist who tackled all these obstacles and was inspirational to my mother as a patient and to every member of our family. I will never forget the impression he made on me — how an individual can have a profoundly positive impact on a patient and family during the most painful and fragile time in their lives.

The other thing that piqued my interest was an internship in law school working with the public defender service in a federal psychiatric hospital. I was overwhelmed by the meager services available to people with mental illness. That experience prompted me to talk with leadership at the medical school to explore the combination a legal and medical career, which was uncommon at the time. They gave me a lot of encouragement to pursue parallel tracks."

Raji Kumar, CEO, Dallas Medical Center: "What really piqued my interest is the complexity of healthcare. Healthcare is heavily regulated and you need to take care of who walks in your door, but payment is not guaranteed. I don't know of any other business that's this complex. You can look at it like it's a hospitality industry, but none of the customers you have want to be here. When people walk into Nordstrom, they go there because they want to go there. In this business, they don't want to be here and they expect a five-star service and don't want to pay for it. That's what piqued my interest; it's like solving a puzzle."

Karen Titelbaum, President and CEO, Sinai Health System (Chicago): "I started as a speech therapist and really loved the individual connections I could make with patients. After my first job, I went into a privately owned rehabilitation agency and ended up buying the agency. I decided I should know something about business as well as healthcare, so I went back for my MBA and sold the agency to a national firm. But I really liked healthcare on the business end and working directly with patients as a speech therapist; it's all important work."

Kevin Lofton, CEO, Catholic Health Initiatives (Englewood, Colo.): "It's the ability to be in a business that focuses on people. I had majored in business management as an undergrad and then started working at Harvard Medical School in the office of administration when I graduated. I hadn't taken a biology class since high school, but that was how I was introduced to healthcare. It's the type of industry where I can practice business management leadership while helping take care of people and keep people healthy, and that is what piqued my interest."

Louis Shapiro, President and CEO, Hospital for Special Surgery (New York, N.Y.): "My interest in healthcare started with the convergence of three things: 1) Parents who were chronically sick while I was growing up and in hospitals frequently, 2) an interest in business and management stemming from my father's role as a retail store manager, and 3) realization as a freshman that medical school wasn't for me — Organic Chemistry class gave me that realization. This led me to pursue a career in healthcare management."

Marna Borgstrom, President and CEO, Yale-New Haven Hospital (New Haven, Conn.): "I think it was growing up in the 1950s and '60s with a father who was a physician. He was the only physician in his specialty in the entire metro area. He was a general ophthalmologist. When we were little, my siblings and I used to do house calls with him and I worked in his office as a teenager, interacting with patients, doing paperwork, and caught the healthcare bug. My siblings and I are all in healthcare in some way. My brother is a doctor, who is married to a doctor, and my sister works on health benefits planning and consulting."

Larry Kaiser, MD, President and CEO, Temple University Health System (Philadelphia): "As a kid, I only wanted to be a physician. About the only stutter I had along the way was I did radio in college, but I thought it wasn't a very stable career. I was goal-directed and goal-oriented. I greatly admired a guy down the street who was surgeon, and I think that was as much of an influence on me as anything. He was a very impressive, serious kind of guy."

Anthony Tersigni, EdD, President and CEO, Ascension (St. Louis): "Healthcare is a business model really focused on helping people, and helping people oftentimes in their most vulnerable state. And what I love about it is you have to use all the business acumen to keep the organization sustainable while you're trying to meet the needs of the people that you're serving. It's always been of interest to me.

People come to us and they're anxious. They're sick. They're intimidated by our organizational structures — [the] buildings and campuses. It's an opportunity for us to really get personal with them and help them through that journey. I get a lot of satisfaction in helping eliminate red tape. That's what I love to do — eliminate red tape and kind of get through the very bureaucratic and fragmented state of healthcare in this country today. This [position] really gives me, personally, an opportunity to do that."

Nancy Howell Agee, RN, President and CEO, Carillion Clinic (Roanoke, Va.): "Two things contributed to my interest. First, at age five, I was given a nurse's cap and a puppy, and luckily my puppy tolerated being bandaged. Ever since, I've wanted to be in healthcare.

Later as a teenager, I had surgeries on my knee for a serious health issue, and I spent the better part of two years in crutches and a wheelchair. The experience let me see what it's like to be inside healthcare from a patient's perspective."

John Jay Shannon, MD, CEO, Cook County Health & Hospitals System (Chicago): "I had a good family medicine doctor growing up who set a couple of bones and stitched me up a few times, and my mother was a nurse and one of my sisters is a nurse. I also enjoyed science, physiology and working with people. It was between that or teaching, and I found out you could do both if you go into medicine. It was a natural fit.

Having said that, I started out thinking I would take over that family medicine doctor's practice. But then I got to medical school and found there were a lot more interesting things to study in the 1980s than there were in the 1940s when my doctor went to school. That's when I found my interest in internal medicine."

Sister Carol Keehan, President and CEO, Catholic Health Association (Washington, D.C.): "What compels me most is the delivery system and finding ways to make it possible for everyone to get great and affordable healthcare — to get more people into the delivery system without barriers at a quality level. What really piques my interest are advances in technology and science. To watch the changes in healthcare over the course of my career — as well as the treatment modalities we've improved and the things we've been able to eliminate — is just incredible. It's always wonderful to see something new come out because you've seen what's happened to people who have that problem.

For instance, when people had cataracts, they only had cataract surgery when they were in really bad shape. After the surgery, it was so important that you didn't move when you were sleeping that people put sandbags at either side of their head. Now when you come in for the procedure, you walk in, walk out and just get some eyedrops. There are no real restrictions. And you have incredibly better outcomes today compared to in the past.

Similarly, when I was younger, if someone had their gallbladder taken out, the surgeon made a huge incision that crossed over numerous muscles. The patient needed tube draining for about a week, and they stayed in the hospital for six to eight days. They felt miserable the whole time because even breathing affected the incision. It took forever to feel like yourself again and make sure you wouldn't hurt the area. Now when people get their gallbladder removed, they get just three little slits, the surgery is done robotically and they can go home the next day or even the same day."

Rod Hochman, MD, President and CEO, Providence Health & Services (Renton, Wash.): "When I was 16, I entered a program called Doctors of Tomorrow in Suffolk on Long Island, where I grew up. I spent a summer with an orthopedic surgeon and that sealed my fate forever. I knew I was going into medical school after that. There was nothing else I wanted to do. After high school, I was accepted to a six-year medical program at Boston University. I never took the MCATs. Thirty-six years after I graduated, I'm as enthusiastic about healthcare as I've ever been."


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