12 health system CEOs reveal the most memorable piece of advice they've received

Over the course of a career, one will hear many pieces of advice from a variety of people — family, friends, mentors, teachers and career coaches. Each individual must decide for him or herself which advice to heed and which to ignore.

Of all the advice leaders receive, some stand out as more memorable and relevant than others.

Here, Becker's compiled responses from CEO participants in the Corner Office series, in which hospital and health system CEO's revealed the piece of advice that's always stuck with them.

1. David T. Feinberg, MD, President and CEO of Geisinger (Danville, Pa.). "I had a great mentor when I took on my leadership role at UCLA Hospital System. He told me to just pick one thing to fix in the organization and focus on that. In leadership roles, so much comes your way that if you try to do everything you won't be able to do anything. That one thing I wanted to move the needle on at UCLA, which I did with the great support of the institution, was to make the system more patient-centered.

Now that I'm at Geisinger, I think about the advice everyone gives you as a system's new leader — to go around and listen and don't try to do anything. I spent a lot of time listening, and it was clear to me that one thing we needed to do was take the incredible success Geisinger has had and make sure patients get just what they need.

Ensure patients get what they need and are served with compassion — that was great advice that my mentor gave me about 10 years ago."

2. Ramanathan "Ram" Raju, MD, Former President and CEO of NYC Health + Hospitals, Senior Vice President and Community Health Investment Officer at Northwell Health (New Hyde Park, N.Y.). "My dad gave me a lot of advice. When I was young, I didn't understand it or value it, but as I got older I found all his advice to be true. One piece I still cherish today is: 'Man's greatest enemy is his own self-importance.'"

3. William P. Thompson, President and CEO of SSM Health (St. Louis). "To set time aside every week to keep up with the industry literature, which was probably easier to do 30 years ago than it is today. Today, information flows at an unbelievable pace and it is impossible to keep up. I would paraphrase that advice to set aside time every week to scan the literature. Try to get a sense of what's going on around you, not only in healthcare, but in the world at large. Read what interests you or what you need to focus on as determined by your own priorities. Let the rest go and try not to feel bad about what you can't do."

4. Michael J. Dowling, President and CEO of Northwell Health (New Hyde Park, N.Y.) "One of the best pieces of advice I've received was when I was very young. I grew up in an environment that was not privileged, to say the least. My mother said more than once, 'Do not ever allow your circumstances to limit your potential.'

Your current situation should not limit what you're capable of doing in the future. Aim high, take risks, be confident, don't ever say something can't be done. And if you fail, pick yourself up and go on again.

I grew up in an impoverished situation and that was the attitude in our household. It's something I like to implore to people. The word 'can't' should not be in your vocabulary."

5. Charles W. Sorenson, MD, Former President and CEO of Intermountain Healthcare (Salt Lake City). "Take your work very seriously, but don't take yourself too seriously."

6. John Bishop, CEO of Long Beach (Calif.) Memorial Medical Center, Miller Children's & Women's Hospital Long Beach and Community Hospital Long Beach. "Listen to others to understand where they are coming from. Because when you know why someone is saying what they are saying, it makes your solutions both easier and better."

7. Darlene Stromstad, President and CEO of Waterbury (Conn.) Hospital and the Greater Waterbury Health Network

"There are two. The first is to never ask someone to do something that you wouldn't do yourself. I am very mindful of that. Much of my career has been about transformations, so frequently I've had to make tough decisions about downsizing. You sit across the table from someone and what you say will change their lives. It's painful and it's hard. Delivering bad news, whether to an individual about a job loss or to a community about a failed transaction — these are not tasks you can give to someone else to do for you. As a leader you must be engaged and involved personally.

The other piece of advice is to never lose your own moral compass. There are times when the decision-making we do in healthcare is in a gray area. A great example is inheriting promises made by others. You have to weigh honoring a promise made to the situation you are currently in. A contract is a contract, and a promise is promise. These can be tough situations, and they happen more often than you'd think. It could be about something small, or something substantial. But in each case, you have to demonstrate to your organization that although you don't play favorites, there may be times when someone deserves special consideration. As the CEO, your perspective needs to be broader than others, and you need to trust your own decision-making process."

8. John Chessare, MD, President and CEO of Greater Baltimore Medical Center HealthCare System. "There are two. One of the best pieces of professional advice I've ever received was to practice lean daily management. I used to think if I could only teach quality improvement a little bit better, improvement would catch fire and outcomes would be so much higher. Now I know how silly that was. Instead, the technique of lean daily management puts people in a position to be required to improve their work every day.

Another valuable piece of advice came to me a few decades ago: Keep your passion in check. I was about 35 years old at a hospital committee meeting in Toledo. I was so passionate about what we were discussing, but I thought everyone was moving too slowly to improve. When the meeting was over, the medical director took me aside and said I would have gotten much further in the meeting if I had toned it down a bit and started from the same place as everyone else at the table. They all wanted the same thing as me — to find a way to improve quality — they just didn't know how to get there. He reminded me I needed to thank them for all they have already done. Sometimes coming on really strong and passionately doesn't work. There is a place for passion, but there is also a place for calmness and reflection."

9. Gary S. Kaplan, MD, Chairman and CEO of Virginia Mason Health System (Seattle). "Tell the truth. If you tell the truth you don't have to remember who told you what. I think that's critically important in our industry. You have to shine a bright light on both the challenges and the opportunities we have. A lot of leaders aren't necessarily willing to shine a bright light on their weaknesses, but I find that by telling the truth about the current state, people find that very refreshing and it allows us to get on with meeting the challenges and opportunities presented to us."

10. Susan Ehrlich, MD, CEO of the Priscilla Chan and Mark Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital and Trauma Center. "I have been fortunate to have received a lot of great advice in my career. One that has stuck with me is 'follow your passion.' I really try to do that in my life."

11. Mike Murphy, CEO of Sharp HealthCare (San Diego). "I remember receiving this piece of advice from my dad. He taught me the golden rule: Treat people the way you want to be treated. He always modeled that rule for me, and I hope I model it to others." 

12. Halee Fischer-Wright, MD, President and CEO of MGMA (Englewood, Colo.). "When I was working as a business consultant I interviewed the CEO of Men's Wearhouse. I was so impressed by the way he was able to make his business so successful. I remember thinking, 'retail is retail…,' but he really blew me away with success, so I asked him for his advice and he said, 'Halee, if you believe it, you'll see it.' That always stuck with me, and so far, it's been utterly true."

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