25 healthcare leaders share their best piece of advice

It's not about you. It is better to be a live dog than a dead lion. Never run out of cash. Never let them get you down.

Why these, and many other phrases, mean so much to certain people in healthcare.

Advice is meant to be shared. Fortunately for us at Becker's, healthcare leaders are remarkably generous. Some executives have stitched their own adages based on wisdom they've gained after years of working in the industry. Others rely most on words of wisdom from mothers, fathers, professors, mentors, Nobel Laureates and colleagues.

Here are just a few pieces of advice we've heard — and remembered — in recent years.

Richard Afable, MD, MPH
President and CEO of St. Joseph Hoag Health (Newport Beach, Calif.)
"The business follows the care and not the other way around." That was said to me by a physician CEO after he made the transition from medical provider to healthcare manager. He was near the end of his career and was pointing out the fact that [this idea] allowed him to maintain a level of balance in his life, and ultimately success. He wanted to be sure I could keep that perspective. As a clinician, it's appropriate and easy for me to believe that concept deeply. That's been my guidepost for my entire career.

Joel Allison
CEO of Baylor Scott & White Health (Dallas)
Always have mentors and advisors in your life, but remember whoever you choose to be your advisor will determine the type of advice you get. So choose wisely.

And one other thing: When I was in Harvard at the Advanced Management Program, the finance professor would come in every morning and write this across the blackboard: "Do not run out of cash." And he wouldn't say anything. A vibrant organization must have cash. For Baylor Scott & White Health this is especially important, because we know with no margin there's no mission.

David Bailey, MD, MBA
President and CEO of Nemours (Jacksonville, Fla.)
After a very busy night on call as a pediatric intern at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, I found myself on the receiving end of a particularly brutal morning report. Afterward, the senior resident who had been on call with me, sensing my frustration and dejection, told me, "Never let them get you down" (although the language was much more colorful). He went on to talk about how preparation, resiliency and a long-term view were necessary to living that philosophy. That advice has been part of me ever since.   

Eric Barber
President and CEO of Mary Lanning Healthcare (Hastings, Neb.)
My best advice is you have to keep focused on what's best for your patients. Regardless of whether you're trying to negotiate with Blue Cross, collaborate with your medical staff or drive engagement with your employees, every one of those things has an impact on the patient experience. If you maintain that focus, you're going to be successful.

Ruth Brinkley
President and CEO of KentuckyOne Health (Louisville)
Don't be afraid to take risks and say "yes" when someone asks you to do something you haven't done before.

Ronald DePinho, MD
President of The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center (Houston)
Have the courage to drive change that improves the lives of patients and be prepared to take criticism seriously but not personally.

Teri Fontenot
President and CEO of Woman's Hospital (Baton Rouge, La.)
Learn to stay calm. It takes a lot of patience these days to try to influence others to do what you would like them to do. Recognize that there is going to be change and we have an opportunity to design how we are going to address that change. I like to plan and be proactive. I don’t care for reaction. There are a lot of individuals who, when you’ve been successful, have a hard time understanding why you need to do anything more.

Dean Gruner, MD
CEO of ThedaCare (Appleton, Wis.)
In our industry, we've worked really hard to earn the opportunity to do something special. There has never been a time that we've needed to transform healthcare more than today. The opportunity is there for us, so I would tell [future leaders] go seize the day.

Jean M. Keeler, JD
President and CEO of Grand View Hospital and Health Foundation (Sellersville, Pa.)
I think there's this myth that if you're going to be a successful professional, you have to give up a lot. I'm not suggesting it's easy, but everyone needs to forge their own path and I'm concerned about young women today who want somebody to tell them how to do it. Women should feel safe and comfortable making their decisions. There's some myth that somebody has figured out a way to have the perfect life. I think bright, strong women should trust themselves.

Stephen Klasko, MD, MBA
President and CEO of Thomas Jefferson University and Jefferson Health System (Philadelphia)
One of my Wharton professors said, "You should always have five people under you who think they can do a better job than you, and three of them that are right." Too often in academic healthcare, leaders are threatened by people under them who have skill sets they don't. I try to surround myself with incredibly smart people who I can learn from. At Jefferson, that exists all around me. I have at least five people who think they are smarter than me and at least three who are right.  

Vivian S. Lee, MBA, MD, PhD
CEO of University of Utah Health Care (Salt Lake City)
The University of Utah's Mario Capecchi, 2007 Nobel Laureate in Medicine and Physiology, quoted an aphorism from his childhood: "The difficult we do right away, the impossible takes a little longer." And then he says, "It takes the same amount of effort to work on little questions as it does to work on big questions, so why not work on big questions."

Donald Lovasz
President and CEO of KentuckyOne Health Partners (Louisville)
Learn from others. Also, continue to try and understand your client, the ones paying your contracts, and your customers who are using your service. You need to keep asking and understanding what they are really looking for.

Doug Luckett
President and CEO of CaroMont Health (Gastonia, N.C.)
Get a better base of quantitative movement. With the payer environment, anecdotes don't cut it. We need to know ourselves and know our data. Learn how to use quantitative data after you've got it.

Julie Manas
President of the Western Wisconsin Division of Hospital Sisters Health System and President and CEO of Sacred Heart Hospital (Eau Claire, Wis.)
What is the single most important thing a CEO does? Listen. Too often, as CEOs, we're looked to for response. If we speak first in a meeting with our own opinions, it may cause others to hesitate before speaking up. What I've learned is that if we listen, truly listen, we will learn so much more. Our caring, undivided attention will speak volumes about the importance we're placing on others and likely we'll hear-and retain — far more than if we're the one doing the talking. I'm reminded of a famous quote by Epictetus, 55 AD (or so I'm told by Google), "We were born with two ears and one mouth for a reason...so that we can listen twice as much as we speak." Wise words to live by.

Steven L. Mansfield, PhD
President and CEO, Methodist Health System (Dallas)
"Be positive, enthusiastic and encouraging as you visibly prepare your organization for the changes ahead for healthcare. There is power in focusing on the opportunities change presents and our organizations need to hear their leaders assure them of our strategy for succeeding in a new paradigm. Personally, I know we can do a better job of healthcare delivery and population health management. Those of us in healthcare leadership owe this to America and I am delighted to be part of the transformation."

Steve M. Massey
President and CEO of Westfields Hospital (New Richmond, Wis.)
In addition to not being afraid to make the tough decisions when needed, you should really invest in and develop physician leadership. Lastly, be a change agent. The future is going to be full of changes, so try to be that spark in the organization.

Gene Michalski
President and CEO of Beaumont Health (Royal Oak, Mich.)
There are three pieces in my case. The first is that the patient should be at the center of the conversation — always.

The second is that when thinking about career and career aspirations, think two levels above your current level, not one. Basically, you need to think like your boss's boss and not your boss.

The last one is built around game theory. Keep in mind that people always know what they want, but they don't know what they don't want. For each of your alternatives in a decision, ask yourself the question, "What is it that I don't want?" Sometimes you will find that you will pick the alternative that is more risky but provides greater benefits and opportunities.

Randy Oostra
President and CEO of ProMedica (Toledo, Ohio)
My mom would always tell me, "It's not about you." So much of my role is about leading people to focus on what the hospital is about and what we represent to the community. It's about taking people along, in both minds and hearts, for the things we do every day.

Dr. David Pate
President and CEO of St. Luke's Health System (Boise, Idaho)
In having to make tough decisions, my COO Chris Roth gave me great advice: "Which choice will add to your trust bank?" It is amazing how often that helps make the decision more clear. Thanks, Chris!

José Sánchez
President and CEO of Norwegian American Hospital (Chicago)
If I reflect back on my experiences, my best advice is to really be aware of your surroundings. You need to know what's going on internally and externally, you need to know what's changing. You also need to always continue to focus on quality. The results that we have been able to achieve in quality builds a level of confidence and morale in physicians and staff.

Michael Schatzlein, MD
CEO of Saint Thomas Health (Nashville, Tenn.)
Dr. Herb Sloan, the head of thoracic surgery when I trained at Michigan, would paraphrase Ecclesiastes — "It is better to be a live dog than a dead lion" — when residents wanted to fix extra things in the operating room beyond what the patient needed. I am an obsessive perfectionist, and I still hear the late Dr. Sloan's voice on occasion, when I am tempted to push a project too hard to be exactly what I want. Often my "dog" is "lion" in the eyes of folks who know the project better than I do.

Thomas Selden
President and CEO of Southwest General Hospital (Middleburg Heights, Ohio)
I had been president of Parma Hospital for 12 years when [Floyd Loop, MD], the then-CEO of the Cleveland Clinic, called and offered me this job running the Meridia system. He said something that stuck with me. It's from an Arab proverb, the essence of it is that when a cool wind passes, take advantage of it because it may never come again — that's all that convinced me to leave my comfort zone and head to the Cleveland Clinic. It really speaks to assessing the situation quickly, being decisive about it and acting on it. It caused me to think about leaving the comfort zone of running a single hospital and learn more about the greater challenges of running a much larger health system, organization and the infrastructure.

Paul Summerside, MD
CMO of BayCare Clinic (Green Bay, Wis.)
Approach your day with humility, a true understanding that you really don't know the business, and curiosity. You should always come in just wondering, wondering, wondering what you can do. And you also need ruthlessness, you need to not be afraid to cut the offending limb off, if that's what you have to do.

Chris Van Gorder
CEO of Scripps Health (San Diego)
Leadership is about three things: responsibility, authority and accountability. What I have found from a management standpoint is, if you move up in an organization, you're going to be given more responsibility and authority. But, you need to embrace accountability too. You can't focus on making a profit at the expense of other pieces of the organization that are important. What frustrates me today is when people in leadership roles make excuses or blame others for problems or challenges. When you do that, the message you're sending is I don't want to be accountable. Leaders must hold themselves and others accountable.

Julie Ward
CFO of Tahlequah City Hospital (Tahlequah, Okla.)
The best piece of advice that applies to the current environment came from my grandmother: "A person is only as strong as their ability to adapt." It seems very appropriate in an industry that is changing at a rapid pace with no end in sight.

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