5 powerful habits that keep Scripps CEO Chris Van Gorder connected to his team

Chris Van Gorder said his decision to come to Chicago last weekend wasn't an easy one.

The president and CEO of San Diego-based Scripps Health said Nepal was on his mind. On May 1, Scripps deployed its Medical Response Team to Kathmandu, the epicenter of the 7.9-magnitude earthquake that hit April 25.

Mr. Van Gorder is in close contact with the team of five emergency responders from his system. He debriefs with them twice per day, shares their photos with staff and members of the media, and sends lengthy emails detailing their deployment and relief efforts. "Please join me in wishing them God speed on their important mission," he wrote to staff in the days leading up to the team's departure, which came at the request of the International Medical Corps.

Mr. Van Gorder shared updates about the team at the Becker's Hospital Review 6th Annual Meeting in Chicago May 9. This is a leader who puts a premium on communication and relationships. Just look at the two words he uses to describe his email policy: open door. Calling email "the best tool ever invented," Mr. Van Gorder said he receives hundreds of emails every day and takes correspondence seriously. "When I go back to my hotel room, I will answer every email that has come to me while I was making this presentation," he said.  

Mr. Van Gorder shared the following pieces of advice for hospital and health system leaders on how they can best manage change in healthcare through front-line leadership and stay connected to clinicians and staff.

1. Fill the information gap. "When people have the same information, they reach similar conclusions," he said. "It's pretty amazing how people come along when they have the right data." Executives can upend the archaic "us vs. them" mentality often held by administrators and physicians by filling the void of information physicians need but do not possess. Ensure physicians are informed of the reasons and strategy behind decisions. Coordinate communication so physicians learn of the same things at the same time. If the communication gap isn't filled, executives will continue to expect resistance and pushback.  

2. Get to the front lines on a regular basis. Every Friday, Mr. Van Gorder leaves his office for onsite coffee chats and question-and-answer sessions with employees in their respective workplaces. He recommends leaders keep these meetings casual and lose the entourage. Also, don't let a busy schedule serve as an excuse. "We are busy," he said. "But what's the most important thing we do? It's at the front line, where we deliver healthcare."

3. Help your team see the big picture. There is so much to keep up on in healthcare, but in-depth reading about industry news is time intensive — especially for physicians with packed schedules. Physicians lead busy lives, and Mr. Van Gorder understands skimming headlines isn't always enough. That's why he surveys local and national newspapers, magazines and journals. He then sends recaps to his team and summarizes stories so they have a broader understanding of what is going on and how that relates to events at Scripps. "They don't understand the drivers, sometimes, that are making us change," he said.

4. Tell stories. Stories are the way Mr. Van Gorder prefers to learn. Each quarter, 600 Scripps managers gather for meetings, which always involve stories about patients. "We always bring a patient to talk about their experience," he said, recalling several specific anecdotes he's heard from past patients and their family members. "Often, as we talk about the complexity of the business, the patient gets lost in the equation," he said. Firsthand accounts of healthcare delivery — from patients themselves — serve as a powerful reminder of employees' mission and purpose.  

5. Be situationally aware and accept responsibility for your people. Constantly scan for threats to patients and employees. Empathize with others. Actively seek to know and understand where people are coming from. When Scripps was preparing for potential exposure to the Ebola virus last fall, Mr. Van Gorder made the pledge to employees that he would go in with the medical team and care for the first Ebola patient to enter the hospital. When the system was finalizing its Ebola protocols, Mr. Van Gorder was one of the first people to try on protective gear and worked with the disaster team to ensure staff was safe from contamination. These types of interactions build trust like no formal meeting or memo can.

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