After 24 years as CEO of Banner, Peter Fine pinpoints the most important traits for leaders

When Peter Fine joined Banner Health as president and CEO, the system had about $1.2 billion in revenue and was, as he describes it, "basically a hospital company."

Today, Banner operates in six states with 33 acute-care hospitals, 50 urgent care locations, hundreds of clinics, an academic division, and 55,000 employees, making it the largest private employer in Arizona.

This growth unfolded throughout Mr. Fine's 24-year tenure, which will come to an end this month. He has led Phoenix-based Banner Health as president and CEO since 2000. On June 30, he will retire from the $14.5 billion health system, with Banner's president, Amy Perry, succeeding him. 

In conversation with Becker's, Mr. Fine reflected on his career and offered insights on leadership, focusing on governance, strategy, decision-making and more.

He noted that partnerships were important to the system's expansion over the years, including relationships with Houston-based MD Anderson Cancer Center for oncology services, Aetna for its co-branded value-based care and health plan partnership, and Select Medical for rehabilitation sites and hospitals.

"One of the most important lessons is to recognize you can't do everything yourself. You may not have the expertise within the organization, you may not have the resources," Mr. Fine says. "And so we began going down various paths to create partnerships with organizations that had expertise that we didn't have or didn't have at the level we thought we needed to be able to provide the services that were out there." 

Unlike CEOs with three- to five-year tenures, Mr. Fine's longevity has fostered a distinct relationship with his board. Board members have witnessed Banner Health's evolution over the past 12 years, transitioning from a hospital system with a mission statement that filled an entire legal pad sheet when Mr. Fine arrived to a right-sized integrated delivery system with greater attention paid to consumer expectations and needs.

This evolution involved some difficult decisions, particularly downsizing its footprints. Banner Health was formed in 1999 when nonprofit health systems Samaritan Health System in California and Arizona and Lutheran Health System in the rural West and Midwest merged. Shortly after, Mr. Fine was tasked with much of the heavy integration work, which included selling sites in numerous states.

"When I started, we were in 14 states. Three years later, we were in seven states," Mr. Fine says. "The way we handled that change was notable. The board said if we are going to reduce our size purposefully, we had to make sure that we did it in an ethical way and put assets in the hands of people that had a better opportunity to make them successful." 

Reflecting on his career, Mr. Fine points to two pieces of advice he would share with his younger self. First, discomfort is important, especially as a young executive. Understand that it's OK not to have all the answers, and vulnerability and openness to learning are strengths — not weaknesses.

"You might have a bigger title and a bigger role, but making yourself vulnerable and uncomfortable makes people trust you more," Mr. Fine says. "Trust and credibility is all important. I use a statement in our organization, 'Visibility breeds credibility. Credibility breeds trust. If you want to be trusted, you better be visible.' The whole issue of vulnerability and putting yourself in an uncomfortable situation helps that trust to be developed over time." 

The second lesson is that while opinions can carry some weight, they cannot carry all — particularly in healthcare. Mr. Fine is adamant that opinions within his team must be clearly identified as such and paired with objective data. Facts and evidence should form the foundation of any argument or decision, he says. 

"Use facts and data for a convincing argument, not opinion. Too many people want to put their opinion out there, and I'm always challenging people when I can see it's an opinion. I say, 'That's an interesting point of view. Where's the data to support the argument?'

"Some people think opinion can win the day and opinions are great. I mean, you have to make judgments based on a lot of different inputs, and opinions are an input. But you're entitled to your opinion. You're not entitled to your own set of facts." 

Mr. Fine said his firm retirement plans are still to be determined. He intends to remain in the Phoenix area with his wife and stay active in his current governance roles with a public and a private company, as well as in community engagement work. Beyond that, he is cautious about making firm plans without first taking a small break. After turning 72 in February, Mr. Fine wants to dedicate his time to activities he is genuinely interested in and has expressed a particular interest in giving back to young people as they craft their leadership styles.

After 24 years leading and growing a major integrated health system, Mr. Fine said three things are absolutely essential to long careers and success in the field: passion for complexity, high tolerance for ambiguity, and genuine appreciation for people. 

"You have to really enjoy it and you have to like people. This is a people business. If you don't like people, you shouldn't be in this business," Mr. Fine says. "The combination of liking people, working with people and recognizing how difficult this business is and that it requires a passion for complexity and a high tolerance for ambiguity — you can do very well and survive very well if you understand those things and behave like you understand those things." 


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