At UPMC CEO Leslie Davis' table, conflicting opinions are welcome

Leslie Davis assumed the role of president and CEO of UPMC Aug. 1. She succeeds Jeffrey Romoff, who over 48 years led the Pittsburgh organization's growth from academic medical center to fully integrated $23 billion global health system. 

Ms. Davis has been with UPMC since 2004, leading the system's 335-bed Magee-Womens Hospital as president for 14 years and spending three as COO of the system's health services division.

Becker's sat down with Ms. Davis to learn what has been top of mind early on in her transition to the top role, how she responds to local political leaders' expectations and demands, and the responsibility she is most cognizant of as UPMC's first female chief executive. 

Question: The average tenure for a hospital CEO is somewhere around five years. I understand an institution the size and breadth of UPMC exceeds that of the average hospital, but you succeeded Jeffrey Romoff, a leader with a 48-year tenure, which is decades beyond the average. What's top of mind for you early on in this transition? 

Leslie Davis: First of all, I'm very happy that I had the opportunity to be at UPMC for a long time. My family moved to Pittsburgh 17 years ago for my opportunity to lead UPMC Magee-Womens Hospital, and I've had successive promotions, new challenges and opportunities over the last dozen and a half years. It's an honor and privilege to have this role. 

I'll tell you what's on my mind. We've always focused on new cures and treatments, innovation, growth and life-changing medicine. I don't see any of that changing. If anything, we'll double down on many of those things. But what has changed is the environment we're in. The pandemic truly tested the strength of our organization. We hope to come out of the pandemic as a much stronger UPMC in many ways. 

We began what we call the UPMC Experience four years ago. It's an intense focus on our employees, members and patients. Given what we've been through in the past 20 months with the pandemic, I feel very fortunate we have begun this journey. A lot of it is about culture. While UPMC was growing and doubling basically in its size — we are all across the Commonwealth now, in Maryland and in New York, and across the globe in Italy and Ireland with consulting arrangements in China and Kazakhstan — we've had a chance to really focus on our employees, members and patients.

During COVID-19, we've had pay protection in place. We kept all employees in place and ensured all were paid even if they weren't working. Basically, we kept the payroll running. It was a risk, but we felt it was very important.  

The most important thing right now is engaging with all of those who have been impacted by the pandemic and breathing new energy into our organization after an exhausting 20 months. 

Q: Did UPMC issue furloughs at all? 

LD: No. We had no furloughs and no work stoppages. We were basically able to use our employees in different parts of our system. We had UPMC Health Plan nurses volunteer to go back into the hospitals. We were able to use employees from Western Pennsylvania in Central Pennsylvania and help some of our newer hospitals. I'd say it was a unifying experience. 

The other thing we did very well was telehealth. We were also able to assist the public system in Ireland because of some of the infrastructure we've placed overseas. We were very much ready for this, from an infrastructure perspective, to keep the work going. 

Q: Much time throughout your career has been spent in Pennsylvania. There's the adage that "all healthcare is local." Does your connection to the state inform your role?

LD: I've had the opportunity to work within five academic health systems throughout my career. I started in Boston, at the then named Tufts-New England Medical Center, as a fellow. Then I moved to Mount Sinai Health System in New York before I moved to Pennsylvania and worked within the Jefferson Health System and Penn Medicine in Philadelphia. And then I actually tried a for-profit, so I would say that is what was a little bit different. I went to Tenet Health and became CEO of Graduate Hospital, one of their former holdings in Philadelphia. 

I've learned something important in each of these organizations. I had the opportunity to work with many people, physicians and executives, from all parts of the country. The fact that they happened to be in Pennsylvania, I don't think that mattered as much.

But being recruited to UPMC is what I would say was the highlight of my career. Western Pennsylvania is filled with people who have great values. Hardworking, dedicated folks live in this region. UPMC has great resources, strength and scale. I have the opportunity to do things I really couldn't do until I moved to UPMC. There is a real focus on academic medicine, clinical care, community medicine and innovation and new discovery. 

Q: From day one, some local leaders have made their expectations of you known. As Rep. Dan Frankel, put it: "Perhaps now the institution can become the leader it promised when it posted its logo in the brightest possible lights on top of the Steel Tower: Stop taking and start giving back." What was your reaction to this? 

LD: First of all, I like when people share their opinions. That says they're engaged. As long as UPMC continues to drive engagement, that's a good thing. We'll never get to a point where we have complete consensus about every sign we put up and every program we open, and that's OK. 

Overall, we'll continue to work on educating our stakeholders and our community, including local political leaders. UPMC's commitment to our community is about $1.7 billion dollars. That's 2020's community benefits. I don't think there is anyone — anyone — across the country that provides that much in community support. We just have to get the story out, and we're working on ways to do that.

My style in general is one of listening and of collaboration. Again, I like hearing differences of opinion because then it gives me an opportunity to refute them. We are a really good community partner. I was at a social event last night and heard from three different people unsolicited about a Health Plan experience, a patient experience and then a community event. We are always willing to do more than our "fair share," and we're passionate about improving the health of our members and patients and driving economic development in every region we serve. 

Q: What trait do you most value in the people working around you? There are the universal traits — high integrity, good communication, resilience — but what is a strong preference that you really want on your teams? 

LD: I love discovery and working with innovators who are not afraid to take risks and own up to their mistakes. I certainly own up to mine. We should never be afraid to make a mistake. I guess if you make the same mistake three times, that's a problem. 

I like having teams that work well with each other even if they disagree. There shouldn't be any fear of expressing a difference of opinion, and I always like to build teams that include diverse opinions and backgrounds. I expect the same from those who report to me. 

And, of course, honesty, integrity and just passion about what we do. Healthcare is an amazing opportunity. I can't think of any other career choice that is more relevant to each of us and more important. That is really what gets me up in the morning — trying to do something better tomorrow than we did yesterday. 

Q: When do you get into flow state? 

LD: Before the pandemic, I was traveling a lot more — I think we all were. I was also reading a lot. I like historical fiction, mystery novels and things that have nothing to do with my work. Now I'm really loving short Netflix episodes — like 45 minutes, I can watch one or two of them on the treadmill or elliptical. I enjoy taking long walks. Sometimes I listen to books on tape or music and get into more of a creative zone. 

Weekends are great for catching up with our kids. We have adult children who live in New York, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. The pandemic has been great for us to reconnect as a family, having the kids back in Pittsburgh for long periods of time — that has been, for me, the best part of the pandemic. 

I feel somewhat fortunate because although the pandemic was really difficult for us from the healthcare perspective, I was able to get up and go to work every day. I was visible here and able to connect with the teams taking care of patients. For me, that's really important. 

Q: What's your greatest worry about healthcare right now?

LD: For UPMC, we only have opportunity. We have a tremendous amount of market share, assets both domestically and internationally and the ability to create new tomorrows with IT companies, data and new pharma. The challenge is making sure we have enough talent, in general, in the workplace. That's for healthcare in general. For UPMC, we'll figure that out. We're developing new training programs and new schools for nursing. We're having discussions about overseeing an international exchange program for employees. 

Many women have left the workplace. That is the largest group of people who have left. I hope as an industry we do not go backward. We have made great improvements in building diverse teams, so that is something we need to keep an eye on. 

Q: Has UPMC had a female CEO before?

LD: I'm only the second CEO in UPMC’s history. I think I have a responsibility in general to help guide other leaders. As a woman, I have the unique ability that a man wouldn't have:Younger women can relate to me and feel that this is a job they can have sometime in their life. When we talk about diversity, that's what we talk about — seeing someone in a role who looks like me. Two other business divisions, UPMC Enterprises and the Health Plan, are run by women — Jeanne Cunicelli and Diane Holder, respectively. I've had great mentors throughout my career, and I feel that's my responsibility to give back to the next generation and ensure we do have great leadership guiding our hospitals, clinics and insurance services. 

Q: Any other thoughts you'd like to share in closing? 

LD: COVID-19 was a great reminder for all of us that healthcare is an important value and asset, and we need to continue to nurture it and ensure we have the very best healthcare for all the communities and populations we serve. When I look back on my career, there were certain inflection points where you think, "Is there something else I should be doing?" But there was never anything I wanted to do more. As I progress in my career, I think, "Why wouldn't anybody want to be in healthcare?" There are so many opportunities.

I think the industry needs to continue identifying enthusiastic and passionate leaders, employees, physicians and nurses to take us through to the next generation. I hope we can create significant improvement in the way we deliver healthcare in the future. 

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