Chris Van Gorder runs a $3B health system — and he'll never miss your email

"It's all about me," San Diego-based Scripps Health President and CEO Chris Van Gorder said at Becker's Hospital Review's 7th Annual Meeting in Chicago. It's not the line you expect from a nonprofit health system CEO, but understanding this phrase is precisely what enabled Mr. Van Gorder to gain the trust and commitment of his more than 15,000 employees.

"In my life, my main priorities are taking care of my family, myself and my faith. In that order. Scripps comes fourth, and that's OK," said Mr. Van Gorder. Leaders, clinicians and staff at Scripps likely rank their priorities similarly, he acknowledged. After all, every individual has their own needs and wants. By understanding how people think, approach their work and their intimate personal concerns, leaders are more empowered to engage them effectively, Mr. Van Gorder said.

And engage is exactly what Mr. Van Gorder needed to do in 1999.

When he joined Scripps that year, the system was riddled with strife. Physicians were resistant, systemwide votes of no confidence were common, and problems with quality "and every other issue you could think of" persisted, he said.

Most of the time, any systemwide cultural issue can be boiled down to inadequate communication from leadership and poor transparency. So the first thing Mr. Van Gorder set out to do was to provide employees the answers they clearly needed.

"I learned the importance of filling the information gap many years prior at a hospital when I was serving as a young vice president," Mr. Van Gorder explained. "The doctors were angry. They were boycotting the hospital. Then several of them were appointed to the board, and began agreeing with the board 100 percent of the time."

What sparked the change? Mr. Van Gorder said the physicians gained access to information they didn't have before. "So much anger or fear that occurs in an organization is really just due to a lack of information."

When he became CEO of Scripps in 2000, physicians' trust in the system hung by a thread. To remedy this, Mr. Van Gorder created a physician leadership cabinet that serves as a liaison between the clinical and administrative teams and helps inform clinical decision-making. Over the past 17 years, Mr. Van Gorder has accepted 100 percent of the recommendations from this body, he said.

No one trusts a leader they don't see. Getting out of the office, making rounds at the system's hospitals and taking time to speak with employees and clinicians is critical to establishing the mutual trust that keeps them engaged. Mr. Van Gorder does this in a few different ways.

He hosts monthly Q&As, during which employees can ask him questions directly. To truly engage the system's middle managers — who he calls the "sergeants of the army" — he launched the Scripps Leadership Academy. The program focuses on explaining to participants the inner workings of the company. On panel discussions, executives describe their career trajectories and how they grew into the positions they hold today.

"I used to work at Arby's," said Mr. Van Gorder. "That was where I started. Everyone in the organization has similar beginnings."

But the transparency technique he is perhaps most known for involves email, Mr. Van Gorder's favorite tool. Every morning he looks at the biggest healthcare news from every major publication, summarizes them and emails his summaries to middle managers and others across the system.

"When people understand what is going on in the industry and all of the drivers of change, they will be advocates," said Mr. Van Gorder. "You must take the time to educate so the organization understands where it is going and the strategy it's using to get there, otherwise people will resist you. I need people pulling us along."

And, no matter who sends it, Mr. Van Gorder always responds to emails promptly. He said people from across the organization email him daily, sometimes just to wish him a good day.

To Mr. Van Gorder, responding to emails in a timely matter is a signal of respect, but it is also a way to gain insight to what is going at a granular level throughout the organization. While communication often gets filtered up as it ascends the chain of command, by opening the door to employees to talk to him directly, Mr. Van Gorder has access to the raw, unfiltered concerns and praises of his staff.

Shortly before Mr. Van Gorder delivered his keynote presentation in Chicago, he said an employee emailed him very upset because she thought she was not given enough PTO. He responded within minutes, saying he forwarded her complaint to HR and they will investigate the matter.

"Is that the kind of thing the CEO of a $3 billion company should be concerning himself with?" he asked the audience. "Absolutely."

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