Corner Office: 7 questions with Henry Ford Health System CEO Wright Lassiter

Wright Lassiter III came up through the leadership ranks of Dallas-based Methodist Health System and JPS Health Network in Fort Worth, Texas, before becoming CEO of Alameda Health System in Oakland, Calif., in 2005. Mr. Lassiter led Alameda's expansion and turnaround, helping the public system achieve eight years of positive financial performance.

In December 2014, Mr. Lassiter took his 25 years of healthcare experience to Henry Ford Health System in Detroit. After serving as president of the system for two years, Mr. Lassiter also assumed the CEO role in January 2017. Mr. Lassiter, who holds a master's degree in health administration from Indiana University, took the time to speak with Becker's Hospital Review about setting goals for a system with a storied history, learning to lead through influence and his love of food for our "Corner Office" series. 

Note: This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity

Question: What's one thing that really piqued your interest in healthcare?

Wright Lassiter: The intersection between the power of people and the power of art and science is what really got me interested. I have a degree in chemistry, and from a chemist's perspective, the world is all about chemical formulas; atoms and molecules, getting the right proportions of this and that to create something new. In healthcare it's not an exact science, there's a lot of gray area, there's a lot of interpretation. The fact is that when you're doing things with the human body, it's not always exactly what you learned in the textbook. When you're making decisions about healthcare, you're using judgments that might not necessarily have data, so the art is about how you lead other people and how you make decisions when there's not a direct formula. That's why it's an art and that's why I like it so much.

Q: What do you enjoy most about Detroit

WL: Without question, what I enjoy the most about Detroit is the amazing resurgence that’s been happening here and the combined efforts of businesses from various sectors and the communities that are working really aggressively to make the city and region a better place. I've never experienced the kind of rebirth, resurgence and rejuvenation that's happening here in Detroit. Seeing the excitement about how much is going into rebuilding a city and a region that have gone through tough times — I'd say that's what I'm enjoying the most.

Q: If you could eliminate one of the healthcare industry's problems overnight, which would it be? 

WL: I would say silos and complexity. I think healthcare is a wonderful industry, but we have become way too comfortable with creating vertical silos, which create complexity for consumers. Whether its departments within hospitals or the silos we've created around acute care versus post acute care, we haven't always built ourselves around the customer as the central cog in what we do. So I would eliminate the vertical barriers that our customers have to deal with because of complexities and how we've constructed ourselves.

Q: What do you consider your greatest talent or skill outside of the C-suite?

WL: So I would say my greatest skill outside the C-suite is in the culinary realm. I absolutely love food. I love cooking it, I love eating it, I love exploring it, I love learning about it and I love travelling around the world to sample different kinds of food. The thing that I get the most fun out of is going to a very nice restaurant and having a great meal, having the opportunity to talk to the chef about how he or she prepares those dishes, and then going home and trying to replicate them.

Q: How do you revitalize yourself? 

WL: Travel is one way. Most of my travel is centered around food, wine and the beach. I'm also a very big jazz fan and I listen to music constantly; jazz and gospel are my two favorite genres. I travel a fair amount to jazz festivals, I've hit Montréal and Newport this year. I exercise a fair amount, I enjoy biking and try and keep some semblance of physical activity.

Q: What's one piece of advice you remember most clearly? 

WL: Early in my career, when I was finishing up my two-year administrative fellowship and going into my administrative job at Methodist Health System in Dallas, I remember someone telling me to learn influence skills as opposed to learning to boss people around.

Our business is much more about influence than it is telling people what to do. It really begins with understanding how important collaboration is, how important listening is. When you're bossing people around, you don't necessarily care what they think, you don't care about the words that are coming out of their mouth as opposed to the ones that are coming out of your mouth. So with influence you start off with having a common goal that you agree on. It's important to learn how to build consensus and listen to alternate views, and those are the skills that are really important. Now as the CEO of a big company with 30,000 employees, you can try and run an organization that complex with an iron fist, telling people what to do. But if you have buy-in with people, it's much easier to get things done than if they fear you.

Q: What do you consider your greatest achievement at Henry Ford Health System so far?

WL: I think I've been successful in my short time here getting the organization to buy into what I've told them is my singular goal, and that is to reduce the gap between today and what's possible. As a leader that's my ultimate responsibility: If on a day-to-day basis you can reduce the gap between what is possible today and what is possible for the organization, you're fulfilling your role as a leader. While you may not get to perfection, if you're moving constantly toward that optimal area then you're fulfilling your purpose.

I wanted people to know as a newcomer at Henry Ford that I had great respect for everything we've accomplished in our 102-year history, but also understand that past success is not a guarantee for future success. The worst thing we could do is have hubris and rest on our laurels. That [attitude] affects every department, irrespective of where they are in terms of performance. It gives them something to focus on, and it's been embraced by the organization pretty broadly.

At the beginning of this year, we rolled out our new true north for Henry Ford. It requires a fair amount of influence, dialogue and discussion to get the organization to come to consensus on our new idea of true north, embraced by our organization, board and staff. Our true north statement says Henry Ford will be the trusted partner in health, leading the nation in superior outcome and value. It's a simple statement with the notion that the consumer is at the center of everything we do.

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