Corner Office: CHI CEO Kevin Lofton on how race car driving can improve your leadership skills

Though few people can truly prepare for the untold demands that come with being CEO of a major health system, hard work has never scared Kevin Lofton. Mr. Lofton spent his summers as a young man driving 10-hour shifts for a taxicab in New York City and has not shied away from any challenges he's faced in the decades since, climbing the leadership ranks at organizations across the country before becoming president and CEO of Englewood, Colo.-based Catholic Health Initiatives in 2003.

Mr. Lofton's first leadership position was as an administrator at UF Health Jacksonville (Fla.), home to one of the busiest emergency departments in the country at the time. He went on to become the hospital's COO. He later served as CEO at Howard University Hospital in Washington D.C. and University of Alabama at Birmingham Hospital. Mr. Lofton joined CHI in 1998 and served in a number of leadership roles, including COO, before his appointment as president and CEO in 2003. Mr. Lofton earned a bachelor's degree in management from Boston University and a master's degree in health administration from Atlanta-based Georgia State University.  

Here, Mr. Lofton took the time to answer Becker's seven questions.

Editor's note: Responses have been edited lightly for length and style.

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

Kevin Lofton: After I graduated college, I was working at Harvard Medical School and that was my introduction to healthcare. The one thing about it that really appealed to me was people helping people stay healthy and recover from injuries and illnesses. People were at the core of the healthcare industry, and I knew I could combine that aim with my business training and education for a career in healthcare. There's also no way that you can get bored in healthcare — it's constantly changing.

Q: What do you enjoy most about Denver?

KL: What I enjoy about Denver, and Colorado in general, is the high quality of life. When I first moved here 16 years ago, I was really surprised and delighted at the abundance of sunshine and the multitude of activities that are available here. It really is an outdoor paradise, and the sunshine just begs you to enjoy the all the possibilities.

Denver as a city also offers the full array of sports, arts and entertainment. It has all the benefits of a very large city while also maintaining a distinctly Western feel.

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

KL: This is the easiest question here. I would eliminate the needless quality and safety outcomes that harm our patients. I would want America's healthcare systems to provide perfect care to everyone that comes to us. Our industry strives for perfect care but we still have a long way to go. We still have a lot of providers and hospitals, including some within CHI, that resist adopting proven best practices that eliminate errors and waste. We cannot allow the inertia of people's habits to get in the way of adopting new innovations that improve care.

Related to improving the quality of care is eliminating inequities in care, especially for people of color.

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

KL: So much of what you do ties to what you do professionally, but the first thing I think of is my ability to relate to people of different backgrounds. I grew up in the Bronx on the other side of these glass doors, and I haven't forgotten my roots or forgotten the struggle that most people in this country live with. I'm very proud of my ability to talk and relate with all different types of people.

Another talent I would say is my skill and passion for driving. I always look for ways to let the roads challenge me, and to be a good driver you need to be quick and agile and those skills really carry over into the C-suite. I've driven on test tracks and at performance centers where they help with your driving skills. In Atlanta, I even got the chance drive with professional drivers.

Q: How do you revitalize yourself?

KL: The greatest joy is for my wife and I to spend time with our grandchildren; we have four ranging in age from one to six years old. Before my first grandchild was born, my colleague told me this will be the best club that you'll ever belong to and he was not joking.

Kind of going back to my earlier point about Denver and Colorado really giving you the opportunity to lead an active lifestyle, my wife loves to hike and I've taken that up with her. Another passion I have is fly fishing, but bike riding is probably my favorite activity. You can wander around and observe a lot more about your environment on a bike than in a car. Of course out here you can mountain bike on dirt roads and bluffs and take it all in. Riding a bike is also not as bad on your knees as running.

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

KL: This came to me early in my career during an administrative residency down in Corpus Christi, Texas. Early in your career, the question is always if you can handle what's coming your way. I remember as I was getting ready to head to my first real ED administrator job, the department head who mentored me said, "Kevin, you know you can handle this stuff, it's just another dog and pony show."

Earlier in my career, there were a lot of times — whether it was public speaking or any other high-profile meeting — where I would always remember that phrase and think to myself that I could handle it. As my career has gone on and I've talked to more people, I've gotten the same kind of advice, whether it's about preparation or the concept of lifelong learning. Healthcare's always changing, so just being willing to change and acknowledging the ongoing and continuing nature of education to stay abreast and stay ahead of things is essential.

Q: What do you consider your greatest achievement at CHI?

KL: I'm proud of being able to lead the organization and traverse the multitude of changes that have occurred in healthcare delivery during my tenure. But doing all that and continuing to be an organization that stays true to culture and core values and always keeps that in the forefront. That's what I've tried to do, just make sure everyone in the organization knows we not only care about what we're doing, but put equal value on the how. It can't just be what we did, it's if we did it the right way.

Something I'm really proud of is the United Against Violence initiative we started in 2008. In every market CHI serves, local ministries have established programs that look to reduce violence in their communities. Violence is a public health issue and behavioral health issue, and I'm proud to lead an organization that has high-quality health services but has also done a lot of things that have infused a positive focus in the communities.

More articles on leadership and management:

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