Corner Office: Children's Hospital of Philadelphia CEO Madeline Bell on how to cultivate culture

Few people can claim to know pediatric healthcare as well as Madeline Bell. She began her career over three decades ago as a nurse at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia and, after rising through the leadership ranks, she now runs the organization as president and CEO.

Ms. Bell has previously held positions such as COO and senior vice president of patient access for revenue cycle and ambulatory care. She earned her bachelor's degree in nursing from Villanova (Penn.) University and a master's degree in organizational dynamics from the Philadelphia-based University of Pennsylvania.

Ms. Bell recently spoke with Becker's and answered our seven "Corner Office" questions.

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

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

Madeline Bell: I started my career as a nurse, which was my first career aspiration and how I got into being a leader in healthcare. Since I was young, I really wanted to be a nurse. Actually, I wanted to be a pediatric nurse. I always wanted to be part of providing care and also part of helping parents take care of their children who are sick. They're only in the hospital for a short period of time, so the idea of helping them prepare to return home was always a big motivator for me.

Q: What do you enjoy most about Philadelphia?

MB: I love two things about Philadelphia. First, I love the history. I'm a big American history buff, and there's no better place in the United States with a deeper history. And I love that it's walkable. I live in the city, work in the city and I walk everywhere.

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

MB: It would be to make Medicaid a national plan rather than different in every state. There's not parity in what's covered and how much is reimbursed between the 50 states. Children travel from location to location for care, and it just seems really cumbersome. Half the children in the United States are covered by Medicaid, and the fact that there's 50 different plans is really tough. So, if I had a magic wand to wave, we would pick one national Medicaid plan.

Q: What's your greatest talent or skill outside of the C-Suite?

MB: This is a hard one. I feel like work is all consuming, but I really like interior decorating and renovating. So, that's something that I like to do on the side, much to the chagrin of my husband. He thinks I watch HGTV too much [laughs].

Q: How do you revitalize yourself?

MB: Anything on the water. I love paddleboarding, boating and kayaking. Anything on the water is very peaceful and kind of re-energizes me. We actually have a house on the Sassafras River in Maryland, only an hour and 10 minutes from here. We have a boat and I have a paddleboard that I go out on when the weather permits. It's so amazingly beautiful and peaceful.

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

MB: It's the fact that as a leader, people are always watching you. They're listening to you, they look at what you wear, what you say, your body language. I think that leaders sometimes forget that people watch them not just when they're on, but all the time. I think that you have to really understand that and be intentional about how you carry yourself.

Q: What do you consider your greatest achievement at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia?

MB: Creating a culture and infrastructure that allows breakthroughs to happen here every day. So many amazing stories have come out of here, but those amazing stories and breakthroughs happen because we have the culture, people and infrastructure that allow that to happen. For me, as CEO, I think that's my greatest achievement — to enable and empower that.

The infrastructure has to be in place so you have collaborative space with ways to mine new ideas, cultivate them and take them to the next level. On the people side, it's about hiring people with new ideas from outside of your organization and, at the same time, promoting the right people from within. Half my team is promoted from within and half come from the outside, so there are new ideas and ways of looking at things. The cultural piece is always a journey. Hospitals used to be relentlessly standardized and deliver things the same way, because you want to be highly reliable and not harm patients. That's really important, but it has to coexist with the spirit of innovation and entrepreneurship. Hospital leaders and staff have to coexist with the idea that they can make mistakes and learn from them to think about new ways of solving problems.

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