Corner Office: Hackensack Meridian Health CEO Robert Garrett on the toughest task every executive faces

As CEO of Edison, N.J.-based Hackensack Meridian Health, Robert Garrett knows innovation is essential to success, but also understands that discerning which innovative proposals to support is as important as coming up with ideas in the first place.

Mr. Garrett joined Hackensack (N.J.) University Medical Center in 1981. He rose to become president and CEO of Hackensack University Health Network until a 2016 merger with Meridian Health led him to become co-CEO of the newly formed enterprise. He earned a master's degree in health administration from Washington University in St. Louis and a bachelor's degree from the State University of New York at Binghamton.

Mr. Garrett recently spoke with Becker's and answered our seven "Corner Office" questions.

Editor's Note: Responses have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Question: What piqued your interest in healthcare?

Robert Garrett: When I was a graduate student, I had an internship with Sister Mary Jean Brady, who had been the president and CEO of Mercy Medical Center in Rockville Center, N.Y., for many years. She was a family friend, and she always tried to get me interested in healthcare. She convinced me to do a summer internship, and the rest is history. I really enjoyed connecting with the people, hearing directly from patients and understanding some of their challenges. She was a real people person and said it was all about the people and the culture. She ended up being a great role model for me, so that definitely piqued my interest. From there, I pursued my degree in healthcare administration. I owe a lot to Sister Mary Jean for getting me involved in the hospital to see what really goes on.

Q: What do you enjoy most about Edison?

RG: I appreciate Edison's central location for our health network. Within an hour's drive, you can get to anywhere in our network, but of course that doesn't consider New Jersey traffic [laughs]. I love New Jersey because there's so much to do here. It's a great state; you have New York to the north, Philadelphia to the west, the Jersey shore and the mountains. It's a very diverse state in every sense of that word, and I enjoy that a lot. It was very important for my wife and I that our kids went to public schools and got a diverse education. I think that really helped them as they went into the real world. I know the state sometimes gets a bad rap, but I think Bruce Springsteen and Bon Jovi are trying to help with that, and honestly I still get psyched about New Jersey.

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

RG: One of biggest challenges is playing in two different worlds. We're moving from a volume-based environment to a value-based environment, but we still have hospitals to run that need to be solvent, so we're still getting reimbursed on a fee-for-service basis to a large extent. If I had my druthers, it would be to make a definitive decision: either stay in fee-for-service or go into that value-based world. I would vote for going into that value-based world where all the incentives are aligned, and physicians and hospitals are rewarded for achieving the best outcomes for the people we serve.

Q: What is your greatest talent or skill outside of the C-suite?

RG: I think it's probably just meeting new people. I enjoy forming new partnerships and getting involved with different groups outside of the C-suite. The future of healthcare is certainly all about partnerships. Whether it's your personal or professional life, relationships are the key to success.

I am a person who is very curious, and I think that translates into innovation and creativity. I really enjoy learning more about people, their business and what makes them tick, and I also feel that in leadership an important trait is listening. It's an underrated skill, but an important one.

Q: How do you revitalize yourself?

RG: Family is certainly very important to me — it's the centerpiece of my life, whether it's spending time with my wife or my two sons. My one son just got married. For most people, when their child gets married they go to one wedding, but in my case it was two. He married a beautiful young woman of Indian descent, so we had a traditional Indian wedding and a traditional American wedding back-to-back. That was just double joy there, it was so great. Traveling is also important to me. It's great to get away and see other cultures. I learn more every place I go, within New Jersey, the U.S., or abroad.

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

RG: There are a few people I look to as role models and mentors. Steve Jobs is one of them, and I often think about a quote of his: "People think focus means saying yes to the thing you've got to focus on. But that's not what it means at all. It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are. You have to pick carefully. I'm actually as proud of the things we haven't done as the things I have done. Innovation is saying no to 1,000 things."

I like that quote so much that I have it framed in the hallway right outside my office. There are thousands of opportunities, and you have to be careful to pick ones that fit into your strategic plan, goals and objectives.

Q: What do you consider your greatest achievement at Hackensack Meridian Health so far?

RG: We've done a lot in a very short period of time, and I give my team credit for that. I'm blessed with an amazing team. The one achievement that stands out most is starting a new medical school from scratch — the first new, private medical school in the state of New Jersey in over 60 years. Because it's new, we are able to innovate in ways that wouldn't be possible at a school that's been around for a long time.

The innovation that's going on at the school is amazing, whether it's inter-professional academics where medical, nursing and allied health students attend class together and break down barriers, or students adopt families in underserved communities and learn first-hand about the challenges those families have staying healthy. We are also implementing a three-year program where students can save a fourth year of tuition and be guaranteed a residency here in New Jersey. Those are just a few examples of how we've innovated as a new school. I'm just so proud because it took a lot of work and effort, and I think it will be a huge game changer.

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