Corner Office: How Rich Liekweg leads BJC HealthCare through the lens of respect

As president and CEO of St. Louis-based BJC HealthCare, Rich Liekweg strives to interpret others' words and actions through a lens of respect and focuses his attention on how others want to be treated.  

Mr. Liekweg became president and CEO of BJC HealthCare in January 2018, and he oversees one of the nation's largest nonprofit health systems with more than 32,000 employees.  

Before taking on the CEO role, he was promoted in 2015 to executive vice president and subsequently president of BJC. He originally joined the health system in 2009 as president of Barnes-Jewish Hospital and group president of BJC.

Here, Mr. Liekweg answers Becker's Hospital Review's seven Corner Office questions.  

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

Rich Liekweg: I was interested in a field that would allow me to pursue my combined passions around business, science and helping others. My grandfather was a general practitioner, my uncle was an OB-GYN, and my brother was a cardiothoracic surgeon, so I was exposed early on to the medical field and developed a real love for it in high school when I worked as a hospital operating room orderly. My dad was a civil servant, and my mother was a schoolteacher, so they taught me the importance of giving back and helping others. And I always had a personal interest in business. I majored in economics, and eventually discovered an opportunity to bring together my appreciation for medicine, my curiosity around business, and the inherent values my parents instilled in me, by pursuing work in healthcare.

Q: What do you enjoy most about St. Louis?

RL: I don't think the rest of the country really appreciates the gem we have here in St. Louis. I certainly didn't until we moved here 12 years ago. I love the diversity of the region; it's easy to get around from urban to suburban parts of town; the cost of living is very, very affordable. I love the entrepreneurial spirit of St. Louis, which we see in our Cortex District — a business, innovation and technology hub located in the heart of town near our Washington University Medical Campus; and the new National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency facility; not to mention the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center — St. Louis is a catalyst for progress. 

I love that St. Louis is a sports town — from the Cardinals to the Blues, to the new Major League Soccer club, St. Louis CITY-SC.  

St. Louis demonstrates its diversity by embracing refugees from other nations — most recently from Afghanistan, with help from the St. Louis International Institute. Yes, we struggle with it as much as we embrace it, but this represents the grit of St. Louis.

I love that we have the largest urban park in America. My wife calls Forest Park her ocean. It's a spectacular space and brings the entire community together. I love St. Louis' culture — the Missouri Botanical Gardens, and the Saint Louis Zoo. I think we have the No. 1 rated zoo in the country — and I came from San Diego!

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

RL: I would eliminate the inequities and disparities within the American healthcare system. We see it here in St. Louis as we do in every urban center and rural community across the nation. There's much we're doing in St. Louis to address this. We're proud to be part of Greater St. Louis, Inc., a new collaborative that brings together business and civic leaders in the region to create jobs, expand inclusive job growth, improve St. Louis' global competitiveness and improve the overall health of the region. We are also part of the St. Louis Anchor Action Network, a newly announced regional partnership designed to eliminate inequities. This commitment goes beyond the four walls of our hospitals and the clinical care we provide. It means being a partner with other businesses and institutions in the community that are providing housing, educational opportunities and jobs. As the largest employer in the region, we have a responsibility to create jobs for those most underserved and to use our spending and purchasing power to support local minority and diverse communities and begin to bridge the gap that has divided us for so long.

Q: What is your greatest talent or skill outside of the executive office?

RL: Cycling is my passion. Riding allows me to combine my interest in exercise, sports and travel and see parts of the region that I would miss unless on my bike. I also love spending time with my family and traveling when we can, which we haven't had a chance to do as much in the last 18 months.

Q: How do you revitalize yourself?

RL: I exercise, often on a bike — either on the road or spinning. When I can, I like reading a good fictional book for a distraction, or even binge-watch something uplifting — like Ted Lasso!

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

RL: One of the best pieces of advice I ever received, and that still serves me today, is always to use what I call MRI — the "most respectful interpretation" — of somebody's words, actions or comments. It means always try to interpret things first through the most respectful lens. If somebody has done or said something, assume they have good reason and earnest intent, rather than jumping to being critical or suspicious.

Another bit of advice that has served me well in healthcare is to follow the platinum rule: Do unto others the as they would like to be treated. Too often in healthcare — and in everyday life — we assume others would like to be treated the same way we want to be treated — what we traditionally refer to as the golden rule. In fact, it's often better to ask somebody what they need to feel supported, listen to how they respond and then act with empathy. Be curious. Always ask, "please, tell me more?"

Q: What do you consider your greatest achievement at BJC so far?

RL: I look back on the last 18 months, and our 31,000 healthcare heroes and providers — who have navigated this pandemic with such compassion, selflessness and resiliency — and feel pride. This is not my accomplishment, I just feel very privileged to be in a servant leadership role supporting these heroes who have found a way, every moment of every day, to be there for one another and for our community. They're tired. They're dealing with their own fallout from the last 18 months. Yet they continue to be there on the front line and because of it we are a healthier community. There's still so much to do, and I'm so proud of them and feel very privileged to be able to support them during an unprecedented period in our lives and, really, in the history of our country.

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