Corner Office: How UPMC is innovating staff retention

Leslie Davis has spent more than a year as president and CEO of Pittsburgh-based UPMC. Ms. Davis took the helm of the 40-hospital global health system in August 2021, succeeding Jeffrey Romoff, who had a 48-year tenure with the organization. 

Before leading the system, Ms. Davis led UPMC's Magee-Womens Hospital as president for 14 years and served as COO of the system's health services division.

She told Becker's Hospital Review that UPMC has focused on several efforts to recruit and retain top talent amid workforce challenges. She discussed those efforts and more in her responses to Becker's seven Corner Office questions. 

Editor's note: Responses were lightly edited for length and clarity.

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

Leslie Davis: It's a combination of things at different times — first, the memories of my parents talking about their interesting jobs when I was young; my dad was a merchandiser for a large department store chain and my mom was a dental hygienist who loved caring for her patients. Second, I have a degree in education and loved teaching, but when I went on to pursue a post-graduate degree at Harvard University, my trajectory completely changed. While there, I worked as an administrative resident at Tufts-New England Medical Center (now Boston-based Tufts Medical Center) and discovered that a career in healthcare would be the perfect balance between my love of education, my dad's business acumen and my mother's passion for caring for people. 

Q: What do you enjoy most about Pittsburgh?

LD: The hard work and kindness of the people in Pittsburgh are what make the region so special. There is a culture that exists here that is different than that of the East Coast cities I've lived in. 

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

LD: One of healthcare's most challenging and lingering problems, an after-effect of COVID, is reduced staffing, and unfortunately this problem isn't going to be eliminated overnight. It's imperative that we develop innovative ways to support and strengthen our workforce. UPMC recently announced a student loan forgiveness program for nurses, with additional incentives to build our nursing and other career ladders. Additionally, UPMC has bolstered recruitment in our own schools of nursing and formed key strategic partnerships with external nursing schools and other specialty training programs to help ensure a pipeline for future healthcare professionals. Throughout the pandemic, we were very focused on caring for our employees, in terms of both their personal health and well-being as well as their employment. We instituted a pay protection program long before the federal government adopted its program, and we also developed a special paid leave for employees who became ill. Before this, UPMC was the first healthcare organization in Pennsylvania to announce and achieve a minimum starting wage for our non-union workers of $15 per hour by 2021. We need to continue to find creative ways like these to build and support our healthcare teams. 

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

LD: My most important role outside of the C-suite is being a mother to three young adult children. Helping them to transform throughout each phase of their development has been rewarding. Providing advice for their emerging careers is a lot of fun. 

Q: How do you revitalize yourself?

LD: Reading, exercising, watching Netflix series and traveling to places I've never been are all ways to relax the mind and recharge the soul. 

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

LD: One thing I always tell young professionals is: When opportunity comes your way, take it! Raise your hand and say, "Yes, I'll do it!" Never stop looking for opportunities to grow. And never make it about the money or the title. Make sure you're in a position where you can continue to grow and influence change.   

Q: What do you consider your greatest achievements at UPMC so far? 

LD: I am especially proud of our journey to create a culture of excellence and transformation at UPMC. Everything we do rests on the foundation of what we call the UPMC Experience — which means creating the best possible experience for our patients, health plan members and our staff. This is a high-performance atmosphere that begins with strong leaders operating with a shared vision that connects how every person in the organization contributes to create exceptional patient, member and employee experiences. 

I am also very proud of how UPMC was poised to lead and care for our employees, patients and communities during the COVID-19 pandemic. UPMC not only provided uninterrupted care to our globally dispersed communities, but also became a trusted public voice on pandemic-related matters. Our clinical, scientific and operational experts were featured prominently in national and local media outlets, helping educate hundreds of millions of people about the latest pandemic developments, including testing and deployment of new therapies. 

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