Corner Office: U of Pennsylvania Health System CEO Kevin Mahoney on how a tractor accident shaped his career

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A tractor accident in college got Kevin Mahoney interested in healthcare. That interest grew as he witnessed the ins and outs of hospital operations as a patient. Nearly four decades later, that experience sticks with him as he helms Philadelphia's six-hospital University of Pennsylvania Health System.

Mr. Mahoney became CEO in July 2019. Before that, he held leadership roles for nearly 25 years including executive vice president and chief administrative officer of University of Pennsylvania Health System, and executive vice dean of the Perelman School of Medicine in Philadelphia. 

Here, Mr. Mahoney took the time to answer 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? 

Kevin Mahoney: I was a wayward teen back in 1978. I fell under a farm tractor and was severely injured and ended up in the hospital for a long time. While I was in there, I admired the teamwork. It inspired me to want to work in a hospital. Unfortunately, I was not that great of a student, so biology and physics and those things I should have studied in high school, I did not. So, I took a path into health administration. Almost everything that my interest in healthcare stems from is a result of the time I was a patient. 

Other things happened that year that were important to me. When I was working with the tractor, I met a gentleman by the name of Bill Rouse who said he was going to put up all these office buildings in the counties outside of Philadelphia. He painted a vision. Although we knew each other for a short period of time that summer, that ability to paint a vision has been important to my success in healthcare, to be able to show people where we're headed, whether it's a building or whether it's a program or why we need to redo our patient experience. That summer, the farm tractor pointed me toward hospitals, and Bill pointed me toward a vision. 

Q: What do you enjoy most about Philadelphia?

KM: Growing up in Philadelphia, I think the best part of Philly is when we put our mind to something, we get it done. It is a town of strong work ethic. In my 25 years at Penn, I cannot think of anything we have leaned into that we have not gotten accomplished. It takes decades sometimes, like our therapy to treat cancer. Or the new Pfizer and Moderna vaccines for coronavirus, which are also both based on Penn technology. I think what I like is the grit. We stick to it, and I think it is a hardworking town and has so much upside, which we're starting to see in gene therapy. 

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

KM: If there is one thing I could eliminate; it would be the health inequity between the person with the private insurance and somebody with no insurance or Medicaid. At Penn, we're putting our executive compensation on the line so 600 of our senior leaders will get paid, in part, this year based on our ability to reduce maternal mortality among Black and brown patients and how much we're able to increase colorectal screening among the Black population. 

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

KM: I come from a large Irish Catholic family, and so I was nurtured on negotiating. That taught me the ability to listen. I would listen to what my brothers and sisters were saying — and I would figure out how to get accomplished what I wanted to in the family — but it took listening. I think that’s led to my ability to walk through the hospital, talk to a scientist, talk to some of our essential workers, and listen and be able to understand what they're saying, and what they're communicating, and then turn that into an action plan to improve things. I think most of my colleagues would say I can take a lot of qualitative data in addition to quantitative data. I know our employee turnover stats, but I also know what is on employees' minds qualitatively and what their dreams and hopes are, and I try to match those.  

Q: How do you revitalize yourself? 

KM: I need to spend time with my wife and decompress on the day. I love to take walks. We live near Valley Forge National Historical Park, so a 5-mile walk through the park revitalizes me. Being outdoors and being with my family is what is best for me. 

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

KM: You should join your organization first and your job second, because it is the people you work with that bring you intrinsic success. You may have a better title, or you may have a perceived better position at another organization. But if the organization does not match your internal ethics and it does not have the ethos that revs your engine up, then you're going to be miserable, and you're going to jump from job to job. I counsel people to find the organization that most approximates their goals and desires, and to join that organization and make a difference. 

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

KM: Integration. Penn Medicine, which comprises the University of Pennsylvania Health System and the Perelman School of Medicine, is one of the few academic medical centers that is owned by the university. We have integrated deeply the research mission and the clinical mission and put them together, whether that is in IT, data science, clinical care. Our goal is to advance science. The deep integration between our hospitals and the school of medicine, and the role I tried to play in forcing that integration and nurturing it, has been my greatest achievement at Penn.

 

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