Curveballs and difficult lessons, per 5 CEOs 

Curveballs can be notorious for keeping hitters off balance. The same can be said for metaphorical pitches in healthcare, and the only way forward for executives is to adapt.

Leaders acknowledge that healthcare has expanded far beyond hospital walls and ensure their hospitals are doing everything possible to serve patients. At the same time, they also accept that what used to be a refuge — their corner office — has become a lonely place, and getting out to see and be seen by their teams plays a pivotal role in leadership.

Becker's spoke with five CEOs about the curveballs they have had to bat away, their toughest challenges and what keeps them up at night. 

Editor's note: The following responses were edited for clarity and brevity.


Question: What is the biggest leadership curveball you've faced? 

Chanda Chacón. President and CEO of Children's Hospital & Medical Center (Omaha, Neb.): Leading in itself is a curveball, and you have to be willing to reorder priorities to meet the unknown or unexpected challenges.

Lou Fragoso. CEO at Children's Hospital New Orleans: The care we provide needs to expand beyond the walls of the hospital and into the community. It's important to work just as hard on well-care models in partnership with families and community organizations to make generational changes. Hospitals and healthcare systems should care for the whole community, otherwise we're just another business.

Warren Geller. President and CEO of Englewood (N.J.) Health: Two significant, unforeseen challenges have left a lasting impression on me. I had the experience of operating within a large health system in New York during the 9/11 tragedy and aftermath. More recently, I ran a health system in Northern New Jersey during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Jonathan Schiller. President and CEO of Garnet Health (Middletown, N.Y.): The increased pace of change and speed of decision-making are two factors that have been more prevalent over the past two years. Today, CEOs and their leadership teams are required to have a nimbler approach and more adaptive information analysis methods so that we can continue to execute effectively and efficiently.

J. Stephen Jones, MD. President and CEO of Inova Health System (Falls Church, Va.): I've found it is hard to get people to believe it is safe to speak up directly and with the whole story. Even senior people. By the time one is CEO, you have to assume that you’re getting a watered-down version of almost all bad news. So you have to do the uncomfortable: ask the questions that would be easy to just skip. But asking those questions lets you see that things are more complex, but that you have to know about — warts and all — to make the best decision for the organization.

Q: What's the hardest lesson you've had to learn as CEO? 

CC: The hardest lesson I've learned is that things are often the way they are simply because someone or a team wants them to be that way. It's important to create a culture and environment that helps people see options outside of "the way we have always done it."

LF: To truly make a difference and connect with your team, you should be open to celebrating and recognizing everything that happens — not just the PR moments. When you do this, you understand the emotional exhaustion that our front-line caregivers face. 

It's just as important to create beautiful moments and memories for a family experiencing loss as when a child leaves the hospital whole and healthy. Talking about death and experiencing it with staff and families is as important as talking about the lives saved and the life-changing procedures performed. 

This is what our teams deal with every day. Best practice for me is leading away from the office and making meaningful connections on the units with teams and families.  

WG: Being a CEO can be isolating at times, as the position lacks the presence of peers within the organization's leadership structure. For me, this realization underscored the importance of building a strong relationship with the chair of our board of trustees, which in turn has become a cornerstone of my leadership.

JS: Finding the right balance between encouraging others to learn from their mistakes and when to hold them accountable.

 JJ: That you have to make decisions with less information than you want. I like the Amazon approach of one-way and two-way doors as metaphors for decisions. For those decisions that would be hard or impossible to reverse (one-way), I insist on more information and time to develop clarity than for those two-way decisions that are better made quickly and reversed if found appropriate to do so.


Q: What keeps you up at night?

CC: Creating a sense of sustainable urgency for the organization to thrive in this new normal, which requires agility and courage to meet financial and organizational success.

LF: I spend time thinking about keeping our culture strong and morale high, especially with multiple varying generations as part of our team. I always aim to make sure the team feels appreciated, ensuring that everyone understands and believes they are all an integral part of the care team — regardless of their rank, title or position. Every decision has to be made with team culture in mind, which means every decision is important. 

WG: It is always about access. What keeps me up at night is this question: Are we creating seamless access to affordable, efficient and effective care for all of our constituents?

JS: The increase in mental health illness in our youth and adolescents.

JJ: Incivility. In society, and inside our walls. Where did so many people get the idea that it is okay to disrespect others? That saddens me.

Q: What is something that would surprise people about you? 

CC: I am a learned extrovert. I was very shy as a youngster and chose to be more extroverted as a preteen.

LF: I'm an 11-time Ironman. I have run across the Grand Canyon (there and back) five times and I'm an ultra runner preparing for a 100-mile race in Leadville, Colo., later this year. 

WG: I think it would surprise people to learn that I am a black belt in karate and ride a motorcycle.

JS: I am humbled to be able to serve our organization and community and would do this job for free if I could.

JJ: That I’m the biggest softie in the world. I tear up almost every time I hear about the miracles our Inova teams deliver every single day.

 Editor's note: This article was updated Aug. 22 at 2:45 p.m. CT.


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