Finding Context Through a Mentor: Q&A With Gary Mecklenburg and Larry Goldberg

Gary Mecklenburg, retired CEO of Northwestern Memorial Hospital and Northwestern Memorial Healthcare in Chicago and current executive partner of Waud Capital Partners, and Larry Goldberg, CEO of Loyola University Health System in Maywood, Ill., first met at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in 1990. Mr. Goldberg had just graduated from Duke University in Durham, N.C., and accepted an administrative fellowship position at Northwestern Memorial. That year, Mr. Goldberg reported directly to Mr. Mecklenburg, and a long-term mentor-mentee relationship was born.

While Mr. Mecklenburg has retired from hospital administration after an exemplary career, his legacy lives on in the success Mr. Goldberg has found as a healthcare executive. In addition to his current position at Loyola, Mr. Goldberg has served in various other leadership and executive positions in other academic medical centers, including as senior vice president at Northwestern Memorial and CEO of Vanderbilt University Hospital in Nashville, Tenn. Mr. Goldberg attributes much of his success to his relationship with Mr. Mecklenburg.

Here, the two men discuss the importance of their relationship and the lasting impact a mentor-mentee relationship can have on a leader.

Larry GoldbergQuestion: Larry, how much of an effect did the fellowship program have on you and your career in healthcare?

Larry Goldberg: The fellowship year I spent with Gary and the management team at Northwestern Memorial Hospital was one of the most defining years of my career. I came out of school with strong technical skills. The fellowship taught me how to think, speak and act strategically. I learned what it means to be a leader.  

Gary often posed the question: what makes a great organization? In the fellowship, I started to understand how an academic medical center works, the importance of understanding cultures and how important physician and nursing relationships are.

Gary would spend every other week just talking and sharing thoughts. These conversations provided me with a context on how things work in a large organization. He taught me how to approach various issues, build teams, strive for excellence and put patients first. It was the most defining year of my career in terms of learning how to lead.

Gary Mecklenburg: For a young administrative executive to grow and develop, it is helpful for [he or she] to have context and have a sense of a whole organization. Usually, a first job in an organization is a narrow slice, such as being an administrator in an ancillary department. While learning a great deal about that department, it is helpful to know how that job and department relate to the performance of the whole enterprise. What we tried to do in the fellowship program is let these talented young executives learn about how an entire organization works and the interrelationships among a variety of functions. This provides a great foundation as the fellow begins his career.

Q: After the fellowship program, Larry accepted a full-time administrative position at Northwestern Memorial, and later returned to Northwestern as a vice president of hospital operations after spending time as a healthcare consultant. What was that experience like for both of you, mentee working at the same organization as the mentor?

LG: I went from reflecting on the big picture from the perspective of the CEO to gaining real-life experience working within the organization. I worked in the lab, in ambulatory care settings, and developing new clinical programs. People knew that I had been a fellow and that I aspired to become a CEO, but their focus and mine was to work as a team to meet the needs of our patients. Even today, it is personally rewarding to see that the transplant program I helped develop at Northwestern is now the largest program in the area. These hands-on, "down-and-in" experiences contributed meaningfully to my development as a CEO.

GM: Despite our relationship, it was important to follow organizational structure. Any time a CEO intervenes in a situation there has to be a good reason to do so, that is justified by an important organizational reason. Over the years, we hired a number of post-administrative fellows into the organization. Everyone at the hospital knew how important the fellowship program was to me personally. Periodically I would have alumni lunches where all of the fellows were invited to talk about broad healthcare issues. I'm sure some people thought the young executives had a privilege to spend time with me, but people appreciated our commitment to develop young talent. I don't recall an incident where I intervened in the relationship between a former fellow and their boss.

Q: Why is it important to have or be a mentor when you are a hospital or health system CEO?

GM: A mentor is a unique, trusting, close relationship, someone you can turn to for advice that you know will be kept in confidence. It's difficult to assign or choose a mentor—it's a relationship that goes beyond a relationship as a teacher or as a superior.

There is a maxim that it is lonely at the top. When you're a member of the management team you have multiple horizontal relationships. When one becomes a CEO, he [or she] assumes a set of responsibilities that hamper the ability to become close personal friends with members of the team. There has to be a distance between the CEO and the people that work for him in order to make tough decisions. Even as a CEO, having a mentor helps deal with the loneliness at the top. A mentor is someone to talk to in a trusting and safe relationship that allows the mentee to explore options and thoughts.

LG: It is lonely at the top, and too often people will tell you things that they think you want to hear. Often you won't get the full story and seldom do you receive constructive feedback. Having a mentor and having trusted advisors provides a broader or different perspective.

In my current role, I have to do what is in the best interest of Loyola and Trinity Health. That can be difficult, and I need to be open-minded and strategic. I need the unbiased input that a mentoring relationship brings. I value the mentor relationship greatly. Gary is someone I can confide in who has no agenda other than to help me do the right thing.

Q: Gary, did you have a mentor when you started in healthcare, and if you did, did that relationship inspire you to mentor others?

GM: I spent the summer of 1969 with Gail Warden, who was the executive vice president at Presbyterian St. Luke's, now Rush University Medical Center. At a young age, Gail was a highly successful executive. He had five year-long fellows and two summer interns, which is a remarkable commitment to young talent. Just as Larry described how his fellowship at Northwestern was important to him, my summer at Presbyterian St. Luke's with Gail helped define my career, for a few reasons.

First, I spent a significant amount of time with Gail that summer, just talking about management and leadership, strategy and decision-making. As a role model, Gail had a big influence on my management style.

Second, there was no part of the organization that we weren't exposed to. As students, we were allowed to sit in on board meetings and strategy sessions. That's where the concept of context developed. As I pursued my career, I already understood how large complicated organizations work and what my role was in it.

Third, Gail felt strongly that all leaders, not just in healthcare, have a responsibility to develop the next generation of talent in their profession. If you have success in your career, it is likely that someone has helped you along the way and you have the responsibility to help the next generation in a similar way. To the extent that I have served as a mentor in one generation, I benefited in having a role model in Gail Warden. Gail was always there for me in my career. Hopefully, Larry will serve as a mentor and develop management talent for the healthcare field.

LG: When I went to Vanderbilt to serve as CEO, one of the things that Gary asked of me was to invest time in the next generation of leaders. That is something that I have honored and felt good about. At Vanderbilt and Loyola, we have a fellowship program similar to the fellowship that Gary developed.

I feel it is important to invest time developing leaders. As part of a senior management team, we're not only running an organization, we are also teaching. By developing people, in mentorship or elsewhere, I have learned to lead.

Q: In your years of experience, what are some traits you have found it important for healthcare leaders to have that withstand the test of time?

GM: If I look at leaders I respect, their personalities and management styles may be very different. What is most important is that a leader should have a strong set of values. Values need not be identical. There is not one set that will make you successful. But it is important to be grounded in a belief system that is consistent with the organization's values and traditions and that provides context for making decisions. The CEO must be a role model and teacher in this regard.

When I was at Northwestern, we not only recruited people with talent who could contribute, but also candidates who were grounded in their personal values. Annually, we evaluated all members of the management team both on their performance and on their commitment to the organizations values. It was important to the strength and success of our organization.

LG: Along with those, it is also important for leaders to know themselves and their organization. They should have the ability to know what they need to do and what can be done in an organization.

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