How Bon Secours Mercy Health's president built a 32-year career — and guided a significant merger

For Brian Smith, home has always been Bon Secours Mercy Health. He spent 32 years at the system, serving in human resources and operations roles before becoming integral to the merger that created one of the nation's largest Catholic health systems. 

As he looks ahead to his Dec. 31 retirement, Mr. Smith connected with Becker's to reflect on his career, from lessons learned to lessons taught. 

Note: Responses have been lightly edited for length. 

Q: You spent 32 years at Mercy Health — more than four of those following the merger that created Bon Secours Mercy Health. What kept you in one place when executive turnover is generally so high? 

Brian Smith: The folks who were leading my very first orientation at St. Rita's [Medical Center]  talked about how this is a place that you can come to work every day and wear your values on your sleeve. And that has rang true for 32 years. 

It's so important in this day and age to work for an employer that is aligned with your values, and for me, I never wanted to go anywhere else after that. You get to come and be your authentic self every day, and that's so important to how you spend your career, the people you work with and what you can do as a servant leader within the ministry. So to me, the values of the organization kind of hooked me as soon as I showed up and it's really been what's continued to drive me over these past 30-plus years.

What benefits do you see of "seeing it through" with one health system? 

BS: I think that you need a mix of folks on your team, a diversity of opinion, a diversity of thought, a diversity of gender, race, age — and tenure. I think sometimes tenure is overlooked. Oftentimes you need that historical reference, or you have to understand the path by which you've come. No matter what happens, we are all part of a long, proud healthcare tradition that dates back to the 1820s. Our job is to continue to help promote this ministry and see it through. 

And to that end, having that connection to that history and tradition is important, but you don't stand on it, either. You need to be able to make changes and be flexible and adapt as you go forward. But I find having a diversity of tenure within any of the leadership teams is great. And the fact you create opportunities to self-actualize and grow within the organization also is a great way to keep the culture moving and help maintain those key values that are integral to the success of the organization. 

Q: And you've come to "self-actualize" at Bon Secours Mercy Health, moving through a series of roles throughout your career. Before moving into hospital operations, you spent 22 years in human resources. How did your HR background prepare you to take on COO, and later become the health system's president? 

BS: In the late '90s I moved into accepting some operational roles, and then some strategy and physician development roles, but all through that course of time human resources remained part of my portfolio.

When you look at a health system, you have so many distinct roles and responsibilities — like any other complex organization. [Human resources] forces you to learn and understand how they all relate in this large system. And I think that perspective of being a generalist and understanding as much as you can about the entirety of the system and that collection of processes is crucially important. It was such a great learning environment for me, coming in new to healthcare, to see and experience that from the bottom up. 

People and associates that work for this organization are the lifeblood of this organization. And our employees are absolutely critical to our success. Understanding how to create value for an employee and looking at it through that lens is critical. I think my preparation in HR has always kept that front and center for me as I have to make difficult decisions or evaluate new opportunities. 

Q: One such opportunity was the merger between Bon Secours Health System and Mercy Health — you were integral to the operation that created the fifth largest Catholic health system in the U.S. As more health systems look toward integration to alleviate financial pressures and consolidate resources, what advice would you give to ensure such endeavors are successful? 

BS: First and foremost, be decisive and precise about what the objective is you're trying to achieve as you come together. That work has to really take place early on in the process. Once you determine what that outcome is, what that vision is, you have to be bold and understand that every decision you make is not based on the full amount of knowledge you may think you need. 

But pace is your friend. At the start, I think we were concerned we were going too fast. In retrospect, what we did really separated us from others and allowed us to quickly move into what we called "new ministry," which was a shared culture and shared value system with shared objectives. As a result we were actually able to improve quality the very first year we were together, improve retention, and help reduce cost for the communities which we serve by being that decisive. 

Q: Would you consider that the biggest success of your career? What else are you most proud of? 

BS: I think the merger and being able to move as quickly as we did — and thank goodness we did, who knew right around the corner we'd have the pandemic? — so we had one year of a clean runway and then the pandemic hit. Thank goodness we had spent the time building the culture together and those shared accountabilities and shared work structures because it allowed us to pivot very quickly in the throes of an uncertain time. 

The other thing I'm most proud of is the number of folks who have come through our leadership academy, both at Bon Secours and Mercy Health, who have continued to build careers with the ministry. I've been able to watch them grow and take greater and greater responsibility. To be able to help them achieve their career aspirations, that's been super fulfilling from my perspective —  and one of the things I'm going to miss most heading into retirement is the opportunity to coach, and to help develop other leaders and watch them step up into greater roles. 

Q: If you could go back to the start of your career, what would you tell that past version of yourself? 

BS: Pope Francis had a calling that asked him to speak boldly and listen carefully. With a lot of young leaders, I had some problems with the "speak boldly" part. I think listening skills and listening to what someone needs in that communication transaction is huge. Today, when we have less in-person communication among leadership ranks and more virtual, it's going to become more and more critical that we hone our listening skills and truly seek to understand. 

As a young leader, learning to listen is truly a skillset. Not everyone is good at it and not everyone knows how to focus into it. I wish early on in my career someone had pulled me aside and said, "Speaking up is great, but listening is just as important."

Q: What are you looking most forward to in your retirement? 

BS: Well, honestly a lot of the cliche things. A little traveling, catching up on some things I've set aside. But more importantly, I want to see what the next chapter holds. I certainly think I'm going to stay involved in some way, shape or form in helping young leaders and helping others. 

I'm looking forward to some downtime, some renewal time. I think that that's important for leaders, to make sure you take that time to renew and find out what your purpose is. For me, the next six months are going to be understanding what the next part of my career looks like.

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