Jazz, motorbikes and sleeping in: 5 retiring CEOs reminisce on their tenure, share plans for the future

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As the healthcare industry continues to adapt to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the list of CEOs announcing their upcoming retirement continues to grow. Five CEOs of healthcare companies, health systems and hospitals reminisced on their time leading their companies, discussed the handover and shared their hopes for the future with Becker's.

Here is the list of responses: 

Editor's note: Responses have been lightly edited for style and clarity.

Marna Borgstrom, CEO of Yale New Haven (Conn.) Health, will step down from her position at the hospital in March after starting her time there in 1979 as an administrative fellow.

Question: How are you preparing for your upcoming retirement and departure? 

Marna Borgstrom: I am spending time talking with respected former colleagues who have already retired to learn what they did that helped them make a smooth transition, as well as what they wished they had done differently. As a result, I am (so far) resisting the temptation to fill up my schedule, which would feel more normal to me, but won't allow me to experience one of the primary purposes of being retired: having time to do things spontaneously that I want to do.

Q: What are you looking forward to in retirement?  

MB: I am looking forward to the little things, i.e., not getting up at 5 a.m. every day to exercise before embarking on very long days with no down time. The thought of exercising at 7 a.m. feels almost sinful. More substantially, I am looking forward to taking some "bucket list" trips with my husband — going when we want, where we want, for as long as we want.

Q: What is your proudest/happiest memory from serving as CEO and president?  

MB: There are too many people and events that have been sources of incredible pride and admiration to select one. But perhaps because it is so recent, the accomplishments and tenacity of our leaders and other system staff during the pandemic fills me with great pride and gratitude. Our mantra was, "Whatever it takes to keep our staff and our patients safe." Our region peaked during the first wave of the pandemic when COVID treatments were evolving; we were all worried about having enough [personal protective equipment]; and everyone was afraid of the unknown. Yet they showed up and did their best work as an incredible team. It was magnificent to watch.

Bruce Peters, the president and CEO Dignity Health Mercy Hospitals Bakersfield (Calif.), plans to retire in January after almost two decades with the system.

Question: How are you preparing for your upcoming retirement and departure?  

Bruce Peters: I'm trying to prepare my team for the gap that will likely occur between my retirement and the arrival of a successor by wrapping up what projects I can, asking the team for advice on how I can facilitate anything they need help with, and generally making sure that nothing drops through the cracks. My major concern revolves around supporting our staff through the ongoing pandemic and doing what I can to ensure they are taken care of mentally and physically. The surges have been very hard on the staff, and the toll is significant on their health and well-being. That needs to be the main item that doesn't suffer during any gap to a successor.

Q: What are you looking forward to in retirement? 

BP: Most of the time, you hear people approaching retirement talk about spending more time with family. It may sound like a cliche answer, but it is far from that. For me, as I've grown older, the desire to spend more time with family and friends is the highest priority and consideration. I also intend to spend more time with my hobbies, which include flying, restoring classic cars, riding my motorcycle, etc. I definitely will not be spending my time on the couch watching reality shows!

Q: What is your proudest/happiest memory from serving as CEO and president?

BP: My proudest and happiest memories are from the people I've had the privilege of working with over the years. Healthcare and hospital work is like no other type of work, and it has been very meaningful to me to work in this field with some of the finest people in the world, sharing the same vision and values to help make things just a little bit better through our efforts. I am grateful for the opportunities I've had to be surrounded by some great people. 

Ed Liu, MD, is the president and CEO of the Maine-based Jackson Laboratory, a nonprofit biomedical research institution. He previously served as the president of the Human Genome Organization from 2007-13. He plans to retire in February. 

Question: How are you preparing for your upcoming retirement and departure?  

Dr. Ed Liu: I have been working with my colleagues and staff with developing transition plans with the new CEO, including structured conversations with me and some shadowing meetings. With the senior management and my board, I spent the last year in an exercise where I did four deep dives on our major initiatives. These were not to derive plans, but to get the board fully up to date on the initiatives, the challenges, and the key questions they and the new CEO would have to address. It was a very useful exercise that prepared the board for a truly informed discussion with the incoming CEO. On a personal level, I was preparing for my laboratory setup since I am staying on as research faculty. 

Q: What are you looking forward to in retirement? 

EL: I am very much looking forward to returning to my craft of fundamental and translational research, which has been somewhat neglected for almost 30 years. Despite my CEO responsibilities at the Jackson Laboratory, my research has been doing very well (almost a paradox), so devoting the appropriate energy to this endeavor is very timely. I want to spend more private time with my music — I play classical and jazz piano. So, the two endeavors are much more self-directed, and not perturbed by outside responsibilities. Lastly, I want to take a little time to contemplate what I might want to do that would exercise my experience and capabilities.    

Q: What is your proudest/happiest memory from serving as CEO and president?

EL: There are two: one that is quantitative, and the second that is emotional and qualitative.  First, in my 10-year administration, JAX has had an annual growth rate in revenues of 10 percent. We have doubled our faculty, expanded from two to seven campuses, increased our endowment by more than five times, and doubled our total workforce. Second, my happiest memories, however, are the individual interactions I have had with my co-workers and employees. The humor, the warmth and the music were so memorable. At JAX, we formed the Right Brain Café for several years; once a month on a Friday afternoon, many of us — from all ranks and departments — would get together to play music, exhibit our art, even compose poetry. The great "leveler" was our art and music by bypassing all trappings of rank and position.  

Penny Wheeler, MD, will retire from her role as CEO of Minneapolis-based Allina Health at the end of the year. She had a career that spanned decades at Allina and was the first physician and woman to take up the position. 

Question: How are you preparing for your upcoming retirement and departure?

Dr. Penny Wheeler: I am really fortunate with who the board selected as my successor. In Lisa Shannon, we have a leader who's ready and has just risen above every challenge. Lisa really doesn't need much help from me as she prepares to take over as CEO, so much of my preparation has been making sure I can visit with staff at every hospital and Allina Health facility across our system to express my deep gratitude for the work they do and the service they provide to the communities we serve.

Q: What are you looking forward to in retirement?

PW: Life has been very full in lots of ways, and the best advice I'm getting is, "Just let yourself be for a while and see what develops." I know something will surface, and I am committed to continuing to do everything possible to help our community heal. Allina Health is just eight blocks away from where George Floyd was murdered, and there is a rebuilding that is focused on equity and diversity, so I'll be looking to do something that supports the community that I've spent my life in.

Q: What is your proudest/happiest memory from serving as CEO and president?                                                                                                                                         

PW: It is impossible to pinpoint one memory. I have countless memories from those who I have been so privileged to meet along the way. The stories of our resilient and caring employees and the patients that we serve are what I will miss the most. My time at Allina Health has enabled me to fulfill my purpose to improve the lives of others as both a physician and as a leader. Yet, the timing is right for me to step away and I have tremendous gratitude and optimism for the future of Allina Health under Lisa Shannon's incredible leadership.

Dianne Shugrue, president and CEO of Glens Falls (N.Y.) Hospital, is set to retire at the end of this year.

Question: How are you preparing for your upcoming retirement and departure?  

Dianne Shugrue: Well, you want to run through the tape at the finish line — but you need to transition. I'm connecting and validating great relationships — not saying goodbye but making sure people are in a good place. There is a personal side and a professional side. So of course I am working closely with my successor, but making sure the organization does not miss a beat means more than just the nuts and bolts of day-to-day management.

Q: What are you looking forward to in retirement?  

DS: I look forward to giving as much time and energy to myself — nurturing friendships, learning new things, getting closer to family, exercise — as I have to this wonderful organization.

Q: What is your proudest/happiest memory from serving as president and CEO?  

DS: Without a doubt it is how we — I want to emphasize we — evolved and changed the culture here. Among my guiding principles are these: tell the truth, be transparent and always remember that the hospital's teams don't work for me — I work for them. Together I believe we have created a wonderful working environment. Of course it's not perfect, but for sure it is the thing I am most proud of.

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