Karen Teitelbaum says goodbye to Sinai

Karen Teitelbaum will be stepping down from her post as CEO of Sinai Chicago at the end of the year. She has been with the health system since 2007, first as executive vice president and COO before becoming president and CEO in 2014. Ms. Teitelbaum spoke to Becker's in October about her greatest challenges and successes over the last 14 years and her plans for the future. 

Editor's note: This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Question: What are your plans following your departure from Sinai? 

Karen Teitelbaum: I think if I were thinking about running another hospital, I wouldn't have left Sinai. I'm really excited about staying in healthcare, but I'll be doing some work from a different perspective. I'm doing some board work, all for healthcare-related companies, mostly private equity, and I'm providing a provider perspective on those boards. I am also going to be a senior advisor with different healthcare-focused boards, either doing projects or working on mergers and acquisitions. And I'm looking for opportunities if the city has any need for volunteering in the health education and social services space. And I'll be continuing with my mentoring work, both in the United States and in Kenya. I have an unpaid position as a visiting guest lecturer at Kenya Methodist University, and I taught graduate school classes there.

Q: This has been an especially challenging year in healthcare. What have been some of the biggest lessons you've learned as CEO of Sinai Chicago during the pandemic?

KT: I think certainly the criticality of working as a team and not only internally. For example, there was a group of eight hospital CEOs in Chicago that were on a call three times a week from March until June, along with the Illinois Health and Hospital Association and the Chicago Department of Public Health. And we were coordinating bed equipment details for the field hospital. I think  that was just immensely important during that time. And I think that once you manage through that kind of dynamic —which I hope, once we get out of this, I don't have that experience again — you realize how [important] those partnerships are.

And I think too, the greatest joy, when I think about my time [at Sinai], has been the caregiver relationships. One thing that we try to do is we try to create career paths. So that always gives me a lot of joy; to see colleagues that I respect so much advance.

And I think being an active part of the healthcare ecosystem in Illinois and Chicago has been important. I was board chair of the [Illinois] Health and Hospital Association this year, so it was just great timing. And [our involvement with] community organizations like North Lawndale Community Coordinating Council and Southwest Organizing Project on the South Side — those are the things that I think have been really important in helping me do the best job I can.

Q: Outside of the pandemic, what have been some of your biggest challenges and your biggest successes as CEO?

KT: You know, an interesting question. I think the biggest challenge was also the biggest success, which was getting Sinai to stability and growth. When I joined in 2007, we were at two days cash on hand, and we had been on two days cash on hand forever. When I moved into the CEO position, one of the priorities I had was to get us to a point of stability and growth and get us out of this existential threat that you always have with two days cash on hand. And now we have over a hundred days cash on hand. We are budgeting for that to go down slightly, but it is not anywhere near two days cash on hand at this point. 

In 2017, we had a negative $14 million [earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization]. In June we finished our fiscal year with a positive $55 million EBITDA. 

Diversity is something I'm also proud of. We established a [diversity, equity and inclusion] office a couple of years ago, and at that time, about 38 percent of our management was of color. And now, two years later, we're over 50 percent and continuing to grow.

Bringing Ogden Commons to reality is also something I'm proud of. [Ogden Commons is a mixed-use development project in Chicago's North Lawndale neighborhood.] This was a project that we'd been working on for more than a decade. Ogden Commons is the largest real estate investment in North Lawndale in more than a decade. We are the anchor tenant in the first building coming up, and we're moving our ambulatory care surgery and dialysis programs there. Those are highly used programs because of the level of disease in our community. We're moving those into this beautiful brand-new site to increase accessibility. And then there's retail coming, and Wintrust bank is putting a branch there. So our community members will have access to things that we take for granted.

And then, finally, we finalized a partnership with [Chicago-based] DePaul University and our Sinai Urban Health Institute, which is our research institute. Our partnership looks at delving into the reasons for urban health disparities, looking at what possible solutions are, and then piloting those solutions through Sinai.

Q: Why do you feel that now is the time to step down?

KT: It took me a while to get to this point. I have devoted so much of my time to Sinai and it has really been a passion of mine. I've never stayed at any other job for this long. It's endlessly rewarding, endlessly interesting. In 2014 I stood in front of my board at the time and kind of went through my priorities for Sinai, and it included getting us to a stable place, it included Ogden Commons and bringing that to reality, it included making the commitment for a new electronic medical record, internally building a strong team — we have dedicated caregivers and we've really built that team to be even stronger than they were.

And we've got an amazingly diverse and nationally recognized team at this point, people who are so dedicated to the mission. Those were things that I promised the board, and myself. I've done those things and managed through the pandemic. And I started thinking, you know, if I'm going to make a move to look at other aspects of healthcare, I can leave knowing that Sinai is in such a good spot right now. 

Q: What is your advice for other health systems CEOs?

KT: I would say a few things. One is to find colleagues to be your sounding board, because truly, when you're in this position, there are very few colleagues within your own organization with whom you can have those direct discussions about being at that level and figuring out certain issues. I'd say, understand how to get the best from your board. Leverage the skills and experience that you have on the board. I'd hire a strong team and deliberately create a team culture and not just assume it's going to happen. You know, these are lessons learned. Another thing that was very, very helpful to me is expanding beyond healthcare to get a broader perspective of the community that we serve, the city that we serve.

I sit on the Illinois Business Immigration Council, which is tremendously eye opening because many of the people in our communities are immigrants. I'm a member of the Economic Club of Chicago and the Commercial Club of Chicago. It's important for me to hear from the civic leaders in our community and their views on the city rather than just listen to other healthcare people. I recommend that routinely to people that I mentor now.

Q: Where do you think all of your passion and your drive comes from?

KT: I honestly think it comes from the way that I was brought up. My father was the ultimate New York liberal. I grew up in Brooklyn, and for my entire childhood and teenage years, he frequently spoke about the need to serve others and how important that was. He died when I was very young. I always thought that of all the jobs I've held, this job would have made him the most proud.

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