Leading by example: Q&A with St. Joseph's CEO Ben Koppelman

In spite of his relative youth, Ben Koppelman, 42, has accomplished a great deal.

At 22, he began his career as an administrator at Albany (Minn.) Area Hospital and Medical Center. Almost 12 years later, he moved to St. Joseph's Area Health Services in Park Rapids, Minn., where he was later named CEO. He was named to the Becker's list of "Rising Stars: 25 Healthcare Leaders Under Age 40" in 2011 and 2012.

St. Joseph's is a 25-bed critical access hospital located in a city of 3,000 in northern Minnesota. The city is 190 miles from Minneapolis and 22 miles from Itasca State Park, which contains the headwaters of the Mississippi River.

Here Mr. Koppelman discusses his prior experiences, critical access hospitals and being a young leader.

Question: When you started as an administrator at Albany Area Hospital and Medical Center, you were only 22 but you helped turn the hospital around. What were the challenges and benefits of doing so, especially at a young age?

Ben Koppelman: The biggest challenge for me was trying to get up to speed quickly and gain the trust of the staff at such a young age. I felt a lot of pressure to ensure the organization could be viable for the community. I knew jobs and lives could be impacted if the organization's financial performance was not improved. The opportunity helped me mature more quickly as a professional and had a significant impact on the leader I am today.

Q: You joined the St. Joseph's team in 2007, and you are now responsible for strategic, operational and financial management of the hospital. How do you balance the many hats you wear in your leadership role?

BK: In healthcare everybody wears multiple hats, but you see it especially in rural healthcare. To be successful, you have to hire the right people and rely on them to provide leadership. You have to continue to make sure you take the time to work on the important things that will drive the organization's success, culture, vision and strategy. To be successful long-term, you have to think about these things every day.

Q: What are the challenges of leading employees who are older than you?

BK: I expected it to be more of a challenge, especially when I first started. But I discovered that it was really not an issue.

If you gain the trust of the people you're working with and they know they can count on you and that you'll be open to their ideas, people will accept the fact that you don't have all the answers. I have found that staff members respond well to [my] leading by example and treating them as respected and valued team members.

Q: How would your role as a leader have been different had you been named CEO of a non-critical access hospital?

BK: The biggest difference is being able to really know your staff [here]. People are your most important asset, and I enjoy the fact that I know all 330 members of our staff. I wouldn't be able to do that if I were in a more metropolitan or urban setting.

Q: You have also worked with a local youth drug and alcohol task force to develop education and intervention in the local schools and community. Can you discuss how you became interested in this initiative as well as your current involvement with it?

BK: We began by doing a community health assessment, and we found that drug and alcohol issues had risen more to the top in terms of the community's concerns. In 2011, we were able to get a grant through our state and partner on a five-year initiative through the local school to work specifically on alcohol use. We think improving the health and wellness of our community, especially through youth, is important.

More and more people are realizing now that there's so much more to good health than the care you receive in the physician's office or hospital. We're trying to get upstream and change social norms to impact the health of the communities we serve.

Q: What is one piece of advice you have for young or new CEOs?

BK: The biggest thing is to build relationships with people. Have an open-door policy and listen to your staff and then be consistent in your behavior. I am a firm believer in servant leadership. I believe it sets the right example and others will follow your lead.

More CEO interviews:
Making a connection: 4 thoughts from William Kenley, CEO of Methodist Le Bonheur Germantown Hospital
MetroHealth CEO Dr. Akram Boutros on healthcare in 2030
4 questions with Palo Alto County Health System CEO Desiree Einsweiler

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