'Listen and respond accordingly': 5 hospital CEOs share advice for successors

When a healthcare leader takes the helm of a hospital, they bring with them advice from mentors as well as their own career learning experiences. Now, five CEOs — one who recently retired and four preparing to do so — shared their advice with Becker's Hospital Review, from setting one's ego aside to engaging with the community.

Richard Allen, CEO of Palmdale (Calif.) Regional Medical Center (announced retirement effective in May). I was fortunate to begin my career at Good Samaritan Hospital in Portland, Ore., under the tutelage of Chester Stocks — a true luminary in hospital administration. Chet, as he was often called, opined that for the most part, hospitals have existed well before the arrival of the chief executive officer and will also exist well beyond their exit. 

The primary imperative from his perspective was for the chief executive officer to always leave the organization in a better place than it was before his/her arrival. Certainly, COVID and the current economic crisis have created new and significant challenges for the administrative ranks, especially with workforce management.

For any incoming chief executive:

  • Trust your people.
  • Listen more than you speak.
  • Place a better focus on staff visibility.
  • Never be too quick to judge.
  • Understand that ego has no place in leadership.
  • Become involved in the community.
  • Be a student of the organization's culture.
  • Don't race to make change.
  • Demonstrate a balanced demeanor, don’t over celebrate the highs and overreact to the lows.
  • Live a balanced life (we all have families).

We are entering into a very disruptive phase for hospital management. Despite the turbulence, it is absolutely critical to own the fact that we exist for one reason and that is to ensure we maintain the trust we have with our communities and the patients we serve. That trust can be maintained if we ensure our healthcare providers are safe and valued. 

I have the utmost confidence that we will do it successfully because, at the soul, that is what drives us.

Karen Barber, RN, CEO of Yoakum (Texas) Community Hospital (announced retirement in July). My advice to current and future CEOs is to know the culture of your hospital, know and have a relationship with your staff and get to know your patients. Never make a knee-jerk decision and be sure any decisions you make are not self-serving but rather always for the benefit of the hospital, patients and staff. Have strong core values and set the example. We stand by our R.I.S.E. (Respect, Integrity, Stewardship and Excellence) values.  

Jim Davis, president and CEO of Piedmont Augusta (Ga.) and Thomson, Ga.-based Piedmont McDuffie (announced retirement in August). Make a plan that is centered around improving the quality and safety of the care you provide. Do your best to keep care affordable for your community. Create an environment that allows people to do meaningful work and advance their careers. Assemble a great team to implement the plan. Finally, remember what a wonderful career this is as you can help individuals in their greatest time of need. It doesn't get much better than that.

Barry Ostrowsky, president and CEO of RWJBarnabas Health (West Orange, N.J.) (retiring at the end of the year). If there is one thing that my tenure as president and CEO of RWJBarnabas Health has taught me, it is the necessity of being truly in, and of, the communities we serve. All the resources at our disposal — the best-in-class care providers, the cutting-edge innovations, the new facilities — are wonderful tools, but you have to know how and where to apply them to best serve the people around you. Engage with local leaders, talk with small-business owners and listen to your patients and neighbors. Find out where they need help and be ready to build your strategic plan around that input, not the other way around. If our trusted community partners tell us that a lack of job opportunity is hurting vulnerable populations in the area and preventing people from living their healthiest lives, that’s where we focus our time and money. If we discover that our patients living in food deserts in Newark aren't able to afford fresh and healthy produce and are therefore dealing with the health ramifications of poor nutrition, we enlist the support of our greenhouses and our mobile food van to address that need. Advancing community health and well-being requires resources, investment and thoughtful strategy, but it also requires trust — trust that you as an organization are willing to listen and ready to respond accordingly.

Sheldon "Shelly" Stein, president and CEO of Mt. Washington Pediatric Hospital (Baltimore) (announced retirement in May). As hospital leaders, we are merely facilitators. Our role is to provide the necessary resources, tools and support for our staff so they can provide the best quality of care possible for the patients we serve. This is why it's critical to be a visible leader. By regularly walking around and talking to your hospital staff, you will get to know them on a personal level and build trust. Connecting on this level will help you to detect issues much earlier and to uncover where support is needed, ultimately leading to the hospital running better and improving your team's quality of life. 

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