Meet the 24-year-old running a Colorado hospital

At age 22, Aidan Hettler didn't expect to get the job.

Mr. Hettler, a graduate of Colorado State University's business school, had no healthcare experience. He was working remotely at the time as a subcontract administrator for Lockheed Martin, a Bethesda, Md.-based global security and aerospace company. That's when a leader at Sedgwick County Health Center in Julesburg, Colo., reached out to him about applying for the rural hospital's CEO role.

Mr. Hettler told Becker's he never considered going into healthcare before that, and in fact, he enjoyed being part of supply chain functions and at the time was planning on getting a master's degree in systems engineering. But, although he was hesitant, the hospital leader convinced him to apply.

"I thought, 'I'll just apply and see what happens. Surely I won't get an interview. Surely there will be other candidates,'" Mr. Hettler said. However, "I got an interview, and when the call came to schedule the interview, I thought, 'Well, surely it'll be just an interview, and it'll be good interview experience.'"

The interview ended up including board members and department managers. 

"And fortunately, I had brought this whole packet of information about what I knew about the organization and its current state, where I thought it needed to go based on what limited knowledge I did have about healthcare and what I could research. And then I kind of married that with my leadership style and my vision for leadership," he said.

Mr. Hettler, now 24, ended up getting the job and has helmed the hospital since September 2022. He thinks his lack of healthcare experience may have actually worked in his favor.

"I think the board was willing to take a chance on me because they hired a lot of CEOs in the past that came to the interview and have all of this healthcare experience, and they'll do this and they'll do that and then, it didn't really always pan out that way," he said. "So I think that they were willing to take a gamble on someone who I think they felt had the heart for this and had the mindset and willingness to learn. 

"I'm forever grateful that they saw that in me and were willing to give me this opportunity. It's been incredible stepping into this world and learning everything that I have learned since I started."

One thing he's learned: How to navigate relationships, "because being a leader is really all about the relationships in my perception. It's really all about the relationships you have with people who work under you and the people who you work for."

"I've definitely had fumbles and missteps as a leader. Anybody does. But it's been really cool figuring out how you tailor things to individuals to make sure it resonates with them while still conveying the strategic message of the organization and getting everyone aligned on the same page," Mr. Hettler said. 

These relationships include those he has with employees through what he described as servant leadership. For example, he has picked up shifts as a dietary cook at the hospital.

"I'm not afraid to get in there right alongside them and figure out what we need to do to move forward together. And I'm certainly not perfect at supporting everywhere that everybody needs it. But I feel like whenever things come down to it and the team really needs some help, I think they know that I've got their back," he said. "That's what servant leadership really means to me."

In terms of organizational strategy, Mr. Hettler said Sedgwick County Health Center has focused on reducing reliance on travel staff and improving its financial picture, among other priorities. 

He said the hospital is also focused on establishing new partnerships with larger health systems to attract specialists and create equitable access for those who live in the surrounding rural areas. 

"Our commitment goes beyond just your organization," he said. "You're looking out for the wellness of the entire county and the areas we serve because the reality is these are agricultural communities. The health centers are the cornerstone of the foundation of the entire economy. Everybody either knows or is related to someone who works here at the health center. So, our success is so much more than just any other business surviving. It's for the whole survival of the county."

As he moves toward these efforts, he has sought a mentor in Kevin Stansbury, CEO of Hugo, Colo.-based Lincoln Community Hospital and Care Center. He also enrolled in the Value Institute for Health and Care at UT Austin to complete a master's degree in healthcare transformation.

Still, the fact that he is likely the youngest or among the youngest hospital CEOs in the U.S. isn't lost on him. The average age of CEOs across industries is 59, according to research from consulting firm Korn Ferry. But Mr. Hettler said he has been pleasantly surprised at the overall positive reception he has received from people.

"It's a privilege to be here," Mr. Hettler said. "I'm very lucky as a young person to be in this role. And I recognize, too, that I've got a role in establishing the precedent of what young people can do for places like this and anywhere."

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