Michael Dowling: CEOs — Give a damn about your people

Michael Dowling, President and CEO, Northwell Health - Print  | 

For the first time in history, healthcare surpassed manufacturing and retail in 2017 to become the largest source of U.S. jobs. Healthcare's role as an employer is expected to grow through 2026, adding about 2.4 million jobs in a decade to an industry that already employs more than 13 million people.

While the workforce of Northwell Health makes up a fraction of the nation's healthcare jobs, investing in our 68,000 associates is my most defining and crucial responsibility as president and CEO. If you are fortunate enough to call yourself a healthcare leader, the same is true for you. 

Make no mistake, we will confront macro issues of healthcare at a steady clip leading into the 2020 presidential election. As a nation and industry, we must reckon with serious questions about healthcare costs, funding and access, but we must do so while being deeply in tune with our people and ensuring they understand that the work they do is extraordinary.

For the executive who doesn't think they have enough time to invest in their people, I have two questions. 1). What are you really doing with your time? And 2). What could possibly be more important than your people? If we can't find time to be with employees who do all the work and deliver the care, then what the hell are we doing as leaders?

I have been CEO at Northwell for 17 years, but every Monday at 10 a.m. I get to experience the very first day of work for approximately 180 new hires we welcome at our headquarters with a program called "New Beginnings." I join the group for at least two hours, which contrasts with many "orientations" where the CEO stops by to share a boilerplate welcome message, and then goes on his or her way with little interaction. I have no interest in taking that approach with people who, in a matter of days, will influence the lives of our patients and families for years to come.

What do we do during our time together? A lot. First, these 180 incomers have a chance to write down on notecards any question they'd like to ask me. The curiosities vary. What's it like to be CEO? What are the greatest challenges you face right now? What is your favorite restaurant? What do you do in your free time? I answer all. Then we discuss the history of our organization, which is essential. After all, if you don't know where you come from, it's hard to know where you are and where you're going.

I illustrate the connectivity of our health system, and how every department, site and person is interdependent. In most health systems, employees are immediately placed in a department or unit upon their hiring, and it is very difficult for them to see how that one division works with the rest of the organization. I want them to understand the totality and mission of the health system. We are stronger when our employees see how all the pieces of our organization are connected, and every person knows his or her work is important.  

I spend a lot of time explaining to our new employees that Northwell is not just about hospitals. We have 23 of them, but we also have 720 ambulatory locations — and about 40 percent of our revenue is generated by our outpatient services and post-acute services — and large research and academic enterprises that include medical and nursing schools, a graduate school of molecular medicine, and 162 residency and fellowship programs that train more than 1,800 clinicians. I also talk about healthcare's competitive marketplace, and the role of corporate giants like Amazon, Google, CVS Health and Walgreens who are looking to dramatically increase their role in the provider business.

In a room filled with new faces, fresh ambitions and curiosity, I spend a lot of time on our values — compassion, teamwork and innovation. Recognizing the diversity of the communities we serve, I also reinforce the importance of understanding and appreciating our cultural differences.    

I have been a regular at New Beginnings for at least 14 years — and people remember. Wherever I travel across the region, I routinely run into staff who recognize me — I would never be able to slip into the rank-and-file as an "Undercover Boss."

New Beginnings occurs once a week, but I interact with employees regularly on countless other occasions. For example, every week for three straight months, my COO, CMO and I spend up to three hours at "town hall" meetings with middle managers, supervisors and front-line staff, visiting our corporate offices, centralized administrative facilities, ambulatory facilities, home care offices and hospitals. Employees can ask us questions about anything. They have a desire to learn, because the more they know the more they know they belong.

Beyond that, I regularly meet with groups of employees for breakfast and then individually as opportunities unfold. This past week, I met with three employees one-on-one. One gentleman who is earning his master's degree asked to interview me for a paper on leadership. I said "yes," which is my universal response when employees ask to meet.

And while the time I set aside for Northwell employees builds familiarity and trust, it also helps ensure that we don't get too comfortable as an organization. During our time together, I always find a way to encourage employees to look at Northwell from the outside in, not only from the inside out. When you walk into your workplace, imagine you are not an employee but a patient. As employees, we can often become oblivious to our surroundings, looking at things but not really seeing them. If a patient walks into one of our hospitals and sees a garbage can overflowing, she will notice. If she sees two employees arguing, she will grow concerned and wonder what they are talking about.

The ultimate goal with New Beginnings and the time I spend with employees is to ensure that they feel a sense of belonging and understand that every patient interaction is an opportunity to make a positive impression. Every one of us will be a patient at one time or another in our lives, so let’s treat people like we would want to be treated.

Invest in your people. Give them your time, answers, ears, attention, perspective and, perhaps every now and then, selfies. Healthcare has its challenges, but nothing gets done without teams of people. Working in this profession is not a job — it's a privilege and responsibility.

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