Montefiore CEO Dr. Steven Safyer believes young leaders should possess this trait

After spending nearly three decades progressing through the ranks and helping drive improvements at New York City-based Montefiore Medical Center, Steven Safyer, MD, saw his efforts recognized in 2008 when he was appointed president and CEO.

Prior to his chief executive role, Dr. Safyer served in several leadership roles at Montefiore, including senior vice president and CMO from 1998 to 2008.  

Under his leadership, Montefiore has expanded into a network consisting of 11 hospitals, more than 180 primary and specialty care clinics and an extended care facility. In addition, his guidance helped establish a formal affiliation with the New York City-based Albert Einstein College of Medicine. 

Here, Dr. Safyer discusses his proudest moments as CEO, describes the unique challenges academic medical center executives face and divulges the trait he wishes more emerging leaders possessed. 

Editor's note: Responses have been lightly edited for length and style.

Question: What has been one of your proudest moments at Montefiore Medicine?   

Dr. Steven Safyer: In a 40-year career at Montefiore it is close to impossible for me to single out just one of my proudest moments since there are many. But I would say the formal integration of Albert Einstein College of Medicine with Montefiore Health System tops the list. This was a defining moment for us, establishing us as one of the most unique, premier academic health systems in the nation.  I really can't overestimate the importance of combining our talents: a progressive, integrated health system united with a great medical school and biomedical research powerhouse. It enables us to translate research to cutting edge patient care.

My second proudest moment, which is directly related to our pioneering research and care, would be the successful separation of the conjoined twins Jadon and Anias MacDonald in October 2016.  These babies not only shared bone but they shared brain. It was a procedure few people in the world could even attempt.  Our neurosurgeon James Goodrich, MD, has done five of these surgeries. We did it and succeeded because we had the talent and the medical knowledge.  That was an incredibly proud moment for me personally and professionally.

Q: Can you describe a few unique challenges academic medical center CEOs face?

SS: It's all about the importance of research. We have got to draw the best talent to secure the most National Institutes of Health grants, and to develop the treatments and cures of tomorrow. The medical college, the Einstein name, and our long tradition of pioneering bench-to-bedside research allow us to attract the best talent in the world. 

The "challenge" for a CEO is that research does not pay for itself; it often loses money. Donors want to invest in initiatives that are going to change the world and improve the human condition and outstanding clinicians want to be associated with a research-based medical school. My challenge is to keep both the research and the philanthropy moving ahead at full steam.

Q: If you could change one thing about healthcare overnight, what would that be?

SS: There's no question we must move away from fee-for-service medicine, and embrace the value-based care model. We need to be rewarded for keeping people healthy, not for keeping people in the hospital. It's well documented that people do much better when the system is rewarded by keeping the patients well, as opposed to waiting for people to get sick. Value-based care is the only way to spend less and get a better outcome.

Q: How do you maintain you and your team's daily motivation and inspiration despite obstacles, pushbacks or setbacks?      

SS: I always take the high ground and I urge everyone else to do the same. There will always be obstacles, setbacks and naysayers. It is important to always remember the amazing work we do here every single day. We offer comprehensive care that wraps around our communities and neighbors. That means we don't just take on complicated cases, but we care for everyone who walks in our doors. That's a lot to be proud of. 

In addition, we motivate and inspire people by providing them with good jobs and opportunities for professional growth. Montefiore Health System is an economic engine in the region we serve, employing 35,000 people. We're not just about healthcare; we're also about meaningful jobs. I think that's inspiring.

Q: What leadership traits do you wish you saw more of from emerging leaders? 

SS: They need to be mission focused. It has to be the mission, not the margin. I think it's a mistake to make the margin your goal. The goal has to be caring for people.  For example, let's go back to what I was saying about the challenges faced by a CEO of an academic medical center. Yes, I need to fundraise and excite our philanthropic community. But I can't do that without successfully showing them the amazing, mission-focused research our scientists and doctors are involved in. Our mission of taking care of people has to be at the center of everything we do. Success follows from there.

Q: If you could pass along one nugget of advice to another hospital CEO, what would it be?

SS: Believe in yourself! We all know that healthcare is in a period of profound transformation and disruption. You have to have strong convictions and a clear vision of the future to make real change and to bring people along with you, so when you see the path, move forward with confidence and stick to your guns.

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