Retiring CEO Bill Thompson reflects on 36 years with SSM Health

William P. Thompson has served as president and CEO of St. Louis-based SSM Health since August 2011, and has been with the health system since 1980. Before stepping into his current role, Mr. Thompson served in various leadership positions at SSM Health, including president and COO and senior vice president of strategic development.

During his 36-year tenure, he has seen the organization grow into one of the largest integrated Catholic nonprofit health systems in the U.S. That growth included numerous acquisitions, such as Dean Health System in Madison, Wis., and Saint Louis University Hospital.

Now, Mr. Thompson is retiring.

"I had made the decision a number of years ago that I would retire when I reached 67, which will be next year," he says. "I think it's in the best interest of the organization to have planned transitions of senior leadership, and I think it's in the best interest of myself. I'm still healthy enough and young enough that I can now pursue some other interests I would like to pursue and hopefully enjoy the next phase of my life."

Mr. Thompson talked to Becker's Hospital Review about his time at SSM Health and his plans after retirement.

Note: Responses have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Question: What led you to a career in healthcare?

Bill Thompson: I always had an interest, even in high school. I was very fortunate to be invited to participate in a Medical Explorers Post [for high school students who are interested in healthcare careers]. I got a little more behind the curtains look at what healthcare would look like [as a career], and particularly hospital operations. I had looked at going undergraduate. I was preparing for medical school. I decided at some point the clinical side of the equation just wasn't my forte, but I remembered the contributions that the hospital executive was making to the organization's advancement. And later on I married a nurse and had more exposure to healthcare from that, and decided when I got finished with my undergraduate degree that pursuing a master's in hospital administration would allow me to continue my serving through a medical or healthcare-related career, which I did.

Q: You've been with SSM Health 36 years. What drew you in and kept you at the health system?

BT: Lucky, I guess. I worked for a couple of years and was considering going back to law school. I got a phone call from a sister who was the president of St. Mary's Hospital in the Kansas City, Mo., area. She invited me to come for an interview, which I did. Things seemed to click. I made a decision then to hand in my pursuit of a law degree and move to Kansas City to take on an assistant administrator position at St. Mary's Hospital, which was an SSM hospital. Fortunately, through the years I have been given more and more responsibilities, additional challenges, and have always felt an attachment to the mission and values of the organization. I worked with the sisters for so long. They felt very much like family. I was fortunate enough what I wanted to do and what the system wanted me to do matched so well, and I stayed for 36 years.

Q: Throughout your career as a healthcare leader, what accomplishment are you most proud of?

BT: What I'm most proud of is the fact I get to work with 30,000 people who are committed to furthering the mission of SSM Health and providing exceptional healthcare services. It is my honor and privilege to now be the leader of that organization, but those people who surround or who are in the organization, who are delivering care at exceptional high levels, they really give me the greatest source of pride. One thing we do is we invite employees and patients and volunteers to speak at a leadership conference as to those things that they have done that they believe truly reflect the value of SSM Health. And what they air makes one swell with pride, really. Exceptional stories of people serving other people, going beyond the basic needs to extend the care. It's just a remarkable time to be part of healthcare, and to listen to these people and what they do every day. The people who were invited to this, they represent a fraction of what goes on every day at this organization.

Q: What's one of the most memorable pieces of advice you've received throughout your career?

BT: The one thing Sister Mary Jean Ryan, former CEO of SSM Health, always said and I've taken to heart is leadership exists at all levels of your organization, it's not just people who hold titles of vice presidents or presidents or other things like that. Leadership is really found in the frontline employees and all kinds of professions. As an organization, we have to be able to tap into that leadership regardless of where it is and engage people across the system in helping us improve the care we're giving, improve the processes to ultimately better serve the mission of the organization.

Q: Any future plans you can share?

BT: I intend to remain the president and CEO until a successor is named. I promised the board that I would do that. And it just depends on how long the search process takes. I also just recently bought five acres of property in Michigan and plan to build a home on that property and at least spend summers there. And then there are other things I would like to explore — taking classes, potentially teaching a little bit, do some travel. As I've talked to others of my generation who have recently retired, the biggest advantage of being retired is you can choose what you want to do and what you don't want to do. As a senior leader of a healthcare organization, you really are on 24/7. Even on vacation you tend to be checking emails and everything else. So it'll be nice to get up in the morning and realize you don't have to worry about the emails, the latest crisis.

 

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