'Sit at the next table up': Mount Carmel CEO Lorraine Lutton's advice for developing leaders

Lorraine Lutton joined Mount Carmel Health System as president and CEO in April 2020, near the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.

She was tasked with leading the Columbus, Ohio-based system of four acute care hospitals, an inpatient rehabilitation facility and network of outpatient facilities through the once-in-a-century global pandemic. 

Before joining Mount Carmel, Ms. Lutton served as president and CEO of Roper St. Francis Healthcare in Charleston, S.C., where she led a financial turnaround, and spent more than 20 years in Tampa, Fla., in various healthcare leadership roles. Specifically, Ms. Lutton was president of Tampa-based St. Joseph's Hospital, part of the Clearwater, Fla.-based BayCare Health System, and the regional leader of BayCare's Hillsboro County market. 

Ms. Lutton's passion for healthcare and process improvement began at a young age when she volunteered as a candy striper at a local hospital in West Virginia. 

"I just kept focusing on the process and how to make things better for the patient," Ms. Lutton said. "I really got passionate about quality improvement in healthcare, and it set the course for my career."

Here, Ms. Lutton shares what healthcare issues keep her up at night, the best way to develop leaders and the most challenging decision she had to make as CEO.

Editor's note: Responses were lightly edited for length and clarity. 

Question: What healthcare issues keep you up at night — and what issues make the job worthwhile?

Lorraine Lutton: What keeps me up at night right now is ensuring employee resiliency and supporting our employees to support our mission. This year has been incredibly challenging for so many, and our front-line colleagues are bearing the brunt of taking care of patients, taking care of each other and their communities. As a Catholic organization we have long supported holistic care for our colleagues — mind, body and spirit —  and it has never been more important. We have tried several strategies. We have a colleague care team specifically designated to identify and promote resiliency. They are coordinating what we call 'operation gratitude,' which is a program targeted at our community members to help them show their support to our staff. For example, students in schools are writing cards to nurses; people are donating food or flowers, or just sending messages of thanks to our workers. Internally, we have colleague care rounds and virtual sessions for mental health and wellness.  

What I really enjoy is working to improve our performance and seeing measurable improvements that we can quantify. I am a numbers person. I grew up playing sports, and I like to improve our scores on patient experience, clinical outcomes and financial performance. I am also trying to help facilitate a transition from fee-for-service to value-based care, and I like to measure everything and track improvement. When I see those measurable improvements, I get excited. 

Q: Can you describe the most challenging decision you've had to make as CEO. Why was it so challenging?

LL: When I first came to Mount Carmel, all elective procedures stopped, and we were in an unsustainable place financially. We ended up furloughing and right-sizing the organization based on the patient volumes we were seeing. This included changes to the composition of the team to be more streamlined and more efficient moving forward. It was very important, but it was very challenging because we empathize with and care about everyone on the team. 

One example of a change we made is consolidating our sleep labs to one site. Those are permanent changes, and yet many of those employees we were able to redeploy. We brought a lot of people back in different roles. Because of a bedside nurse shortage in critical care services, we augmented the existing care team with patient support techs who can do things like stock personal protective equipment and help pass trays. We wanted to remove some of the tasks the nurses had so we can support them, because we can't find as many as we'd like to have. 

Q: What is the best way to develop leaders? 

LL: My leadership style is that I am very transparent and inclusive. That applies to how I act and observe others. I am very open to listening and learning from others, and I like to lead by example. My personal experience as a leader coming up was that it was a great advantage to sit at the next table up. So when I was a quality director, I got to sit at the senior leadership table and understand how they think and process information and got greater context for my work. I would always encourage leaders, if possible, to sit at the next table up. I also think it's nice to have a role that can allow you to see how the departments come together. If you work in one department, volunteer for teams that work across departments so you are not in a silo. You are seeing how things flow together. Understanding the process of care across the organization is important for any healthcare leader. 

Q: What are a few of your top priorities as CEO in 2021?

LL: There are probably three: culture, getting back to quality basics and transforming the organization in terms of our service offerings. 

The first is instilling a culture of excellence in everything we do. For me, that starts with measuring how well we are doing today, setting goals about how we are going to do better and being transparent about them. 

Another goal is refocusing on the quality basics. For COVID, at least the last few months in the latest surge, we have all been focused on daily staffing, taking care of our teams, COVID testing and COVID vaccinations. We have to refocus back on traditional metrics of success. It's not that we haven't been concerned about these, but there is only so much bandwidth, and COVID has been top of mind. 

The third goal is transforming our organization to be better than normal. This is moving from fee-for-service to value-based care, expanding telemedicine, growing our hospital-at-home program, and just being more effective at meeting patients where they are.

Q: What accomplishment are you most proud of since joining Mount Carmel?

LL: I think about two. One is putting in place an incredible leadership team. We have a lot of new leaders at Mount Carmel. When I first came, we rearranged who was in what positions and made a few changes in who was on the team. But I am so confident in the group we have now. They are a great group, very aligned, very committed to serving our patients and colleagues. 

I would also say trying to develop new ways of communication. Because of COVID, when I first came, I couldn't do town hall meetings, wasn't really out rounding with colleagues on the front line. We ended up committing to other methods of communication. Every two weeks we do a Webex and invite all colleagues. We have about 500-600 people who join the call for a half-hour. We call them 'here to listen' webinars. They have been really successful in answering questions people have and responding to suggestions people have. They have also helped us increase transparency and improve communication. We also have nursing forums and have started doing gemba walks, where we spend an hour doing rounds, talking to colleagues and engaging with them.

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