The Connected Communicator: Robert Garrett, President and CEO of Hackensack University Medical Center

Robert C. Garrett has led Hackensack University Medical Center as president and CEO since November 2009. Before assuming his spot at the helm, Mr. Garrett served as HUMC's executive vice president and COO from 1986 onward, but his tenure with the organization stretches back to 1981. His connections to HUMC have only deepened throughout those 30-plus years. "This is my second family, in a lot of ways," Mr. Garrett says. "I feel like I've grown up with a lot of the people here. We know each other's families — our kids, and in some instances, grandkids."

Expansions — both for the hospital and CEO role

Mr. Garrett's role and duties have grown in recent months, mostly due to HackensackUMC's expansion plans and affiliations with other hospitals. He says he often works until 10 or 11 p.m., and there's been a change to his ordinary hours due to more frequent dinner meetings, presentations and a bit more travel. "We're a 24/7 operation," says Mr. Garrett.  

Right now, HackensackUMC is planning a $35 million renovation to its Emergency and Trauma Center and recently kicked off a $92 million renovation of the former Pascack Valley Hospital in Westwood, N.J., as part of a joint venture with Plano, Texas-based LHP Hospital Group. The 128-bed hospital, to be renamed HackensackUMC at Pascack Valley, is slated to reopen in mid-2013 after it closed in 2007 after declaring bankruptcy. The hospital was not affiliated with HackensackUMC at the time. HackensackUMC also partnered with LHP to acquire Mountainside Hospital in Montclair, N.J.

In early March, HackensackUMC formed a strategic alliance with North Shore-LIJ Health System, a 15-hospital organization based in Great Neck, N.Y. The relationship is designed to let HackensackUMC and North Shore-LIJ establish cooperative quality and patient safety initiatives, improve care management and prepare for new care models, and develop joint information technology programs. Later that month, HackensackUMC also announced a clinical affiliation with Palisades Medical Center in North Bergen, N.J.

Mr. Garrett says those affiliations are grounded in the spirit of collaboration and, in addition to their ample strategic goals, allow him to strengthen his ideas and decision-making as CEO. "Dr. Michael Dowling [CEO of North Shore-LIJ] is somebody who I think is a great mentor to a lot of people," says Mr. Garrett. "He's been able to build a comprehensive health system in a very competitive marketplace. The strategic alliance we formed with his system is one where both sides can bounce ideas off of one another. We don't compete, but we certainly respect each other."

The growing need for communication
Mr. Garrett says political and financial turbulence in the healthcare industry has only emphasized the CEO's roles as visionary and communicator. "Because the environment is very volatile, it's really important that the strategies of the organization are communicated very well," he says. "It's not just the physicians, but the entire team that needs to understand the strategies we decide on.

Each week, eight to 10 different HackensackUMC employees enter the board room for meetings with Mr. Garrett and his team to discuss new hospital initiatives and strategies. The meetings are open invitation to hospital staff. He does the same thing with a roundtable of 10 to 12 physicians to discuss major hospital plans. "They give me their input and comments, and those are some of my more favorite and productive meetings," he says.

A growing portion of Mr. Garrett's time is also dedicated to physician relations. In addition to round table sessions and day-to-day interactions with the physicians, Mr. Garrett oversees the broader, strategic planning behind HackensackUMC’s integration and alignment strategies. He says he often thinks of one CEO who has excelled in physician-hospital relationships: Toby Cosgrove, the CEO of Cleveland Clinic — a leader Mr. Garrett considers ahead of his time.

"I do really admire him and what he's been able to build," says Mr. Garrett. "Cleveland Clinic, in terms of its brand and reputation, has become so international. I think that requires a lot of talent and commitment. The structure he has built at the Clinic is a very interesting one — a faculty-based structure where all physicians are employed. That's the trend now. A lot of private practice physicians are looking for hospital affiliations."

One question every CEO should ask
Mr. Garrett defines professionalism as honesty, transparency and creating a culture that revolves around quality patient care. "I think some organizations are truer to those values than others," he says. There's also one question hospital CEOs should ask themselves every day to ensure their leadership is grounded in the right values, according to Mr. Garrett: Are the decisions I'm making in the best interest of the patient?

As Mr. Garrett speaks on these values and his lengthy career in healthcare, many of his leadership abilities still seem to stem from lessons learned from the man who raised him. Mr. Garrett describes his father, who is a pharmacist, as an optimistic person, the type of man who always sees the glass as half full. This outlook is something Mr. Garrett has put to use, especially in a self-described "volatile" time for healthcare.

"[My father] is a person who gave me very sound advice. He's even-keeled and has always been very positive. That type of advice is very worthy. When I speak with people, I always enter conversations in a positive way, and I even take something good away from an experience that may be difficult," he says.

More Articles on Hospital CEOs:

100 Leaders of Great Hospitals
The Chief of Change: Q&A With Dr. Ralph de la Torre, CEO of Steward Health Care
The Future of Rural Hospitals: Q&A With Desiree Einsweiler, Incoming CEO of Palo Alto County Health System

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