UHS CEO Alan B. Miller on how George Washington influenced his leadership style

When King of Prussia, Pa.-based Universal Health Services was founded in 1979 by Alan B. Miller, it had six employees and one telephone. Now, thanks to the paramount leadership of Mr. Miller, it has expanded into one of the nation's largest for-profit hospital operators with more than 83,000 employees providing care across 350 behavioral health and acute care facilities.

Mr. Miller, who currently serves as Chairman of the Board and CEO of UHS, has received several accolades over the last 40 years for his leadership as UHS grew from a startup to a Fortune 500 company. Notably, Mr. Miller was named Entrepreneur of the Year, an award sponsored by Ernst & Young and Merrill Lynch, in 1991, received the first Lifetime Achievement award of the Federation of American Hospitals in 1999, and was selected as a top CEO who is transforming healthcare by the CEO Forum in 2018.

Prior to founding UHS, Mr. Miller served as Chairman and CEO of American Medicorp, a hospital management company.

Here Mr. Miller shares his proudest moments as CEO, offers his advice to other healthcare executives and discusses two people who influenced his leadership style the most.

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

Question: What has been one of your proudest moments as CEO of UHS? 

Alan B. Miller: Actually, every day for the past 40 years has been a moment of pride for me. This is because I know that somewhere across our network of more than 350 behavioral health and acute care facilities, we are helping someone feel better and get their life back.

I believe that healthcare is the highest calling. As such, we have an opportunity to provide superior care to patients and their families every day. For us at UHS, it is always about the patients. That is how it was 40 years ago when I started the company with six employees and one telephone. And, it is still true today — with over 83,000 employees providing care at more than 350 facilities across the US, Puerto Rico and the [United Kingdom.] In 2017, we cared for 2.6 million patients — a true privilege.  

Q: As CEO of one of the nation's largest hospital management companies, overseeing more than 350 facilities, what are some unique challenges you face?

AM: One of the challenges we face and work hard to manage is attracting talent in today's tight labor market. Across the healthcare industry, providers, hospitals and all areas of care are facing a labor shortage with the U.S. experiencing the lowest unemployment rate in the last 15 to 17 years.

Specifically, the labor market in nursing and psychiatry is tight and we do not foresee that changing in the near term. We are working hard at both recruiting and retaining nurses and psychiatrists. We have gotten a lot smarter and more efficient at recruiting and retaining this vital clinical staff and will continue to carefully manage this challenge.

Q: Can you discuss the gaps you see in healthcare today and what UHS is doing to solve them?

AM: One of the populations that we are honored to care for is our nation's military — both active duty and veterans, and their families. UHS has a substantial operation — the UHS Patriot Support Program — serving the military and their behavioral healthcare needs.

It is not uncommon for members of the military to struggle with depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, addiction or other behavioral health issues. Through our UHS Patriot Support Program, we provide specialized care to help them through multiple deployments, being away from their families and also assisting them with the transition to civilian life. In 2017, we were honored to provide care for 6,500 active duty and veteran military, supporting them on their journey to wellness.

I served in the U.S. Army, 77th Infantry Division and I am very appreciative of what our armed forces have done for this country. Now it is our turn at UHS to serve them.

Q: What philosophies, events or people influence your leadership style?

AM: Several leaders influence my leadership style, but none more than the first president of the U.S., George Washington. I am a student of history and have carefully studied the courage of our nation's founding fathers and their bold entrepreneurial style. From George Washington, I have learned the importance of perseverance, the power of remaining calm under pressure and the value of being ambitious.

I would also point to Robert E. Lee [an American and confederate soldier best known as the commander of the American-Confederate Army in the U.S. Civil War] as a person whom I have admired. His is a story of monumental choices in American history. I admire greatly his loyalty, conscience, character and his dauntless courage. 

Q: What is one piece of advice you would offer to other CEOs?

AM: I often give a few pieces of advice to other CEOs and leaders:

  • Character is destiny — a person with good character will always be better off in life. Choose your friends carefully because you are known by the friends you keep.
  • Hard work is critical and if you are going to do something, do it well.

  • Hire the best team possible — build trust and rally the team to focus on a common goal.

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