What a 24-year-old CEO has learned 2 years in

In September 2022, Aidan Hettler, then 22 years old, assumed his first healthcare role as CEO of Sedgwick County Health Center in Julesburg, Colo. Now 24, he has grown as a leader while he and the health system have navigated various changes, such as the addition of two board members and the installation of an EMR system.

"Definitely feeling good," he told Becker's. "The first year in any role is really a challenge. You spend your first year just getting into routine and learning your place in an organization. I sympathize with that idea because I feel like entering my second year, I feel a lot stronger in my ability to lead my team and improve. I'm really enjoying the job more and more every single day."

Before his current role, Mr. Hettler, a graduate of Fort Collins-based Colorado State University's business school, was working remotely as a subcontract administrator for Lockheed Martin, a global security and aerospace company. That's when a leader at Sedgwick reached out to him about applying for the organization's top role. He did not expect to get the job and has expressed gratitude for the opportunity to lead Sedgwick, which includes a critical access hospital, a 24-hour emergency room, a nursing home, an assisted living facility, and a rehab and pain management clinic.

In his second year as CEO, "you feel more in control of yourself and impactful," Mr. Hettler said. "Going through budget season for the second time, having gone through a full year for the first time, we were able to make adjustments and dial things in." 

"From a personnel standpoint, [in terms of] recruitment and retention, you have a better sense going into your second year than you do your first. I enjoyed planning for year two at the end of year one because I felt like I had a much better grasp on our organization and our team."

Sedgwick has made various changes since he came on board. They include working through the Eastern Plains Healthcare Consortium and the Colorado Hospital Association to pass state-level legislation, allowing the hospital to expand its board from five to seven members.

"I actually added some more bosses for myself," Mr. Hettler said. "People said, 'Well, why on earth did you go and do that?' But from a governance standpoint, we just feel philosophically that it's important to have more voices at the table and more diverse perspectives."

Sedgwick also updated its board bylaws, is building its larger vision for the next five years and has updated its mission, vision and values.

Updating the mission, vision and values "is a pretty atypical thing to do," he said. "I know that companies don't often shift those because those are core values and things that guide you. But we just felt that ours was very hospital centric, which was fine because we started our system as just a hospital. And then we added [to that], and so we've grown into this … system, and we wanted it to reflect all of our teams and all of our patients and residents and families and friends that we serve."

Sedgwick also embarked on a silent cultural campaign in which leaders committed to smiling and saying "hello" when walking the hospital hallways. 

That "sounds really simple, but if you're not actively thinking about those things, you can kind of passively go through corridors and hallways and just have a blank expression," Mr. Hettler said. "So we did that with the intent of not telling our teams to see if they would adopt behavior without being told, and they have, so it's kind of like a fun social experiment. But you can definitely tell the mood and atmosphere across the system has changed and things are lighter and people have more fun at work and enjoy themselves."

The health system also has focused on improving employee benefit offerings; launched mental and behavioral health services in February; thus far has exceeded financial expectations for 2024; and plans to complete implementation of its new Cerner EMR in September. 

"We're hoping for no revenue cycle hiccups [with the EMR implementation]," Mr. Hettler said. "My teams are putting all their time, energy and effort into setting up this system correctly. It's been a hard journey, but clinically, it's a huge step. Our clinical staff is excited to have a new EMR."

Throughout this work and his tenure, Mr. Hettler has acknowledged that he is likely the youngest or among the youngest hospital CEOs in the U.S. The average age of CEOs across industries is 59, according to research from consulting firm Korn Ferry. But Mr. Hettler reiterated that he has been pleasantly surprised at the overall positive reception he has received from people.

"The only way that it does show up is pretty much in a positive light," he said, adding that he received positive comments from CEOs in Colorado during a recent conference. "One of the CEOs specifically said that she was really grateful that there was someone so young to have that representation among our group. So, I've got nothing but a grateful heart for all of my colleagues who do this job. Everyone's been really kind."

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