Why Michael Dowling cuts his own hedges: Nuggets of wisdom from Northwell's CEO

With healthcare being a 24/7/365 business, Michael Dowling, CEO of Northwell Health in New Hyde Park, N.Y., said hospital CEOs have a responsibility to be both visible and available to their staff around the clock. Not only is he always just a phone call away, but he actively looks for ways daily to interact with employees in the healthcare system.

"Pick the best people you possibly can and rely on them. You still have to be available, but you don't have to get into the nitty gritty details of the hospital if you have great people who can do that," Mr. Dowling said. "My main message to all CEOs is to get out of the office and be where the real work is getting done."

Mr. Dowling, well-known for his heavy Irish brogue, sincerity and can-do attitude when it comes to just about anything — has been an influential CEO voice in healthcare for more than two decades. He is a constant advocate and has never been afraid to take strong positions on societal issues, including social determinants of health and gun violence.

He openly shares tales about growing up poor in Ireland, a reality that helps him position Northwell as a go-to harbor for patients and their families from diverse neighborhoods throughout New York City's five boroughs. 

To his point of being visible, Mr. Dowling said he "just wants to get out there and get to know people." Becker's caught up with him in between orientation sessions for new employees (he attends at least one weekly), budget and finance meetings (he insists next year's budget is finalized before Thanksgiving break) and a monthly dinner he holds with 30-some employees from various Northwell hospitals (this one was in Staten Island). 

Editor's note: The following responses have been edited for clarity and brevity.

Question: What is something people don't know about you? 

Michael Dowling: I'm a student and I love to learn all the time. I love history and my pastime is reading. I don't read fiction. I love history and economics. When I have the time, you will always find me with a book. 

I also like to do a lot of the work around my own house. I like to do manual labor. I like to get blisters on my hands. For example, I love to cut my own hedges. If you hire someone, you can go out and look and see it's been done. If you do it yourself, you can look back and see you did a good job. 

Also, because I'm Irish everyone assumes I drink Guinness. I don't. I have never drank Guinness in my life. When I drink, I have a big glass of red wine. And, if I drink beer, which is rare, it would be a Corona.

Q: You said you are a big reader. What are you reading right now?

MD: The answer to that question changes every day. Recently, I've read Hearts Touched with Fire: How Great Leaders are Made by David Gergen, The Exceptions by Kate Zernike,   Unlikely Heroes: Franklin Roosevelt, His Four Lieutenants, and the World They Made by Derek Leebaert and The Yellow Pad: Making Better Decisions in an Uncertain World by Robert Rubin. I read so many books and enjoy sharing book lists with my team on a regular basis.

Q: Speaking of decision-making, what is the most important trait a hospital leader needs to possess?

MD: Optimism. When you're positive and optimistic, you can more easily inspire others. As a leader, it's important to get people to want to do things because they believe in you. Leadership is not about requiring people to do things. That doesn't help build loyalty. You want people to want to do things. When you cultivate a positive environment, issues become everyone's issues and everyone wants to work toward solutions.

Q: What's your top priority for Northwell Health for the remainder of 2023?

MD: We are beginning a very detailed 2024 budget process right now. I always get the budget done the week before Thanksgiving. I want everyone to go home for the holiday with next year's budget in place. 

As we go through the budget, I like to analyze everything that we've done this year. I want to  figure out how we can become more efficient. I want to see whether or not there's unnecessary redundancies. 

Our strategy is to always have our business continually growing, so we have a number of plans that we want to initiate over the remainder of this year to continue to grow and expand. That's a  major focus of mine over the next couple of months. Obviously, we want to make sure that we hit the metrics that we set in place for the end of this year and come out in a strong position. 

Q: Northwell Health has many programmatic initiatives underway. Which of those are you most focused on at the moment?

MD: We are trying to figure out how to better respond to the unbelievable growth in mental health problems. We have never seen an acceleration in problems like we've seen in mental health this year. How can we do better for that population? 

Also, we are focused on how we can use technology more. We want to take advantage of artificial intelligence's potential while being very aware of the disadvantages AI might bring. 

Whether it's the budget or long-term projects, it's important to manage for the present but lead for the future. If you are doing a good job as a leader, you are always looking three to five years out.

Q: Does anything ever surprise you at Northwell?

MD: When you are the leader of the organization, it's easy to believe that the bulk of innovation comes out of the C-suite. It does not. 

Recently, we held our 2023 Innovation Challenge. It's like Shark Tank. We had 85 proposals and chose six teams to present their projects. When I saw the commitment and the power that was demonstrated in all of these proposals, I realized we are sitting on a goldmine of possibilities here. I want to continue to allow employees to engage and suggest the best ideas. We have to continually look to find ways to mine the wonderful creativity that exists among the staff in the organization and take advantage of it. We could do phenomenal things. 

Note: Becker's wrote about the winner of Northwell Health's 2023 Innovation Challenge, an AI-enabled initiative called iNav, which is able to detect pancreatic masses and fast-track patients into treatment. Read more about iNav here.

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