'I'm actually invigorated': Dr. Rob Phillips on pandemic-era leadership before retiring from Houston Methodist

Rob Phillips, MD, PhD, was not burned out by the pandemic. In fact, he was invigorated. As executive vice president and chief physician executive at Houston Methodist, he said he was able to be an effective leader and help his community get through the COVID-19 pandemic crisis. 

Dr. Phillips joined the organization as chief medical officer and president in June 2013 before assuming his current role in November 2018. He announced his retirement in March; it will be effective by the end of 2022. 

"I think it's maybe bizarre for people to think you can't get invigorated after this amount of years, but that's what all the training was for," he said.

Before he leaves Houston Methodist, Dr. Phillips shared with Becker's his greatest accomplishments, the effect of the COVID-19 pandemic and his advice for future leaders.

Question: What piqued your interest in healthcare?

Dr. Rob Phillips: I was really interested in doing good for other people and I had skills that would be able to be translated into making that happen. And it seemed like a really great opportunity for a career to give back to people and to make a difference.

Q: What has been your biggest accomplishment thus far?

RP: I have to say the leadership during the pandemic was clearly the high point of my career. It was an interesting and somewhat ironic full circle of events. My PhD was in finding ways to insert genetic instructions into bacteria and viruses so that they could make a new protein, and that was over 40 years ago. And so the [COVID-19] vaccines are about inserting instructions into cells to get them to make new proteins. So it was just an interesting full circle for me career wise, which enabled me to gain skills and confidence and ability to lead people and teams to then face this crisis. 

I decided to retire last March and when I went to my boss, he said, "Are you burnt out?" I said, "I'm not burned out. I'm actually invigorated." And I think it's maybe bizarre for people to think you can't get invigorated after this amount of years, but that's what all the training was for. And that's what all the experience was for, to be able to be a leader and help our community during this crisis and get through it.

Q: If you could eliminate one of the healthcare industry's problems overnight, what would it be and why?

RP: I think we are too expensive and we garner too many of the resources that could be available for other social services for fixing our infrastructure for education or other social needs.

Q: What has been your biggest takeaway in the past few years within your role at Houston Methodist?

RP: I've always said that the most important role of the physician leader is to set the strategy for the organization and to help create and enable successful education of that plan and to provide the positive and optimistic and realistic leadership that's needed for that, including making corrections when you have to. Our community was really looking for leadership, for advice and for information, and being transparent around that and letting people know where things stood and that you would be taking in new information and acting as a learning healthcare system should. 

Q: What's the best leadership advice you've ever received? What leadership advice would you give to future leaders?

RP: I'd say I've really been fortunate in my career to have a lot of really great mentors. One of the big [pieces of advice] is that there aren't just two sides of the story. There are nine sides to a story and your job in the end always is to make a decision, and you have to have to make decisions sometimes with limited information. But to get there, you have to listen to lots of different people's points of view, and sometimes often listening to naysayers who you may not want to listen to. Leaders are very optimistic people and they have ideas about where they think things should go. They're often right. Sometimes they're not always right. And bringing in other people to get their points of view is really critical, even if you don't agree with them.

As we're getting more corporate in our practice of medicine, it's really my belief that physician leaders have to learn those management and interpersonal skills because you're working in organizations and organizations are very challenging. They can also be very rewarding because you can affect change, but they're also challenging because they're made up of individuals who have different points of view and you have to learn how to encourage everybody's point of view and to take all those things into account and make improvements as we go forward.

Q: Do you have any parting words as you leave Houston Methodist to retire?

RP: I'm grateful to have had the opportunity to be part of this organization. It's a wonderful, forward-thinking organization that really focuses on delivering unparalleled safety, quality, service and innovation and is really based in a wonderful culture that's transparent and is supportive of innovation and change and doing the right thing.

Q: Do you have any final other thoughts?

RP: There's always concerns about people going into healthcare and whether it's still a great profession to do. I encourage people to do it. It's an incredibly amazing career. I've been able to reinvent myself so many different times and to be able to stay engaged and I think execute on that vision. Being able to make a difference and make the world a better place and to help people clearly, I look back and say yes, that was the right choice for me, and gave me lots of fulfillment. And I appreciate that. I was able to help other people along the way, maybe both in their careers and also in terms of their health and their enjoyment of life.

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