Living like a leader: A day with Albert Wright, CEO of WVU Hospitals and WVU Health System



"I think visibility is important, but I think you have to be visible in a way that you're comfortable with. So, I do two things. I do skip-a-level meetings every week, which is when I'll go and I'll meet with the direct report of one of my direct reports at their place of work."

Between clinical objectives, financial concerns, patient needs and complex payer dynamics, there seem to be too few hours in the day for healthcare executives to address the diverse set of organizational goals they are tasked with accomplishing.

Albert Wright, PharmD, not only serves as CEO of Morgantown-based West Virginia University Health System, but also West Virginia University Hospitals, the system's 690-bed flagship academic medical center. He earned his bachelor's degree in pharmacy from the University of Toledo (Ohio), a master's degree of health administration from Columbus-based Ohio State University, and a doctor of pharmacy of the University of Florida in Gainesville.

Dr. Wright took the time to speak with Becker's Hospital Review for our "Living like a leader" series, which examines the daily routines of influential decision-makers to offer readers an idea of how they manage their energy, teams and time.

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

Q: What's the first thing you do when you wake up? What's your morning routine like?

Dr. Albert Wright: First thing I do is try to work out every morning. I shifted my workout to the morning a couple years ago, because I have young kids and they're very much my life. When I come home from work they always want to spend time with Dad, so I shifted my workout to the morning, which also gives me a chance to decompress when I get up. So I get up at about 5 o'clock every morning. There is a direct link between physical fitness, mental well-being, and executive performance. I get up, watch the news, and sometimes listen to some loud music while I'm down there too. I'll put on Counting Crows Radio or, once in a while, Kiss Radio. Something that kinda pumps me up a little bit.

Q: What do you like to do before you get to the office?

AW: I've got a little commute in the morning, so people will call me or I'll call them. I'll use that as free time to call. We're a rural health system, so we've got 13 hospitals in our system and they're spread out all around the state. I don't get to see those CEOs that are my direct reports very often, so a lot of times I'll just call and talk to them during that no-stress commute time.

Q: Is there anything unique about your office setup?

AW: We built out our executive offices a few years ago, and we put them on the first floor. This is a huge campus. I could walk around this campus all day and still be accused of not being visible, it's just so big. All of the patients and staff that park in front of the building, all of the shuttle buses that drop patients off — they can all see me. If I was on the top floor, nobody sees you. I also do most of my meetings in my office, so I'm in my office a lot and exceptionally visible to just about anybody who comes to the hospital. I have four kids, so there's Wright family artwork all over my office. It makes you a little more human as a leader.

Q: What's the first thing you like to do when you arrive at work?

AW: I'll grab some oatmeal and coffee. We have all of our executives who run both the system and the academic medical center based here, so I'll pop into different offices and just kind of catch up on things. I just walk around and ask folks what's going on for the day and what we're focused on. And then I'll usually glance at a couple newspapers to make sure I know what's going on in and around the state of West Virginia, as well as any pertinent national news.

Q: What kind of work do you like to make sure you get done before lunch?

AW: I work a little bit differently than a lot of people who do what I do for a living. I don't block my days with so many meetings that I don't have time to think or react. There are usually big holes in my schedule, which allows for people to pop in, because if we're doing pop-in meetings rather than formal monthly one-on-ones, it allows us to be more nimble as an organization. Because people can pop in, we can make a decision right then, rather than waiting for a formal meeting.

Q: How much of your time is spent with your direct reports?

AW: I probably spend a third to half my time with my direct reports. And again, increasingly my direct reports are people who run the academic medical center or people running our health system across the state. I not only meet face-to-face with people here, but I'll do video visits with people from around the system on a regular basis. I may have a direct meeting with our chief clinical officer here, do a half-hour video one-on-one with our CEO at Bridgeport, another video one-on-one with our CEO in Parkersburg, then I'll come back for another face-to-face meeting.

It's actually made me think about how we do telemedicine differently. Historically, we've always had doctors who are either in the clinic or in telemedicine. We're moving toward their days looking a lot more like my days, where telemedicine's right in their clinic. As a system, we see about 2 million outpatient visits a year. We think in the next five years, a quarter of those visits need to be by telemedicine.

Q: Do you have any more formalized meetings with any of them?

AW: There's a handful of folks I do one-on-ones with. We do a senior management meeting once a month. That includes not only the day-to-day operators of the academic medical center, but also the CEOs of our other hospitals. We have a true hub-and-spokes model here, where Morgantown's the hub and the other hospitals around the state are the spokes, but I want them to be an extension of the academic medical center.

So having those CEOs engaged with all of our physician chairmen, the dean of the school of medicine, all of our leaders in our academic medical center — this allows them to work from the inside. We've essentially melded them to the point where we view ourselves as an academic health system. Increasingly, a lot of the physicians at those community hospitals are faculty as well. It allows us to recruit better doctors.

Q: How often are you meeting with your clinical staff or performing rounds?

AW: It's funny, a lot of organizations have formal rounds but I am very uncomfortable just going up and rounding. I think visibility is important, but I think you have to be visible in a way that you're comfortable with. So, I do two things. I do skip-a-level meetings every week, which is when I'll go and I'll meet with the direct report of one of my direct reports at their place of work.

I'll spend an hour with them and always ask a series of questions about whether they feel supported, what they'd do differently if they were me for a day, things like that. And then I have them take me around their units and introduce me to folks who are working wherever we go. It also helps me show support of our leaders.

The other thing I do every week is called “Breakfast with Albert,” where about 30 random employees and I will have breakfast together. I'll just get up and talk for about 20 or 30 minutes about things going on around the hospital and the health system, and I usually have two or three vice presidents with me who give quick updates as well. We leave the last 15 minutes for questions and comments.. And you know what, we make a lot of organizational decisions on feedback that comes out of those breakfasts. Our employees are spectacular, and they're not shy. They're not afraid to tell us what's working and not.

Q: How do you think your routine is different from that of other healthcare executives across the country?

AW: We're an 18,0000 employee healthcare system with 13 hospitals around the state, and I think melding the job of the CEO of the academic medical center and the CEO of the health system is different. I think that has allowed us to become a much more nimble organization with fewer layers, if you will. Too often, in the past I've seen you have a system CEO, but then you've got the day-to-day CEO of the academic medical center, but your academic medical center can't be isolated. It has to support your healthcare system.

Q: What would you say is the hardest part of your day?

AW: That's a tough one. I think it's just keeping everybody rowing in the same direction. The other challenge is that we've been on this huge growth boom over the last few years, where we're seeing major consolidation, mergers and acquisitions around here. There are a lot of failing hospitals and physician groups around the state of West Virginia, and they're all good options for us to partner with. Trying to keep up with the growth has been a challenge because you want to help others and save some of these challenged hospitals, but you have to grow at a pace that is safe and people can keep up with. When you look at the growth of WVU Medicine in the last five years it's been remarkable, but sometimes keeping up with that growth can be a challenge.

Q: What would you say is the most rewarding part of your day?

AW: Oh, I don't know, I've got a thousand things that are rewarding. I have patient interactions and patient letters all the time, staff breakfasts and different things. There's major pride in what we're doing here. West Virginia, in many ways, has been a forgotten state and a forgotten people, so they're now building what we believe is going be a top 25 academic health system. I'm not a native of West Virginia, I'm an adopted West Virginian, so it's very rewarding for me to see people here feeling proud of what we're doing. The breadth of talent we're able to attract here now exceeds my wildest dreams from a few years ago.

We're starting to do innovative things, especially in our Rockefeller Neuroscience Institute, where we're starting to approach diseases like drug addiction and Alzheimer's disease differently. We did a study on Alzheimer's disease where we opened the blood-brain barrier of a patient, making us the first organization in the world to ever do that using low intensity ultrasound technology.

Q: What's the last thing you do before you leave the office?

AW: We have a great guy that works here named Ron Pellegrino, MD, who is the COO. He runs a lot of the day-to-day affairs of the academic medical center. I always check in with Ron just to see how things are going. Then I always take the long way to my car. There's a great stairwell that wraps around the hospital, very visible, and I take the long way out to the car to just see folks on the way out to get a feel of the hospital. I also clean out my inbox. Some people have 1,500 emails in their inbox. I usually get it down to five or six.

Q: Do you work at home?

AW: A little bit here and there. I have four kids who are all still living at home and in school, so when I'm home I'm a dad. I become a fifth grade math teacher when I get home. My kids are the most important thing in my life, so I make sure I spend time with them. Because of my kids' ages, I could do events seven nights a week. I get invited to stuff every night, but I limit it to two nights a week. Whatever's the most important thing that I need to be at, whether it is service awards or a physician recruitment dinner, I try to limit my evening outings to two nights a week.

Q: How do you unwind?

AW: I enjoy spending time with the kids. I might watch a little TV. I never outgrew "Seinfeld," so if "Seinfeld" is on I'll watch that. I'll watch some sports; I'm a big Mountaineer fan. I'm a Buckeye grad, so I'll watch that too. But otherwise it's just spending time with my wife and kids.

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