Living Like a Leader: A day with Banner Health CEO Peter Fine

Peter_Fine.jpg"As you develop as a leader, learn things that work for you, but ensure that you always demonstrate a degree of sincerity and authenticity. If you try to force a behavioral model that is only what you think a leader should be, then you won't come across as authentic. I've worked as hard as I can to be viewed as an authentic leader."

Between driving growth, meeting clinical objectives and navigating complex payer dynamics, there don't seem to be enough hours in the day for healthcare executives.

Leaders succeed despite these challenges, each with their own habits, hacks, styles and methods — and Peter Fine, president and CEO of Banner Health in Phoenix, is no exception.

Mr. Fine, closing in on his 20-year work anniversary, joined Banner Health as CEO in November 2000. He was brought in to help the system navigate some problems that arose from the 1999 merger that formed Banner Health. He conceived a vision and strategy for the newly merged company to succeed. And succeed he did.

Since Mr. Fine joined the system, Banner Health has grown from a nearly $1.5 billion company into one of the largest nonprofit healthcare organizations in the nation, with 28 hospitals, 50,000 employees and more than $8.5 billion in revenue.

Before joining Banner Health, Mr. Fine served as executive vice president and COO of Milwaukee-based Aurora Health Care, a large integrated system that has now merged with Advocate Health Care in Downers Grove, Ill.

For this installment of Becker's Hospital Review's Living Like a Leader series, Mr. Fine offers a glimpse into how he manages his energy, team and time. He also shares how the pandemic changed his daily routine.

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

Question: What is the first thing you do when you wake up?

Peter Fine: I'm an early riser. I wake up at about 5 a.m. The first thing I do is attempt to calm my mind. My mind is constantly working at a fast pace. I typically will go right into my home office and either meditate for a bit or read something that is more fictional than newsworthy, to calm my brain and set it up for the day.

Q: What else do you do before you get into the office?

PF: Depending upon the demands of the day, I will try to get in some type of exercise in the morning, either walking or getting on my elliptical. Unless I have an early meeting, I will try to get that exercise in, because it is more difficult to do at night after a long day of work.

Q: What is the first thing you do when you arrive at work?

PF: I will open my computer to review my schedule. I would have looked at it already before getting into the office, but I check it again to ensure I understand the timing and flow of the day. I will then dive into my emails. I typically arrive at the office by 7:30 a.m., and don't have a meeting until 8:00 a.m. or 8:30 a.m., so I use the time to get caught up. 

Q: Is there anything that makes your physical office setup unique?

PF: I have a standup desk for my computer, so I don't have to sit all day. Not everybody in our corporate office has those. I find it valuable to force me to move during the course of the day.

Q: Do you have a before lunch or after lunch routine?

PF: My day-to-day routine varies because the subject matter and conversations constantly change. So one day rarely looks like the next day. As a result, I don't have a before or after lunch routine. If I don't have a lunch meeting, I will eat lunch at my desk. During that time I will get caught up on things that I need to read or would like to read. This typically includes reading through reports or journals that I want to absorb thoroughly.

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

PF: I have seven direct reports, all of which reside on the same floor in the office as I do. So I'm constantly going in and out of offices and carrying on conversations or spontaneous interactions dealing with the issues of the day. I would guess probably 20 percent of my time is spent with them, maybe a little bit more. We're always finding some time in the day to make sure that we're touching base and interacting with each other. A little harder, obviously, in the last three months, as a lot of the interaction has been done through Microsoft Teams or a different communication vehicle. 

Q: How would you say your daily routine changed due to the pandemic?

PF: It has changed a lot. Working remotely has required a different method of leading and communicating. How you challenge or question people seems to be different when you're doing over a computer screen than when you're doing it in person. How people pay attention, how they think about what they're doing, how they intervene virtually versus in person is just different.

Additionally, I no longer can just pop into somebody's office at 4:30 p.m. just to connect. Now something has to be scheduled. So we've moved from spontaneous meetings to scheduled meetings almost all the time.

In addition, the interactions with people who are not my direct reports has changed a lot as well, because my ability to get around to hospitals or pop into offices has changed.  

Another change is that our board meetings are now done virtually, through a Microsoft Teams screen. The effectiveness and process of carrying on a quarterly board meeting is different. We had to reinvent how we conducted a board meeting, because completing a nine and a half hour meeting on a computer screen would not be easy. 

Q: How does your team differ from that of other organizations?

PF: Except for a couple of people, many of the direct reports I have now were appointed to their roles in the last two or three years. It's a team that's growing and learning about each other and finding a pathway to function as a team, most of it due to retirement and some leadership changes that were made about three years ago. 

I believe that the forecast of a leadership team is not how well they do when things are going well, it's how they handle themselves when things aren't. This group has stepped up mightily over the last three months to keep this place open, to strengthen itself from a balance sheet perspective and find new ways to get personal protective equipment. They have taken on enormous responsibility in a very unusual and never-before-seen time. How we have handled ourselves has been enormously professional, totally on point, focused and collaborative. 

Q: What is the hardest part of your day?

PF: The hardest part of my day is when I have to make decisions that I don't like to make. The decisions that affect people, affect stability or add high degrees of risk. It's always those decisions that weigh on you, either because you're taking on a lot of risk or you're negatively impacting people, primarily employees. We, like other health systems in the U.S., after losing a significant portion of our business  in the course of two or three months, had to create some stability for the company. In some cases, this affected personnel. Those decisions are never done easily. You do what you have to do to help the company, but those decisions are certainly the hardest part of any day.

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

PF:  When I watch leaders develop and become better leaders. I take great pride in a statement that we've used for a long time at Banner Health: Leadership matters. When I see leaders step up, it's really fun to see. One great example is our Chief Clinical Officer Marjorie Bessel, MD. Marjie has been with the company for a long time in various roles, but in the last few years she was appointed the chief clinical officer. We did a national search to appoint someone to that role, and found that she stood up to a national search, so we hired her. She was different from her predecessor who retired and had been with us since the beginning of the company. So she had a lot to live up to. But she has really shown her mettle during COVID-19, as she has led the company through all of the clinical activities necessary to manage what's going on. It's a pleasure to watch the investment of time and energy into the professional development of a staff member and watch them come to fruition. 

The other rewarding aspect is when I get letters from patients about how they felt about their interaction with staff. When you get letters complimenting staff, it warms your heart because of the sincerity that's built into the letter. This also gives me the opportunity to compliment staff. We have an electronic system called MVP, which helps recognize staff for quality work and interactions. 

Q: What is the last thing you do before you leave your office?

PF: When I leave my office, typically between 5 p.m. and 6 p.m., I try to make sure that anything that needs my time and attention is handled so I don't bring it home. When I drive home at night, which takes about 20 minutes, I put on music to try to calm my brain down.  

Q: Do you do work at home, outside of business hours?

PF: The only thing I will typically do at night is prepare for the next day. This might include reading a report or meeting materials for the public board I am on.  It is never a lot of work. I try to limit the time in the evening as much as possible so I can decompress and relieve some of the tension. 

Q: How do you unwind at the end of the day?

PF: One way could be exercise if I didn't get in my morning routine. The second way is spending time with my dog, a beautiful yellow lab named Jasmine. She is a little over 6, and I love spending time with her. I also enjoy wine over dinner with my wife. 

I think it is important for any executive to be careful about how much intensity they bring home at night because it can affect relationships. When you bring too much intensity home, it is not good for you personally from a behavioral health perspective, and it's not good for your relationships from a family perspective. So you've got to find that balancing act so you can decompress. If you are "on" all the time, I think it's very hard to be a good leader, and you risk getting burned out.

Q: Is there anything else about leadership you'd like to share?

PF: Being in a leadership role is a significant and awesome responsibility. I don't think there's a model or strategy that works for every leader. As you develop as a leader, learn things that work for you, but ensure that you always demonstrate a degree of sincerity and authenticity. If you try to force a behavioral model that is only what you think a leader should be, then you won't come across as authentic. I've worked as hard as I can to be viewed as an authentic leader. I use the following phrase a lot: visibility breeds credibility, credibility breeds trust. If you want to be trusted, you better be visible, but that also relates to the whole issue of authenticity. People must see a leader as authentic and approachable. That can be hard depending on your style. But leaders must do their best to be authentic, approachable and honest communicators.

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