Living Like a Leader: A day with Cleveland Clinic Florida CEO Dr. Wael Barsoum


Dr. Wael Barsoum (1).jpg "Great organizations are not really led by a single person. One person is the CEO, but the organization won't become great because of that one person. They become great because of the collective work and commitment of the staff that come to work every day."

 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 Wael Barsoum, MD, president and CEO of Weston-based Cleveland Clinic Florida, is no exception. 

Dr. Barsoum was named president and CEO of Cleveland Clinic Florida in 2014. Under his leadership, the system has grown from a single 150-bed hospital and eight remote sites to a five-hospital system with more than 40 outpatient clinics. The $1.8 billion system also now has a staff of 11,000 caregivers.

In addition to his CEO duties, Dr. Barsoum continues to care for patients as an orthopedic surgeon and publishes about 20 research papers a year. 

Before being named CEO of the Cleveland Clinic Florida, Dr. Barsoum served as the chairman of surgical operations at Cleveland Clinic in Ohio. In his role, he oversaw the $1 billion surgical side of the health system.

Dr. Barsoum recently spoke with Becker's Hospital Review for our "Living Like a Leader" series, which examines influential decision makers' daily routines 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.

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

Dr. Wael Barsoum: Part of my wake-up routine is done the night before. If I need to wake up early, I will have a double shot of espresso when I go to bed. That makes me get up around 3 a.m. If I don't need to get up really early to work, I will wake up around 5:30 a.m. When I wake up, the first thing I will do is pray.

Q: What do you do in the mornings before work?

WB: I will either prep for my first meeting of the day, read the news on my phone or work out. The early morning hours are usually the quietest for me, so I use that time to prepare for the day. At least once a week I will drive my three beautiful daughters to school. They are ages 7, 13 and 16.

Additionally, I will make phone calls on my ride to work most mornings. Very early in the morning I will get an email that details operational metrics from overnight. I'll be able to see what our census is, how many emergency department patients we saw, how many cases we have and what cases are scheduled for the day. I will often get in the car and make phone calls about those metrics. I will try to troubleshoot with our operations team about various items like scheduling or how to handle patient transfers.

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

WB: When I arrive at work, I usually walk right into the first meeting of the day. If it is a surgery day for me, I will walk straight into the operating room. On an average day, I am in the office by 6:30 a.m. to 7 a.m. However, the days I drop my kids off, I am there a little later. 

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

WB: I have a plethora of pictures of my kids. Besides that, something that is unique is that I have a telepresence. We are part of a global operation, so having this software video system allows me to be in contact with hospital leaders in Cleveland, Abu Dhabi and Indian River via video. It is a much more personal system as opposed to just talking to them on the phone. It has a long sound bar, three different cameras and two large television screens. If I get up to walk around, the camera will swivel to follow me. In addition, if there are several people speaking at the table, it will sense the voices and turn to focus on the speaker.

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

WB: I don't really have a before-lunch or after-lunch routine because my days are so different. My schedule is unique because I see patients as well, really anytime throughout the day that is convenient for them. My meetings are scheduled around that. However, I do have lunch every day around noon. It is almost always a working lunch. If we are having a talk about strategy, I will invite my strategy officer, or if we are talking physician staffing issue, I'll invite my chief of staff. 

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

WB: I would say 50 percent of the time I spend with direct reports. It's a combination of joint meetings and one-on-one meetings. We have a strategy group that will meet once a week; our operations group will meet twice a week; and our Cleveland Clinic Florida executive team from across the state will meet once a week in person. I also have one-on-one meetings with each of my direct reports at least every two weeks. 

Q: How often do you meet with clinical staff/perform rounds?

WB: I round twice a week. On a week where I did surgery, I might round more. We make leadership rounds every other week as a group, where we will go visit a hospital in the system. One thing that is unique about Cleveland Clinic is that our executive offices, as opposed to other health systems, are in our hospitals. So I pass through clinical areas daily. We are very much in the mix of what we do every day because of the location of our offices. 

Q: How do you think your routine differs from that of other healthcare executives?

WB: The biggest thing that's different for me is that I do see patients. Most healthcare execs are not practicing doctors. Most are folks that have MBAs or masters in administration. Usually when folks become CEO of a health system, even if they are doctors, they eliminate their clinical practice. I still have my clinical practice, and my academic work is still alive, too. I still publish 20 papers a year, and I am still active in helping getting research grants. Those things are near and dear to me, so I keep them. I am a hip and knee replacement surgeon. I see patients with hip and knee arthritis —  usually what I do is joint replacements, and I redo a lot of joint replacements that have failed.

Q: What is the hardest part of your day? 

WB: I think the hardest part is if I hear about an issue that came up with a patient where they felt like we could've done better. It is hard to read letters that said we didn't do something up to their expectations. Those weigh on you as a CEO. Whenever I get those complaints, we will follow up on them in an excruciating amount of detail. All of us want to relieve suffering, and unfortunately we aren't always successful. The good thing is that those reports and issues are very rare. 

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

WB: One of the reasons I picked hip and knee replacement is that patients are so happy with the outcomes. It's rewarding to see someone walk in after having the surgery and say, "Wow, I really wish I had done that sooner."  Additionally, another rewarding part is having caregivers tell me that they are proud of what we are doing and are excited about the growth. As CEO, it doesn't get any better than that. 

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

WB: I will walk through the executive floor and pop my head into the offices of my colleagues that are still at work. I will thank them for a great day. On a normal day, I will leave the office by 6:30 p.m. However, four times a week I have dinner meetings, so I don't get home until 9 p.m. or 10 p.m. When you're looking to grow, you can't take your foot off the gas.

Q: Do you work at home? 

WB: I do work at home all the time. I am better with it now than I used to be. I used to constantly check emails. While my kids were around, I'd be on the phone. However, I have made a really strong effort to not check as frequently. This is why I will frequently wake up at 3 a.m.

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

WB: The family really enjoys boating. On weekends we will go out on the boat, fish and Jet Ski. I also like to golf. In addition, I am a musician and still play in a rock band. I absolutely love doing it. I will also exercise to unwind. 

Q: What do you consider your greatest achievement at Cleveland Clinic Florida so far?

WB: The Cleveland Clinic Florida in my opinion is the best in the world at what we do. It has been objectively confirmed in Southeast Florida. We are the top-ranked hospital in Southeast Florida by U.S. News & World Report. We are the best, and it's nice to know other people see it that way. Second, is that we are actively expanding to help touch more lives. Great organizations are not really led by a single person. One person is the CEO, but the organization won't become great because of that one person. They become great because of the collective work and commitment of the staff that come to work every day. Additionally, I would put our leadership team in Florida against any other leadership team. They are incredibly hard-working, very committed and very good at what they do. 

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