Living Like a Leader: A day with HealthPartners CEO Andrea Walsh

Andrea Walsh Headshot 2.jpg

"I think gratitude and focusing on the little things is really important for leaders. From my vantage point, it's important to focus on things that need to be fixed and where you want to head, and it's important to be appreciative of the things that are going right. We have to find the right balance between those two."

Between clinical objectives, 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.

Prior to becoming president and CEO of Minneapolis-based HealthPartners in 2017, Andrea Walsh held executive leadership positions such as executive vice president, chief marketing officer, senior vice president and corporate counsel. She previously served as assistant commissioner at the Minnesota Department of Health. Ms. Walsh earned a bachelor's degree from the Lawrence-based University of Kansas and a law degree from the University of Minnesota Law School in Minneapolis.

Ms. Walsh 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

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

Andrea Walsh: Oh, the first thing I do when I wake up is get out of bed and go shower up. Then I go down to my kitchen and have breakfast and a cup of coffee and read the paper. I read the Star-Tribune and highlights from The Wall Street Journal and New York Times. I toggle between the two, figuring the truth is somewhere in between. I work out every other day.

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

AW: My day sometimes starts at our headquarters, but oftentimes I may start my day at one of our hospitals, in the community at a meeting or rounding in a clinic. So I would say I don't have a standard way I start my day, it just depends on the day and the week.

When I'm at our headquarters, I park my car and when I get into the building, I immediately go to the cafeteria for a cup of coffee. Then I come on up to my office and get settled for the morning.

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

AW: My work gets done through people and with people, so I spend most of my day in meetings. That's the work I tend to first — connecting with people in meetings or over the phone.

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

AW: Well, every Monday afternoon is spent with direct reports. I have about a dozen of them. Then I have one-on-one meetings with my direct reports, on average, every other week. They are a combination of both formal and casual meetings. We typically spend time in those one-on-ones talking about strategic issues and updates on key issues. A lot of our work is done in subsets of my direct reports as well. So the Monday afternoon meeting is really an opportunity for my senior leadership team to get together. We spend about a third of our time on running the organization — the day-in day-out tasks that need to be tended to — a third of the time on a strategic look forward, and the last third of time on what I would describe as culture work.

We are a team of 26,000 people. When you are in healthcare and the business of improving health, our work is accomplished through our people. So we spend a lot of time focused on, "How do we cultivate the head and heart together?" We talk about our culture as head and heart together. We are really conscious about how we build the kind of culture that allows us to get the important work done, allows us to improve care, allows us to innovate and create new products and services. Involvement and engagement of 26,000 people is how it gets done.

Q: How often do you meet with clinical staff?

AW: Oh, gosh, I would say nearly every day. The cadence of the meetings here at HealthPartners is such that we're always talking about clinical topics and issues with clinical leaders. When it comes to our frontline teams, that work is more about rounding and showing up at locations. And I would say a couple of times a week I am out in facilities, talking directly with individuals or team members.

In the spring and fall, we have what we call team talks, where we pair leaders from across the organization and go to every single location to share updates on what's going on within the organization and engage team members about where we're headed. For instance, this last fall the focus of our team talks was, "How can we make care simple and affordable? How can we make everything we do simpler and more affordable for the people we serve?"

The other thing we do is bring our manager, supervisor and director-level leaders together on a quarterly basis. That's system-wide. Recently we had a senior leader meeting with about 400 senior leaders from across the organization. That meeting really focused on a quick look back at 2018 and then a bigger look forward at 2019. We included updates on our people and culture work, updates on our community partnerships, and focused on our work to build high reliability in everything we do.

We start the meeting with coffee and networking time. A lot of leaders come early just to connect with each other. Then we set up tables and have discussions. We have a site that we use during our meetings so people can interact. We post questions and get feedback that shows up on the screen. In addition, at the end we have a section of the meeting called, Grab the Mic, which is an opportunity for people to give updates on things going on.

Q: How is your routine is different than other healthcare executives?

AW: Gosh. You know what you know. I don't know that I can speak for other healthcare executives. I think one thing that makes HealthPartners unique is the emphasis we place on culture and being a great place to work with the belief that we do better when we have a healthy culture. If you want to deliver exceptional care and health support to patients and health plan members, it's important to set the context and the environment up so you can draw out the best in others. I think that the time spent on culture, and the time spent connecting and really hearing and understanding what we need to do to set up an environment that allows people to do their best, is what defines my routine.

Q: What is the hardest part of your day?

AW: Well, there's never enough time. Time is a precious commodity, so I think the hardest part of the day is juggling priorities on my calendar. I'm lucky to have a really great administrative assistant who basically is my partner in making sure my priorities each day match with what the calendar looks like.

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

AW: The people, for sure. Interacting with my team and the community. Being able to listen to what our patients, our team members, our health plan customers want and need and then getting feedback. Sometimes you hear things are going great and sometimes you hear, "Boy, we've got some opportunities to make things better." But for me, I think that intersection between our mission of improving health and wellbeing, being able to serve people, and the work internally and watching a team make that happen — that is for sure the most rewarding part of the day.

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

AW: Oh, that's a great question. I think the last thing I do is make sure I've got what I need for the next day. Connecting with Wendy, my administrative assistant, and grabbing the materials I need for the next day. I would say though, the end of the day isn't my quiet time. My quiet time is in the morning and I'm way more apt in the morning to have a little bit of quiet time and reflection on what needs to get done.

Q: Do you work at home? How do you unwind?

AW: I do. I tend to work at home a little bit in the morning and a little bit in the evenings. But you can't keep perspective if you work all the time. Finding breaks and making space to clear your head is really important. For me, that shows up and looks like dinner with my husband. My kids are grown, but spending time with my husband at the end of the day, spending time reading a little bit and playing the piano — that's how I unwind.

I think gratitude and focusing on the little things is really important for leaders. From my vantage point, it's important to focus on things that need to be fixed and where you want to head, and it's important to be appreciative of the things that are going right. We have to find the right balance between those two. If you focus on the positives, it gives you energy to deal with the challenges that are unquestionably going to come your way. As a leader, I find perspective in not shying away from the challenges but approaching the challenge through the lens of, "What's the opportunity created within that challenge?"

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