Living Like a Leader: A day with Scripps Health CEO Chris Van Gorder

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"Healthcare is always going through a lot of change, and sometimes employees, managers and even physicians think we are making those changes because somebody in administration decided it's the right thing to do. The reality is, we're reacting to what's changing in the marketplace or what we believe will be coming in the marketplace. If we don't adjust fast enough then it will negatively affect our organization and employees."

From police officer to healthcare executive, Chris Van Gorder's career trajectory is far from ordinary.

Mr. Van Gorder began his career as a police officer in a town bordering Los Angeles. After being injured on the job and retiring from the police force, Mr. Van Gorder had to reinvent himself.

He eventually took a job as a hospital security director for the facility where he received care for his injury. This job, unbeknownst to him at the time, would shape the rest of his work life.  

After spending time in the hospital as a guard and observing leadership, Mr. Van Gorder decided to return to school to get a degree in healthcare administration.

Since, Mr. Van Gorder has held several prominent healthcare leadership positions, including vice president, COO and CEO of Anaheim Memorial Hospital and CEO of Long Beach (Calif.) Memorial, the flagship facility of MemorialCare Health System in Fountain Valley, Calif.

Now Mr. Van Gorder serves as CEO of one of the top medical institutions in the U.S., San Diego-based Scripps Health, a $3.1 billion integrated network with 15,000 employees and 3,000 physicians. He has held the role since 1999.

Here, Mr. Van Gorder spoke with Becker's Hospital Review for our "Living like a leader" series, which examines influential decision-maker's daily routines to offer readers an idea of how they manage their energy, teams and time.

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

Chris Van Gorder: Get a cup of coffee. Then I go to my home office and prepare what I call "market news." I do this every day of the year, including holidays, vacations and weekends. The market news is a summary of all the major healthcare and business articles that I think may have an impact on Scripps Health. I'll scour several websites, including The San Diego Union Tribune, The Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Washington Post and Becker's, among other healthcare publications. I'll put those links into a document and send them to my senior leadership team, most doctors and the alumni of our leadership academies. It takes me about an hour.

My rationale for sending the relevant links to my team is that healthcare is always going through a lot of change, and sometimes employees, managers and even physicians think we are making those changes because somebody in administration decided it's the right thing to do. The reality is, we're reacting to what's changing in the marketplace or what we believe will be coming in the marketplace. If we don't adjust fast enough then it will negatively affect our organization and employees.

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

CVG: I will grab another cup of coffee. Then I log onto the computer and start answering emails. Daily, I will answer every email that comes to me. I don't go to bed at night without looking at my iPhone and making sure I've responded to every email that came to me during the day. So the first thing I do when I get to work is respond to any emails that came during the middle of the night. One of our core values is respect, and I think it is a sign of respect when I am responsive to the people who work in this organization and people outside of it.

Q: Is there any work that you like to get done before lunch or work that you save for the afternoon?

CVG: Unless it's a lunch meeting, I never eat lunch. What I usually do is read my own market news, because when I put it together, I don't have enough time to thoroughly read the articles. But my daily routine is so variable. Sometimes we have board meetings that start at 7:00 a.m. It's rare if I don't have something that starts very early in the morning. From there, my schedule is packed, but it is always different.

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

CVG: I have a Microsoft hub on the wall that allows me to have video meetings with anybody in leadership across the system. In the case of a natural disaster, the hub also allows me to monitor what's going on inside and outside of Scripps.

I also have a picture of a patient's heart hanging on my wall. I was working in trauma with our physicians one night and a younger patient came to the hospital with a stab wound to the heart. We cracked this patient's chest open, stapled the heart shut and took the patient upstairs to heal. The patient came into our hospital almost dead, but the patient went home a week later. I have a picture of that heart on my wall to remind me of the work that we do every single day — the most important work we do.

I also have a few awards and about 100 challenge coins that law enforcement, fire and military units have given me. I also have my own challenge coin that I give out to employees when they've done something extraordinary outside their normal work responsibilities.

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

CVG: Several times a week. I'm in a corporate office but not far from the hospitals, so I spend a lot of time with them. I also teach our leadership academies and most of the people in attendance are clinical staff. Usually rounds are on Fridays.

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

CVG: I do not have standing regular meetings with my direct reports. They are all on the same floor as me and I have an open-door policy. Some of them will schedule meetings with me to brief me on certain items, but I'm a big believer in not having redundant meetings that are just happening because they're scheduled. I want people to meet with me when they need to meet with me. My staff are in and out of my office all day long. I see all of them daily. I have one scheduled meeting with all of them as a group once a week, but the rest of the meetings are ad hoc.

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

CVG: I spend a lot of time with management and employees. I suspect more than most CEOs do, because I've made it a personal commitment since joining Scripps. I spend a lot of time with the front-line staff and our front-line management team. The key leaders in an organization are those front-line supervisors and managers. Because of that belief, I created the Scripps Leadership Academy 18 years ago, the Front-Line Leader Academy in 2015 and The Employee 100 in 2010. These academies help develop leaders at every level.

I also spend a lot of time teaching. And after I teach, I stay. I don't teach, make a presentation and leave. My understanding of most CEOs is that they're very busy, and I don't blame them, but most would depart to make it to the next meeting on time. I will never leave right at the end of the class. The reason for that is it builds trust and gives employees who may have been too shy in the lecture a chance to ask questions.

Additionally, things are constantly changing in healthcare. The "whats" and "whys" this year will likely be different next year, so I also make a point to meet with the alumni of the leadership academies once a month where we just do a Q&A about leadership and any changes.

Q: What is the hardest part of your day?

CVG: Running a big organization like Scripps is like running a city. There are great things that are happening all the time, and there are bad things that happen occasionally. That burden falls on me, and that's probably the worst part of the job. Fortunately, those bad things don't happen often, but when something happens to a patient that shouldn't have happened or if one of my employees is attacked by a patient, those days are difficult. At Scripps, we're trying to push forward legislation on workplace violence, because I'm very concerned that workplace violence is on the rise in hospitals. CMS has very strict rules about what we're allowed to do to protect our staff, because they're looking out for the wellbeing of the patients, as are we, but we have an obligation to protect both. That's a very difficult thing to do.

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

CVG: Any time the organization succeeds, one of our employees thrives or I get a chance to award a challenge coin — those are the rewarding moments. A few weeks ago, one of our environmental service workers broke up a fight where one patient was choking another. He broke it up and called the police. He could have very easily stood back and done nothing. He would not have been in trouble, because he's not trained to intervene in situations like this, but he did and in a safe way. He prevented people from getting hurt or killed. That was one of our environmental service employees, who is phenomenal. So, when our employees excel and go beyond what was expected of them, it is extraordinarily rewarding. Additionally, I'm going to go visit a patient who struggled and was very sick but is now getting better. This patient and the family are thrilled with the care they received and they asked to see me. Obviously, those moments with patients are also highlights.

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

CVG: Mother Mary Michael Cummings started the Catholic side of the health system in 1890. Ellen Browning Scripps founded the Scripps side of the system in 1924. Today, we are one system. One of the funny things I do when I get in the car at the end of the day is pause for a minute I and just ask myself, "Would Mother Mary Michael Cummings and Ellen Browning Scripps be proud of what we did today?" And the answer is almost always, "Yes." When I answer that question, I feel good about that day. Then I drive home and start my post-work routine.

Q: Do you do any work at home?

CVG: Yes. Beyond checking emails and creating the market news reports, I also take home longer reports if I didn't have time to read them at work. So often, I'll just take those home and read and study those at night when I have more time.

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

CVG: I volunteer with the sheriff's department. A lot of that work is done in the evenings and on weekends. I'm a reserve assistant sheriff, which means I'm in charge of the reserves and the search and rescue team. I'm also an instructor of first aid and CPR at the search and rescue academy. My volunteer work is a complete diversion because I'm very often the caregiver, not the supervisor. It's a great mental change from what I do on a day-to-day basis. I think that creates some balance. I also have family time. I have two boys and a wife. I always consider the weekends my family time.

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