You’ve been in the organization for 40 years and served as interim CEO for a few months. Once they pull that interim title off, does it change the way you operate?
It really doesn’t. We all as leaders … have core values and belief systems already established. When the organization is asking you to be interim, I don’t think they’re asking you to change your leadership style. I think they want you to come in as who you are as an authentic leader. My core values really are collaboration, trust, mutual respect and teams.
It’s important to understand what the organization needs. And if you become a leader that starts to transition and starts to act differently within the interim role, and maybe starts to react to other stakeholders in a different way and not being who you are and not staying true to your core values, then I think you lose a little bit of you as being an authentic leader.
Can you talk about the journey from starting in the laundry to being CEO and what key lessons you’ve learned along the way?
Laundry is just hard work. We had two individuals there who would come up in the bus. Each day they would show up and they’d work hard. So for me, that was the first lesson learned—showing up and working hard. And the next step would be that I got exposure to the clinical area.
We had, at that time, a three-bay burn unit. If anybody’s been in a burn unit, it can be very visceral. For me, coming into that environment as a 22-year-old really taught me about the importance of clinical work and the importance of what our providers are doing each day and what they’re committed to. Then I moved up into a laser institute, which then brought me into the academic world. It was multidisciplined. We did education, research and clinical. And that was important because it gave me a broader view of the academic world and the importance of the other missions.
If a leader is focused just (on) clinical and not recognizing the importance of research and education, I think there’s a lost opportunity. And then I moved up into administration and realized the weight and the importance and the need for clear communication.
My lessons learned over the whole tenure were about how important relationships are. I have a saying: “Never jeopardize a long-term relationship for short-term gain.”
Looking at the issue of relationships, there’s been increased tensions over the past 18 months between labor and management around issues of personal protective equipment, burnout and vaccine mandates. How can the industry get past this?
Let’s not use “labor.” Let’s just talk about teams. I think when you use “labor,” that immediately starts to have this division. What you have to realize is we’re a team. One, you need loyalty. If we’re not taking care of our teams prior to COVID, I can’t even imagine how that would be working through COVID because you have to be laser-focused on what’s important. And having our teams be able to take care of our patients is the No. 1 priority.
Two would be, what commitment do you have? You think about that fateful day of March 16, 2020, when we shut down all elective cases. What do you do with your employees? What do you do with the teams? We never laid anybody off. If they didn’t work, we supported them financially. We supported them with childcare. We supported them with additional incentives. We redeployed them. The loyalty that they provided us prior to coming into COVID, we needed to return that loyalty to say, “We’re going to protect you. You’re going to be OK.”
As leaders, we equally participated with reducing salaries when necessary, and really it was an all-in deal. And we were very transparent. We had clear communication on a daily basis of what was happening.
We also needed to acknowledge how scary it is for the families. And innovation rose. Our teams really became extremely innovative. We had masks being produced off 3D printers.
I’ve never seen this in healthcare in my career, but we’re resilient, we’re adaptive and we’re innovative. And we have the leadership to get through this.
University of Utah Health was one of the first systems in the state to mandate vaccinations for employees. The Biden administration is extending its mandate for vaccinations. What advice do you have for systems that haven’t yet started down this road?
You have to first acknowledge it’s complicated. There are regions in the U.S. that have pressures that I think we can’t imagine. We first need to have empathy with leaders right now and understand that this is really hard.
We were the first (in the state) and, again, that was that core value. There was a risk that … our workforce would leave. They didn’t. You have to understand where our healthcare workers are right now and the pressure they are under is just enormous.
My advice is stay true, keep focused, keep your true north. Connect to the purpose that we’re all (in healthcare for). We cannot lose sight of that.
Utah, like so many other states is in the midst of another surge. How does that impact your ability to think strategically two, three or four years down the road?
I’ll break that into two points. One is we know what culture can do to strategy. You need to assess the culture—is a culture going to still be viable and receptive to strategy for the future.
Two is we all need to continue to be looking ahead. In a natural disaster, you typically would take a look at what’s going to happen in the next one, two, three days. And then you look at the week. We’ve been in this for 18 months. So you have to be looking at what’s going to happen in the next two to three to five years.
As leaders, we have to keep our eye on both, but the first and foremost priority is what is in front of us. But we absolutely need to be thinking through the next three to five years and what will be fundamentally important is what the culture is going to look like after COVID.