Physicians Leading | Leading Physicians

Integrity and Reputation Are the Most Important Things One Has

Interview · August 7, 2017

Laura Kaiser and Tom Lee

Read or listen to our interview with Laura Kaiser, FACHE, President and Chief Executive Officer for SSM Health.


Tom Lee: This is Tom Lee from NEJM Catalyst, and we’re fortunate today to be talking with Laura Kaiser, who just this spring moved into the role of being President and CEO of SSM Health in her hometown of St. Louis.

Laura is someone I’ve known well during the 5 years she was Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer at Intermountain Healthcare, and before that, she spent 15 years working at Ascension in various increasing roles of responsibility. But now, at a time of a great turmoil in health care, she’s moving into the CEO chair and getting a glimpse of what that process is like from someone who, I think, many caregivers consider one of the real rising stars in health care management.

Laura, thanks so much for talking with us. Now 2 months, I believe, into your new role as CEO at SSM, how is it going? I appreciate you taking the time to provide insight in how you prepared for your role. Everyone knows that first impressions matter and talks about the importance of those first 100 days. You’ve come home to where you’ve grown up to be the CEO of SSM. It’s the first health care organization in this country to ever win a Baldrige Award. After you won that role, how did you begin to prepare?

Laura Kaiser: Thanks, Tom, for having me, I appreciate it. When I accepted the role at SSM Health, I decided I needed to do a lot of preparation relative to reading what it’s like to be in the CEO chair. Preparing for on-boarding, [I] talked with lots of people who are CEOs about how they prepare[d] as they stepped into that responsibility. And I’ve also been working with an expert in this space, Dr. Michael Watkins, who’s the author of The First 90 Days, and together we sorted through what were the most important activities for me to undertake in preparation, and then, as I’m in the role now, to continue that plan.

Lee: So you made a plan for the first 90 days. I don’t know how much of if you can share or want to share. You’re partway through it, but can you give us some of the big bones of the kinds of things that you decided to emphasize for that first break-in period?

Kaiser: Sure. Just think about it — I’m a stranger, coming to a new country, if you will, so I want to turn from a stranger into part of the community, which is SSM Health. I wanted to spend a lot of time meeting with people, internal and external stakeholders, the sponsors, the board members, physicians, staff, community, and learning more about SSM Health, so going out and seeing the various locations, whether it’s a physician office or a home care location, hospital, etc., and also spending time with external stakeholders in the community.

I’ve been spending a fair amount of time rounding to see direct patient care and get[ting] a sense of the pulse of what is SSM Health, what makes it special, and also providing the same opportunity for people to get to know me and what’s important — who I am, how I think. And what I’ve been conveying is that it’s really important for me to be accountable as the new leader for SSM Health. [I want] a working partnership with everyone, and [to] be very focused on the strategy and vision, connecting with people, taking care of the people, both those we care for and also our caregivers. Communicating, which means working a lot — I’m on a bit of a listening tour — as well as talking. And then lastly, ensuring that the organization is ready for anything in this tumultuous time.

Lee: That is one of the things I’m most interested in. The irony is you’re back in your hometown, but you’re new to almost everyone you’re working with, and that issue of trust — it is so important. So, a little more about how are you trying to build trust and relationships. How much time are you spending out of your office walking around, what kind of places? As I understand, it’s a really distributed system and you have places in other states. How are you trying to build trust over such a broad geography?

Kaiser: A couple of different things. First, I’m racking up the frequent flyer miles and miles in the car, but also attending different forums, as they presently exist, to get a sense of the culture, and going to different local board meetings, physician meetings.

We have an annual leadership conference that brings together about 500 people from across the system — sponsors, board members, physicians, leaders, and also some of the frontline staff — to be focused on our mission and our vision and values. And that happened to have been just last week, within my first 100 days, so [it was an] extraordinary opportunity for all of us to be together. I’ve had an opportunity with our leadership council, too, which is the senior-most leadership group, about 75 members, to spend a day together. It’s about a lot of dialogue — there are no shortcuts — and listening a lot to what’s important to people and being authentic.

I strongly feel that integrity and reputation are the most important things one has; you need to be who you are and have your actions and your words align. And I’m very blessed. For me, it’s really important to be part of a value-based organization, and I’ve had that opportunity in my career — this is no exception. It’s easy to be me when I come in the door and interact with people in an authentic way.

Lee: I know you well enough to know how authentic you are. When you meet people, a story can be a good way to convey that. Are there particular stories that you’re telling that capture what you’re hoping care at SSM will be like?

Kaiser: Yes. One of the initial areas of focus for me is learning as much as I can, specifically in the patient safety, quality, access, experience space, and I appreciate you mentioning the Malcolm Baldrige Award that SSM Health was awarded many, many years ago through significant hard work and dedication.

This is an organization that is focused on that, so I’ve been wanting to hear stories of how did that happen and what was done to effectuate that and what we need to do to ensure that we continue to carry that forward. I’ve been listening to lots of different stories and we have opportunities to improve, every organization does, but to hear firsthand from caregivers how does a typical day look, what is happening when we have a safety event, how do we follow through on that, what are we learning from that, how are we sharing best practices. So I agree with you, storytelling is huge, and that’s a natural part of the day that I’m looking for and hearing a lot about from a lot of different people.

Lee: That’s a twist on what I hear from a lot of CEOs, they’re out there telling stories. You’re actually listening to stories. That can be something wonderful and effective. To close, is there anything you can share about your aspirations for the years ahead, what you hope you’ll be looking back upon with pride for SSM?

Kaiser: Sr. Mary Jean Ryan was the leader of SSM Health when the Baldrige Award was sought and achieved, and for her she had three large areas of focus: quality, diversity, and stewardship — environmental stewardship and [making sure] stewardship of the ministry is vibrant for many years to come. Those are pretty terrific areas of focus and ones I intend to continue to push forward.

Bill Thompson, the most recent CEO, also led with that lens, and I hope to be able to look back and say SSM continued a very vibrant ministry, amazing patient safety, quality, and experience. It’s a ministry that’s very focused on providing care to all, and to do so in an affordable way. So not that magical compared to what most health care, if not all, organizations are aspiring to, but one that’s not easy to just snap your fingers and provide. That’s my hope and focus at this point.

Lee: My colleagues and I are rooting for your success. What I want to do is check back in with you on behalf of NEJM Catalyst every now and then and hear how it’s going, not just so people can learn about the great things that SSM is doing, but what it’s like being the CEO of a system trying to pursue these kinds of aspirations at a challenging time like we have.

Thanks for today and thanks in advance for sharing insights in the future.

Kaiser: Thank you, Tom.


This interview originally appeared in NEJM Catalyst on July 25, 2017.

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