The risks, rewards of taking organizations ‘where they haven’t gone before’

Dr. Alan Kaplan has been CEO of UW Health in Madison, Wis., since May 2016. He says the executive search process that landed him in the system’s C-suite involved risky decisions both personally and organizationally.

What was your riskiest decision? Our role as leaders is to take organizations where they haven’t gone before, so we assume an element of risk simply by taking our organizations into new and sometimes uncertain directions. You could say our careers as leaders are built on a series of risky decisions. Sometimes those decisions are organizational and other times they are personal. I would consider my riskiest decision as both. I transitioned from being the executive vice president/chief clinical officer of UnityPoint Health, a large three-state, community-oriented health system, to becoming CEO of UW Health, the academic health system affiliated with the University of Wisconsin.

What made that move risky? I was approached by the search consultant early in the interview process and declined. I had already experienced being told by another academic system that I was not a viable candidate for a CEO position. Several months later the UW Health search consultant called again and offered me the opportunity to move straight into the second round of interviews, so I decided to enter the search.

One challenge was that I couldn’t keep my interview completely confidential because I was involved in business negotiations between UnityPoint and UW Health. I informed my boss (the CEO) about the UW Health interview. I learned later that he did not try to stop me because he did not think I would get the job. Bottom line, I was willing to potentially compromise my standing at my current job, which I greatly enjoyed, for an opportunity where I was an underdog candidate because I didn’t have academic health system experience.

What was the outcome? Dr. Bob Golden, dean of the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health, chaired the search committee. His perspective was that the health system did not need another academician. Instead, they were looking for a physician leader with business acumen to lead a $3.4 billion health system that was undertaking complex initiatives, such as merging the hospital system and the faculty medical group. Perhaps hiring me was Bob’s riskiest move.

What was the response from those involved? Looking back on my initial onboarding five years ago, I would say people were welcoming, but cautious. The caution escalated when I made early senior team changes and initiated a strategic planning process. But from the start, I held myself accountable to the tripartite mission. I listened, learned and made mistakes, which were followed by more intense listening, learning and course correcting. I partnered closely with Dr. Golden and the clinical department chairs and reached out to other university leaders. All feedback, soft and harsh, was an opportunity to engage and build relationships.

What’s your advice to executives in similar positions? Don’t shy away from something just because you have not done it before. Leadership is leadership. The starting point is understanding and appreciating the world you have stepped into. From there, build followership, create a shared vision and make it a better place than when you arrived. And always be open to learning. I have been a senior healthcare executive for 25 years and still find myself in learning mode.

How would you describe your leadership style? I have always been motivated by the desire to build things. I thrive on good strategic planning with goals, accountabilities, resources, timelines and oversight to bring strategy to reality. I also am very disciplined about team development. Once I have the right people in place, I empower them and commit to their personal development. Perhaps my biggest liability is that I do not stop to celebrate. I am always moving on to the next thing. I would do well to hire a chief celebration officer.

How would others describe your style? I hope the first thing that would come to mind is integrity. For me, integrity includes honesty, transparency, inclusiveness, approachability and consistency. I believe I am viewed as calm in stressful situations, likely due in part to my training as an ER physician. As a CEO, I often find myself in situations where we are trying to find common ground and reach a decision. I work hard to ensure that I’m a trusted negotiating partner who looks out for the interests of all parties.


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