Philly hospital CEO learns a muddy lesson: To stay in touch, stay in touch

Nancy Hesse, 58, the new chief executive of the Cancer Treatment Centers of America Eastern Regional Center in Northeast Philadelphia at 1331 E Wyoming Ave, Philadelphia, in a radiation oncology treatment room.

You know how it goes -- you get a job as an executive, and suddenly, your jokes are funnier, your clothes are more attractive, but, and here's the challenge, you have more and more of a problem finding out what your employees really think. 

So, maybe the key is having a lot of people you barely know pushing your derriere and watching you roll around in the mud. Worked for Nancy Hesse, the chief executive at Cancer Treatment Centers of America Eastern Regional Center, a 74-bed for-profit cancer specialty hospital in Northeast Philadelphia.

It happened when she joined the primarily outpatient facility as its chief nurse in 2014. 

"When I first came and I was a chief nurse, they invited me to go on this mud run," she said. "The nurses tend to raise money, if it’s for Komen [breast cancer], Get Your Rear in Gear [colon cancer] or the American Cancer Society.  They were raising money for AIH, which is called Assistance in Healthcare, a fund we have for raising money to support patients and families -- their travel, their babysitting needs, whatever the case might be. 

So, they asked me to go.  I didn’t look it up.  I didn’t Google it.  I just said, `Yes, sign me up.'  I thought I’d better be on the in-crowd and join them.  So, I said, `Just tell me what to wear.' 

Well, I didn’t really look into it too closely.  Probably if I had, I wouldn’t have gone.  But, it was over in New Jersey and we were on the bus and the guy nurses say, `Well, everybody leaves their titles at the door of the bus.'

I’m thinking to myself, `What am I getting myself into?'  Well, we were in muddy water up to our neck.  We were swimming in it.  We ran under ice buckets.  We were on rope swings.  We were climbing over walls.  I’m scared to death of breaking something.  You’re jumping down like 12 feet.  People were catching each other.  I didn’t even really know these guys yet.  So, here they are boosting me over walls. 

I'm picturing that all your reports have their hands on your butt. Very charming. 

I have to say it was one of the most humbling entries into being new in an executive role, but the teamwork and the camaraderie, like that ICU staff, they’ll go to bat for me.  We bonded that day.  We totally bonded. It was a bunch of physicians, a bunch of nurses. 

What do you think they expected out of you that day?  You were on audition.

I was on audition.  They expected me to give it all I had with them.  And, it was hard.  They were all amazed.  The chief operating officer did it also. We’re the two blonds.  I think they thought that we were not going to make it.  Well, we were pushing it, but it was an audition. They still joke about that:  `We had you right where we wanted you, in the mud.'  

You aren't going to install a mud pit in your parking lot, so how do you keep the momentum going?

I’m in front of every stakeholder [which is what the company calls employees.]  I call them in-the-know meetings.  I want everybody to be in-the-know.  So, I hold them.  I have one with the physician staff every three weeks, the leaders every two weeks and the front line every week.  And, it’s a pattern that it can be painful.  It’s hard to get up in front of the group constantly, but…

Why is it hard?

It’s not necessarily hard, but it requires a lot of discipline.  Then to follow it up with the summary in writing.  So, I summarize it every week and it gets pushed out to every stakeholder.  So, it’s labor intensive.  When I say hard, it’s labor intensive to discipline yourself to be up in front of your stakeholders in an ongoing manner.

And you have people on all shifts.

I spread them around.  I swing them around the clock.  I also go to departments.  Like, they invite me to have breakfast, lunch or dinner with them.  So, it’s like having a staff meeting right in their environment.  They’re not coming to me.  I’m going to them.  And, I started doing that instead of doing the CEO lunches, which I always viewed as stuffy.  I really want to go to where they are.  So, I’m on their turf.  I’m the visitor.  They’re not the visitor to me.  And, the interchange of communication is so much better when I go to them.  You know, it’s their place.  It’s their department.  The radiology department we were just in for that picture, I had a great lunch with them two weeks ago.

What have you learned?  Is there anything you learn by doing that, that changed your style or changed something or changed a procedure?

They love it when you really spend time getting to know them.  I learned this from a CEO at Abington [Abington Memorial Hospital, now Abington-Jefferson Health]. 


His name was Dick Jones.  He spent a lot of time getting to know everybody’s name and he called them by name.  And, he learned something special about everybody.  He knew mine was the beach and sailing.  He’s come to my office and he’d not talk about the emergency room. [Hesse directed the emergency operation for years]. He’d talk about the beach and sailing.  I learned that from him, and I try to do that with all the stakeholders here.  I try to learn something special about them.  I’m still in the learning curve, but it means a lot to them when you really connect with them personally. That’s always in the conversation, though. 

I always say, `What do you need to do your job that you don’t have?'

 That’s a great question. A lot of bosses should incorporate that into their playbooks.

Also, what do you think I need to know that I don’t know? 

Also good. What do you find out?

Oh, I found out that they were concerned because there were curtains and not sliding doors for patient privacy.  So we came back and talked about it at an executive committee.  Is there something we can do about that?  Is there something we can do for a sound barrier?  That one room was bothering them and, evidently, it wouldn’t [work with] sliding glass doors. So, we said, `How about if we don’t use it for a patient exam room?' Maybe they’re right about that.  That’s bothering them.  So, let’s figure it out.  They ask for stuff that patients care about.