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Published in Health Care

Communication key during health system CEO’s first year on the job

BY Sunday, May 09, 2021 04:00pm

Bill Manns started as president and CEO at Bronson Healthcare on March 30, 2020. The COVID-19 pandemic was in its early stages in Michigan and hospitals had been ordered by the state to halt all non-emergency procedures. As a result, the Kalamazoo health system was projecting a “fairly significant” financial loss, said Manns, who previously served as president of St. Joseph Mercy Ann Arbor. He was president at Mercy Health Saint Mary’s in Grand Rapids from 2013 to October 2018. Manns talked to MiBiz about his first year leading Bronson through the pandemic.

What’s it like stepping into the CEO position as a public health crisis was emerging and spreading?

Bill Manns, CEO of Bronson Healthcare COURTESY PHOTO

I’ve talked to so many people and they’ve said, ‘Oh, man. I’d hate to be in those shoes stepping in as the new guy right in the middle of a pandemic.’ Very truly, it demonstrates and you see people’s true colors under a crisis — from staff at the bedside who stepped up to the challenge, to our physicians and providers who really stepped forward, to managers and directors who were rolling up their sleeves and also providing care.

I really saw the heart of the organization putting the patients first. It was both humbling and rewarding to be in a position to help guide and lead the organization through the crisis.

As you prepared to move into the CEO position, was there a moment that told you just how bad the crisis would get?

For me, the elective surgeries had been shut down. I sat down with our chief financial officer and we went through some projections. At that point, it became real. You have to weigh just these huge projected losses against the fact that Bronson is the largest employer in Southwest Michigan, and know that you couldn’t shrink the organization because that would have an impact on the region. So how do we very carefully navigate this challenge in a way that would allow the organization to grow and move forward and not allow the hole to be too deep that you spiral out of control and it couldn’t come back financially?

What was decision No. 1?

To cut my salary. For me, it was important to model the way. I knew that no matter what, we would have to reduce our expenses because elective surgeries had stopped and we couldn’t craft a scenario where you’d be able to come out without reducing expenses.

To follow up with decision No. 2, many of the other executives jumped on board. It was, ‘Wait, the new guy’s going to do it, so we’re going to follow.’ So, that was cool. The tougher decisions we didn’t want to make involved furloughing staff. That was tough because nobody wants to do that. I grew up in Detroit where my dad was always worried about being laid off from the plants. I took that very, very seriously.

What must an effective leader make sure they do while leading in a crisis?

Communicate, communicate, communicate. We did a number of videos, a number of emails, and to the extent that I could stay safely and appropriately distanced, I walked around to listen to people and communicated. And again being new, people didn’t know me. It was, wow, ‘I think I’m a trustworthy guy, but, gee, you never met me before and some of the decisions I have to make are going to be really tough.’ In that kind of crisis, you have to really over communicate and communicate in ways that were quite novel.

How has the first year and managing the crisis changed you as a leader?

It’s given me resolve as a leader that you really do have to listen to and trust those around you. It’s given me a sense of resolve that together the team can do virtually anything. This crisis just demonstrated to me that we literally are all in this together. 

When I refer to the ecosystem that exists, especially in health care, and the impact the crisis has had worldwide, as a leader I can mistakenly think about what I do. It really isn’t. It’s about what we do together as a team.

So, it has allowed me in a very counterintuitive way to have a sense of peace and resolve because I know where I have weaknesses, someone else on the team will pick up. Where I see someone else needs help, I feel very comfortable diving in. It’s really changed my type-A kind of mindset to be a more holistic and supportive leader than before.

What’s the pandemic’s lasting effects on Bronson, and on health care in general?

For health systems, there’s the obvious: Telehealth. Many have been struggling to get traction around their telehealth strategies and we saw an exponential rise in telehealth that kind of plateaued as we opened back up. But telehealth is here to stay for the foreseeable future.

For Bronson, it’s opened our eyes that we have a larger responsibility to the communities that we serve toensure that we provide access.

What’s the biggest thing you learned in the last year?

The resilience of the staff. I’ve watched and seen people do things where I’m just in complete awe. I’ll take the strength of the team over the strength of any one individual. As we were looking at this projected loss, we assembled about 100 directors and managers to help us grow and come out of this financially. While we were dealing with the pandemic, in about 16 weeks, they generated ideas that really benefited Bronson significantly and helped us take what would have been a really challenging financial situation and turned it around so we ended our fiscal year in relatively good shape.

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