As part of my series about the “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Chuck Stokes, BSN, MHA, FACHE.
Charles (Chuck) D. Stokes, Former President and CEO of Memorial Hermann Health System, joined the system in 2008 as Chief Operating Officer (COO). In June 2017, he was named President and CEO of the System. In his role, Chuck was responsible for leading and overseeing the $5.6B System’s network of more than 17 hospitals and 300 delivery sites, with more than 27,000 employees and 6,400 affiliated physicians in the Greater Houston area. Chuck retired from Memorial Hermann effective December 2019.
Chuck has four decades of leadership experience in healthcare, and throughout his accomplished career has achieved success in service line leadership, employee engagement, leadership development, physician collaboration, and quality and patient safety improvement.
During his tenure with Memorial Hermann, Chuck worked tirelessly to establish a culture of high reliability, innovation, and clinical transformation throughout the organization. Under his visionary leadership Memorial Hermann attained unprecedented national accolades in patient safety, high-quality care, and operational excellence all while serving as Houston’s “safety net” health system.
Chuck models servant leadership with an emphasis on coaching and team building while using Malcolm Baldrige criteria as a platform for driving operational excellence. His leadership was instrumental in helping Memorial Hermann Sugar Land Hospital secure the 2016 Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award — the nation’s highest Presidential honor for performance excellence. In 2019, Chuck was named one of Modern Healthcare’s 100 Most Influential People in Healthcare.
As part of his commitment to developing the next generation of healthcare leaders, Chuck has taught numerous leadership development programs for the American College of Healthcare Executives (ACHE), an organization of more than 48,000 healthcare executives working together to improve care delivery and population health. In 2017, Chuck was named Chairman of the ACHE Board of Governors.
Prior to his roles as COO and CEO with Memorial Hermann, Chuck served as President of North Mississippi Medical Center, a 650-bed tertiary hospital and a 2006 Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award recipient under his leadership. He has also previously served as COO for three other nationally recognized healthcare systems.
Chuck, who is board certified in Healthcare Management as an ACHE fellow, began his career as a critical care nurse and nurse executive before completing his master’s degree in Hospital and Healthcare Administration from the University of Alabama at Birmingham, where he has served in an adjunct faculty position for more than a decade.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
Paul McCartney captured my 40-year career path best in the memorable hit “A Long and Winding Road.” I started my healthcare career as an orderly in 90-bed community hospital in my hometown of Yazoo City, Mississippi. I also had the privilege of working with my family physician and general surgeon, who not only delivered me, but also taught me how to scrub and pass instruments. During this experience, I became interested in anesthesia from watching our nurse anesthetist put people to sleep. This motivated me to attend nursing school at the University of Mississippi Medical Center to pursue this career path.
After working for 4 years as a critical care nurse and nurse executive, I attended graduate school at the University of Alabama in Birmingham and received my MHA degree and returned to the University of Mississippi Medical Center (UMC) to join the executive team in 1984. I never returned to the clinical setting, but the clinical background proved to be instrumental in my career success. Starting my career as an orderly taught me a life lesson about appreciation for all employees involved in healthcare regardless of their roles.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
A funny, memorable, and sobering event for me happened shortly after I returned to UMC after graduate school, I was doing a presentation to roughly 300 medical faculty and residents on a new form of government reimbursement for Medicare patients called DRGs. About 15 minutes into my stack of 30 overhead transparencies, the Chairman of Neurology, who I had known for years, stood up in the middle of my presentation and said, “Chuck, did you go to Alabama to learn about communism in healthcare?” I was a little discombobulated as there was much laughter from the group but it was a salient moment in that I realized that I was no longer seen as the stellar critical care nurse who had cared for many of their patients over the years and that I was going to have to earn their trust and respect in my new role as an executive. That learning never stopped throughout my career.
None of us can achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
No one gets to the end of a successful career without mentoring and role models. I would have to write a book to mention all the people who have nurtured and guided me throughout my career. No one more so than my father who instilled in me at a very early age that success in life is not possible without hard work, education and treating everyone with dignity and respect regardless of their backgrounds.
In 1986 I was a VP for operations at St. Luke’s Episcopal Hospital, Texas Heart Institute in Houston, Texas. I had the pleasure of working with Dr. Denton Cooley, a world renown heart surgeon who pioneered heart transplantation. We worked on the development of artificial hearts and numerous innovative open-heart surgical procedures. Even with his iconic international status, he never failed to thank his entire team after every procedure and never raised his voice to his peers or hospital staff. His skills and expertise were only exceeded by his humility and his unwavering commitment to help people and make a difference in patient care, research, and education. He left an amazing legacy.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your company started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?
During my 40-year career, I have worked for 7 different not-for-profit healthcare organizations. The common attributes of their mission, vision and values were to serve their communities with integrity, compassion, transparency, high quality and to improve the healthcare status of the community with which they worked. The number one reason people choose healthcare as a profession is that they want to help people and make a difference in the lives of their patients, community and ultimately society. It is a purpose-driven profession.
Thank you for all that. Let us now turn to the focus of our discussion. Can you share with our readers a story from your own experience about how you lead your team during uncertain or difficult times?
The culmination of our life experiences and leadership during smooth seas usually does not stimulate the professional leadership growth experienced during turbulent times. On August 3, 2017, Hurricane Harvey hit Houston, Texas as a category 4 hurricane and dumped over 1 trillion gallons of water on the community over a 5-day period.
I had just taken over Memorial Hermann Health System as President and CEO a month earlier. Even though I had served as the System COO for the previous 8 years, and had weathered Hurricane Ike and several floods, none were on the same scale as Harvey. There were several take away leadership lessons that helped us successfully deal with this horrific event:
- Timely communication
- Demonstrating genuine care and concern for your staff
- Leadership visibility
- Reassurance we were going to continue our mission, vision, and values
Timely Communication: I established our system command center and led three daily conference calls with all the senior leadership of our 16 hospitals and 300 ambulatory sites across the city. We dealt with hour-to-hour needs for supplies, personnel, and equipment for five straight days of rain and flooding.
Demonstrating care and concern for our staff: Our Organization personally contacted all 26,000 plus of our employees to check on them and their family’s wellbeing. 2,100 of our employees lost their means of transportation, 2,700 were displaced from their homes and 825 employees needed immediate housing such as hotel rooms. Within weeks of the event, our System Foundation Board raised more than $6 million dollars for an employee relief fund, we distributed $1.6 million dollars in pay advances and provided $255,000 in grants to employees.
Leadership visibility: As soon as the senior leadership could gain access to their facilities, they were daily making leadership rounds, organizing relief for 5,073 staff who had been on duty for 5 straight days caring for patients without relief. During these 5 days with the majority of Houston flooded, these staff members delivered 564 babies, performed 748 surgeries, care for 9,642 emergency room visits and admitted 2,589 patients. We had staff who canoed and kayaked to work. We witnessed amazing engagement, selfless assistance, and people making a difference.
As the flood waters receded, our leadership team started communicating our go-forward plan, reassuring our staff that we were going to continue our 104-year history of serving the community. We not only survived but thrived the following two years.
Turbulent times brings out the best in leadership and people. It forces you to get better faster and reinforces that you will be fine out of your comfort zone. Leaders seldom grow in calm waters.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
I never wanted to give up on my professional career regardless of the challenges I may have been facing. I know of people who have faced much worse. Things such a war, a national economic depression, hunger, homelessness, exclusion, and many other horrific things I have never experienced. I feel very fortunate.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
The most critical role of a leader during challenging times is to reassure his/her team and staff, that they will get through this crisis together and daily if not hourly, communication on the go forward plan given the circumstance is paramount.
When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate, and engage their team?
When the future seems uncertain, a leader can boost morale by asking his/her staff for their help. This shows humility and that to get through the crisis, the leader needs everyone’s help. The next step is to form a diverse resource team of all levels of the organization to help formulate the go forward plan. No one knows the organization better than the people who do the work. Being inclusive of their thoughts and opinions goes a long way in boosting morale. Engaged staff will do anything to make the organization successful.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
The best way to communicate bad news to your team is to do so in a timely manner which can stop rumors provided it is straight forward, no spin or sugar coating, accurate, factual based information, and shared with humility. People are smart and intuitive and can deal with unpleasant information. They know when leaders are being untruthful or disingenuous. They may not like the message, but they will respect the messenger for their honesty.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
Leaders are expected to use available data to make appropriate decisions about the future. They are also smart to look back at historical trends to see what can be learned from the past that may be applicable for the future. Since the beginning of man, we have always dealt with the unpredictable such as wars, famine, catastrophic weather events and geopolitical changes. We have always survived through improved knowledge, processes, and technology.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
One guiding principle for me as a healthcare professional is that change is inevitable… nothing stays the same. A favorite quote of mine is that “ anyone can change, it is the transition that kills you” so in my opinion, great leaders manage the transition.
Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make during difficult times? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?
The most common mistakes I have seen leaders make in turbulent times are; not being up front with governance or the organization about the magnitude of the problem, not sharing all of the appropriate information that needed to be shared, hoping the problem would go away or be minimized, and finally not being decisive and making the tough decisions in a timely manner.
Generating new business, increasing your profits, or at least maintaining your financial stability can be challenging during good times, even more so during turbulent times. Can you share some of the strategies you use to keep forging ahead and not lose growth traction during a difficult economy?
As a healthcare professional, success in good times or bad times has been based on a leadership philosophy that goes like this: organizations with engaged employees delivering a high quality, safe care with an exceptional patient experience will never have to worry about financial sustainability and will have the ability to invest and promote growth. However, if you do not have engaged employees, high quality and great customer experience, financial success and growth are very difficult to achieve and sustain.
Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to lead effectively during uncertain and turbulent times? Please share a story or an example for each.
The five leadership principles during turbulent times for me would be;
- Communicate, Communicate, Communicate. Do this by getting out of your office and walking around, talking to people, and getting their opinions and reassuring them in person. Say your message 100 ways for 100 days in email, video, letters, in person or whatever it takes. Do this during work hours, after hours and on the weekends.
- Leadership visibility- deliver good news and bad news but deliver “the news.” I have had to deal with many layoffs and restructurings during my 40-year career. They are always painful for those affected and those left behind. Be sensitive to the pain.
- Rid your organization of team members who are not team players and are not invested in the organizational vision. They are a direct reflection of your leadership and they will eventually drag you down as the leader. Everyone is looking at your message and when they see your team members acting different, they wonder why you are tolerating this behavior. As Quint Studer said, “what you permit, you promote.”
- Serve your community through donating your time and energy to community causes and boards that represent big initiatives that improve the community and society’s wellbeing.
- Take care of yourself as a leader. If you are not physically and emotionally well as a leader, your job will be more taxing on you and your family and those that care about you. Eat healthy, exercise regularly, learn something new outside your profession, give back to those less fortunate and treat everyone with dignity and respect.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
There are many life quotes that come to mind but as a healthcare professional and former critical care nurse, we were trained to be data oriented. One of my favorite quotes is “ in the absence of data, any opinion will do.” How appropriate for the current COVID-19 pandemic.
How can our readers further follow your work?
I formally retired in December 2019. Dr. Rod Brace, Dr. Michael Shabot, and I formed a small consulting company called Relia Healthcare Advisors, and I am available on LinkedIn.