As part of our series about the “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times,” we had the pleasure of interviewing Louis A. Shapiro, President and CEO of HSS. He has served in this role since October 2006, overseeing all strategic and operational aspects of the organization and fulfilling its mission — to advance the field of musculoskeletal medicine through world-class patient care, research and education. Under Mr. Shapiro’s leadership, HSS has experienced significant growth, expansion of its geographic footprint, and recognition as the world leader in its specialty areas of orthopedics, rheumatology and their related disciplines.
Mr. Shapiro is a strong proponent of the link between internal culture and performance. He spends the time to ensure that every member of the HSS family is aligned with the HSS goal of being the leader in the field, and providing patients with an unsurpassed experience that results in excellent medical outcomes. His philosophy of continual improvement has led to outstanding results. Patient satisfaction scores, quality and outcome measures at HSS have consistently been among the highest in the United States. Pre-pandemic, patients travel from across the United States and 80 countries to HSS for its unsurpassed diagnostic and clinical expertise.
His hands-on leadership has also led to extremely high employee engagement. HSS has received the prestigious Gallup Great Workplace Award twice for the most engaged workplaces in the world.
Mr. Shapiro has more than 30 years of healthcare experience, including as Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer of Geisinger Health System in Pennsylvania, and as a leader in the healthcare practice at McKinsey & Company. He began his career at Allegheny General Hospital in Pittsburgh, where he served in several capacities.
In the past, Mr. Shapiro has served as Board Chairman of the Greater New York Hospital Association, for which he continues to serve on the Executive Committee and others. He also serves on the Board of Crutches for Kids, Move Mountains Foundation and Latitude Food Allergy Care.
Mr. Shapiro earned his BS and MHA degrees from the University of Pittsburgh.
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?
Growing up, I was always intrigued by the field of medicine, and from a young age I knew I was meant to help people. In what capacity was still to be determined. After taking one organic chemistry class, I quickly realized practicing medicine was not for me, but never lost sight of my desire to help people so I combined my interests of business and medicine and received my BS and MHS degrees from the University of Pittsburgh.
I worked at several organizations, in several different roles over the course of my career that positioned me to take on the role of CEO, which I did at HSS in 2006. I came here because I sensed this was the kind of organization that could achieve a level of performance and impact that most organizations would not be capable of. Our true north is to earn our leadership position every day and to stay on our journey to fulfill our purpose, since at our core, we are a purpose driven organization. Our purpose is to help people get back to what they need and love to do better than anyplace in the world. I haven’t looked back since.
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?
For more than 150 years, HSS has maintained a steadfast commitment to excellence in both patient care and education. We transformed from a small orthopedic hospital in a brownstone on Second Avenue in NYC into the world’s leading academic medical center specialized in musculoskeletal health. Through it all, one thing has remained clear — we exist to provide the best possible care to help people get back to doing what they love to do better than any other place in the world. Now, we are doing this at population scale, helping large employers to better manage one of their largest and fastest-growing healthcare costs.
Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main 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?
Like many leaders, the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic took me by surprise. It was a life-altering battle that nobody was prepared for. That said, HSS came together in extraordinary ways to address the crisis. Almost overnight, HSS turned from the world’s leading musculoskeletal Institute into a general critical care hospital taking care of COVID-19 patients. Our staff rose to the occasion in a way that we will always remember.
As an organization, we operate under the philosophy of “Leadership By All,” where everyone is a leader regardless of role. This philosophy prevailed throughout the COVID-19 pandemic and served as the cornerstone for what would be the biggest challenge HSS would have to face. Because of this, we worked as a united front and were able to quickly pivot to address the needs of our community. We undertook this new chapter in our shared history motivated by our guiding principle of protection: to protect our staff, our patients and our community. We remain steadfast in continuing to do our part, fighting this pandemic together.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
Although I have faced tough times, I have never considered giving up. That would mean giving up not only on myself but on our entire organization. My inspiration comes from every single person at HSS who shows up daily and gives it their all. It also comes from our patients, who we promise to provide with the best musculoskeletal care in the world. We receive letters, emails and calls daily from patients and family members thanking us for not only providing them with world-class medical care, but also an unforgettable experience from the moment they arrive to the moment they leave. That is what sustains my drive. I am as energized about what we can accomplish as I was the day I walked through our doors over 14 years ago.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
During uncertain and challenging times, leaders play a significant role in understanding the unique circumstances of each of their team members — both personally and professionally — and in creating an open and supportive environment. The most critical role of a leader during difficult times is to set the tone for your team. Employees look to the actions and work ethic of their leaders as models for their own work and behavior. It is important to remain consistent and honest while also expressing gratitude often — during not only difficult times, but all times.
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?
Be accessible. Be authentic. Communicate. Listen. Really communicating is key and arguably the most effective way to boost morale among employees. At HSS, we hold bi-weekly organization-wide livestreams to update staff about the current state of our organization as well as operational plans. This is essential during times of uncertainty and should be done at all levels of the organizations.
Employee morale is at its highest when individuals feel valued and part of the organization’s larger plan. Without transparent communication about our goals and expectations, morale tends to dip. Transparency provides employees a sense of comfort that is necessary at any organization and something that all employees rightfully deserve.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
There is never an easy way to deliver difficult news; however, as leaders we must sometimes. When doing so, being honest is of the utmost importance. Understanding the root cause of the difficult news and then speaking openly about it is an essential step in securing your credibility as a leader. One of the things I would often say during the peak of the crisis and through today for all news– good or bad — is “when I know something, you’ll know something.”
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
Planning for the future can seem counterproductive when so much is unknown, uncertain and unpredictable; this past year has proven that. But it doesn’t need to be. As a forward-looking organization, HSS continuously keeps a close eye on emerging trends throughout and considers how they will likely develop. This allows us to envision how these trends will impact HSS. It is important to start broad when planning for the future and then become more granular when working towards a goal. Also, it is our responsibility to help make the future predictable. We are often in the passenger seat in the journey to the future but we also are in the driver’s seat. We need to help create the future.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
If you ask anyone at HSS they will know the answer to this — “Leadership By All.” That is the core principle by which we operate, and it allows us to succeed during even the most challenging times. Every single person in our organization is a leader, regardless of their role. This means that everyone takes ownership in what they do and executes with skill, dedication and immense pride.
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?
I think the biggest mistake you can make during difficult times is to abandon your core values and principles. At HSS, our core values and principles have gotten us to where we are today and have helped us remain at the top of our field for years. This is even more important during challenging times when everything else seems so uncertain. Stay true to your organization no matter what is going on around you.
It is also important to communicate. Keeping key information from your employees and avoiding transparency will only set you back further and create distrust among staff. On that same note, you need to put yourself in your employees’ shoes. Try and understand how every single person in your organization is feeling. Low employee morale will only make things worse for the entire organization, especially during a crisis.
And never forget this: culture does NOT ‘eat strategy for lunch’. Culture is a strategy that if executed correctly can allow an organization attain a level of performance that is otherwise unattainable.
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?
The most important thing you can do is adapt with the changing landscape, acknowledging and addressing changing needs and priorities. If you do everything exactly how you were doing it before, you will not succeed. If you have the right foundation in place, making this transition will be a lot easier. It will not only help you to succeed during a challenging time, but to grow and evolve as an organization. For HSS in particular, we have a rolling 5 year integrated Strategic, Financial, Leadership Roadmap with an accompanying Operating Plan. We know how we got to where we are, we understand the forces at work in our environment and we know how we want to get to where we want to go. So far, so good….
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.
- Practice Leadership By All. At HSS, leadership is something that can be found across the entire organization, at all levels and roles. Encourage every single member of your team to be a leader, regardless of their individual role. This will allow your organization to persevere through even the toughest times.
- Listen. Uncertain times are challenging for all, no matter what your role is in an organization. It is important to provide support to your team, especially when they need it most, and one of the best ways to do that is to listen to what they need. It is also important to listen to consumers so you can adapt what you are providing them to meet their changing needs. HSS did this during the pandemic by increasing our telehealth offerings and transitioning in-person education and community events to a virtual platform.
- Be transparent. An open line of communication is always crucial, but even more so when there is so much uncertainty around us. At HSS, we have made it a point to remain in constant communication with staff during the pandemic and be as transparent as possible. We’ve done this by hosting regular livestreams, setting up an email for staff to submit questions and creating an informational website with FAQs, just to name a few.
- Stay true to your organization. Just because times are tough, you shouldn’t abandon what made your organization a success in the first place. Sticking to your core values, your principles and your mission will remind you of how you got to where you are and will motivate you to push through.
- Adapt and remain flexible. While it’s important to stick to your core values, it is also important to be able to adapt and change with the changing needs and priorities of your organization. Don’t just do something one way because you’ve always done it that way. If the situation calls for it, find new — and more effective and efficient — ways to accomplish your goals.
How can our readers further follow your work?
They can follow me on LinkedIn and @hspecialsurgery on all major social media, and visit our website at HSS.edu<http://hss.edu/>.