As a part of our series called ‘Five Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became A CEO’ we had the pleasure of interviewing Neil Meltzer.
Neil Meltzer is president and CEO of LifeBridge Health, a position he has held since 2013. As CEO, Meltzer has led the system through a period of strategic growth with a mission to transform the organization into an integrated health care delivery system, offering a full spectrum of care. Along with several acquisitions, Meltzer has expanded the system through key partnerships, including alliances with organizations that provide medical transportation, retail pharmacy, urgent care, health insurance, assisted living and more. Meltzer has a background in public health and brings a community-focused approach to every health care decision.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
During my college years, my plan was to begin my career in environmental health (health physics). I spent a summer in England and did a stint in the Soviet Union studying environmental studies — specifically, the impact of nuclear power on the environment. I was a 501c3-loving, Birkenstock-wearing, tree-hugger, living in Amherst, Massachusetts in the 70s. I should mention I also minored in studio art. I was planning to pursue a career in environmental health but when I graduated in 1978 there were no jobs for world-huggers like me. I had worked in hospitals in college and high school because they paid well, and my father was a pharmacist so I had a general familiarity with healthcare, and thus decided to apply to public health school because I viewed it as still an opportunity to hug (cure) a corner of a community if I could. After grad school I came back to Massachusetts to be an administrator of a clinic, and that launched my career.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
That would have to be the time I took down the fence around Sinai Hospital, soon after starting at LifeBridge Health. It was a move meant to symbolically show the community that we are very much a part of it — vs. wanting to fence them out. I tend to look at the world through a public health lens — whether it’s environmental health or health administration or health policy — and I tend to focus more outwardly than inwardly. This [taking down the fence] was a first step toward that initiative of opening ourselves and our services up to the community and meeting them where they’re at.
More recently, I’d say LifeBridge Health’s acquisition of Bon Secours Baltimore Hospital (now Grace Medical Center). This was a hospital located in a community that had riots in West Baltimore; a community largely ignored by everyone. Rather than walk away, we decided to go full-force to revitalize it and ensure we’re able to provide service in high-need areas with major health disparities. We spent $85M to renovate it, and it has continued to grow into something much larger than just a hospital: a community resource center and incubator. By addressing and improving social determinants of health, ranging from employment to food access to child abuse, it’s already proving to have a transformational impact on the community.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
During my time as an administrative resident, I dealt with an issue related to a salary issue among a group of employees. My mentor at the time taught me the power of the informal network within an organization; and how to use that informal network in order to communicate issues and ideas that needed to gain support from the frontline so as to have it percolate up from the bottom vs. down from the top. I guess this isn’t funny per se, but it was an interesting lesson at the time.
Perhaps a little more humorous was my job trajectory. I started out washing surgical utensils. From there I moved up to cleaning out the cages of research mice, and was then promoted to purging x-ray films in the basement, and finally, sharpening syringes. I really touched every aspect of the trade. I’m grateful for these experiences as they provided me with a sense of empathy that others in a similar position as mine now may not have.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
Yes. He was VP of Lahey Clinic at the time (in Boston) and became the №2 person at Boston University’s Boston Medical Center, and later hired me when he was ready to move on. Throughout his career, no matter where he was or what he was doing, he’d pick up the phone to take my call. He was a tough love type of guy. There were several times when I needed to be told things or where he had to have uncomfortable conversations, but he always provided critical feedback. I still admire him to this day. He’s retired now, but really a tremendous human being. He taught me how to be a servant leader. He taught me the power of persuasion, and the power of being humble and vulnerable in an effort to be relatable to others — a lesson that few people teach or learn.
As you know, the United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?
- It’s important to have a variety of opinions, and to have people in the room who are addressing a problem from multiple angles.
- It helps achieve our goal of health equity.
- It sends a positive message to the diverse community in which we reside and whom we rely on for support.
At LifeBridge Health our staff come from quite a diverse set of backgrounds — this really helps flesh out the ideas that people are able to bring to the table for the best strategical and tactical decisions we can make.
As a business leader, can you please share a few steps we must take to truly create an inclusive, representative, and equitable society? Kindly share a story or example for each.
Eighty percent of healthcare happens outside the four walls of the hospital. There are so many determinants that define someone’s wellbeing, whether it’s access to healthy food, transportation, education, sidewalks or playgrounds, or their ability to walk safely outside — it really takes an entire infrastructure and society to want to assure equity in order to achieve equity.
We have to look at addressing this not only from a health perspective but from an educational and societal perspective. We need to rely on all aspects of government — from local, state, and federal — to truly put their money where their mouth is if we’re going to achieve the level of DEI necessary for real progress.
Leaders need to take risks. What we have done historically — as a community, and as a system — has not worked the way it needs to work. Therefore, we need to change our behaviors and take more risks in working with government and the private sector to affect real progress. We need to act differently, think differently, and engage the community differently in order to make serious change.
Partnerships are key. We have partnerships with clergy, barbershops, beauty salons, you name it — we’re working hand-in-glove with community members to help them embrace their own communities. Sometimes it takes someone who looks and sounds like you in order to gain your attention and have information portrayed in a way you understand it. Through partnerships, we’re bringing both sides of the equation together.
A huge part of health equity is being able to relate to other individuals — putting yourself in their frame of reference and mindset in order to know the best ways to communicate with and get your point across to them.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a CEO or executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?
An executive creates a compelling vision, and sets that vision for the overall organization. An executive tries not to be the decision-maker. When I talk to young executives in my lecture course, I tell them, “if I’m doing my job right I’m never actually making a decision.” Being an executive means leading people to the end point that they need to reach — sometimes in a circuitous way. Some may not take the path I suggest at all, but if they get to that end point then I’m doing my job.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive? Can you explain what you mean?
- We don’t know everything.
- Sometimes we’re not as good at dealing with bad behavior as a teacher.
- Although we may look outwardly confident, we worry just as much as the next person. And we sleep a whole lot less.
- In some ways, we’re very much like s conductor in an orchestra — you have to know where you came from (i.e., the music that just played), be in the present, but also looking at the future. We’re living in three time zones at once — learning from our past, managing for the present, but planning for success in the future. You must be reverent of the past but not let it anchor you down.
- There’s often not a rulebook for what we’re doing. We’re one of the most highly regulated industries so you have to be constantly up-to-date on continually changing regulations both from a federal standpoint as well as the regulatory bodies that accredit us. We generally exist in a highly competitive market, but we’re beginning to see the emergence of non-traditional players trying to nip at our heels. The landscape is changing rapidly. The only constant is change.
- We’re behind the times technologically but catching up fast (not medical tech per se, but AI that helps us analyze data points; engagement technology, e.g., how to make an appointment, etc.)
What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
What surprises me is the amount of time I spend dealing with personality issues and interpersonal relations vs. the business side of running the organization. When you get a group of 14,000 people working together on a daily basis, you deal with the unique idiosyncrasies of individual personalities, group think, mob think, plus the influence social media can have on how our staff thinks or are perceived. Not only are we dealing with the individual personality issues within an organization but, we’re finding that with the proliferation of social media, we’re now dealing with how people [publicly] react to regulatory changes and how this infiltrates the organization.
Do you think everyone is cut out to be an executive? In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful executive and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be an executive? Can you explain what you mean?
I’m not sure there’s any specific trait. You can lead from any chair. What I mean by that is, anyone can be a leader within their organization. I always joke that, within the organizational structure of my own family, our dog sits at the top.
Executives have to be comfortable with ambiguity, change, not having all the answers, and having people work for you who are smarter than you. But not everyone is cut out to be that type of leader.
I’m more of a servant leader — which tends to be defined as someone who is comfortable with vulnerability, who rules with an iron fist in a velvet glove, who is able to speak truth to power and make tough decisions that aren’t going to be popular.
What advice would you give to other business leaders to help create a fantastic work culture? Can you share a story or an example?
I found visibility helpful in my early career. Make sure that you’re visible 24–7. And apply this in places big and small: reach out to individuals, compliment them by name, send them small notes, do what you can to show your appreciation for things they do at all levels within the organization.
Another piece of advice for helping to build a strong work culture? Ask executives to take on roles that are unrelated to their current job function. I remember back at Sinai Hospital, to help with what was a physically dirty environment, we created a White Glove Club, and asked the CEO to encourage people to rally around the charge. This was a great example of putting people in positions to take on tasks not necessarily associated with their roles — ultimately demonstrating that we can all play a role in helping to improve the organization. And illustrating that everyone can be part of the solution.
A CEO has to create the space for those difficult conversations to happen if you’re going to move the ball down the field.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
….By going into communities that are struggling in an effort to embrace and create unique programs to improve their plight. These prevention programs (now rebranded as population health) are not a nice-to-have but a must-have, in order to create a healthier environment.
Our role as an organization isn’t just to cure those people coming through our front door. Our role is to keep people in the communities we serve healthy. You can’t separate those two because if you’re improving the lives outside you’re likely impacting their health from a variety of angles.
I think it’s also recognizing the difference between treating the community vs embracing the community.
Fantastic. Here is the primary question of our interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- That so much of this is really on-the-job learning. There is so much you learn in textbooks that cannot immediately be applied.
- The importance of understanding interpersonal relations and the power of persuasion (e.g., individual personalities and people and conflict).
- The power of storytelling.
- Being purpose-driven — I say this having not understood at the time what it meant to be purpose-driven, and how it could begin to transform an organization.
- How little sleep I’d get.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
I think at a macro-level, just starting a movement around creating a sense of understanding — how we as humans can let go of our preconceptions and let our guard down in order to really see and hear what others are saying. Getting people to talk to each other, listen, and be confident in their own skin. And open to others. I think this is particularly poignant with everything happening in this country right now.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I often share an African proverb that I feel speaks to my belief in the power of partnership and collaboration, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
This was a tough one. I’m sure there are many more, but I’d love to have had lunch with Betty White. I admire her “F-you” attitude at times (am I allowed to say that?), and her willingness to take traditions and flip them on their head.
For breakfast, maybe Kennedy? He was a brilliant strategist, leader, and politician. And someone I could really learn from.