As a 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 Ray Williams, CEO Springfield Clinic.
As Springfield Clinic’s CEO, Ray Williams reports directly to the Clinic’s Board of Directors. He is accountable for all aspects of the organization’s human, financial and physical resources, with the ultimate goals to provide the highest quality health care possible to the community, help partners and employees find satisfaction in their work and achieve sensible financial success. Williams joined Springfield Clinic in January 2017.
Williams most recently served as the Senior VP — Physician Mergers & Integration at International Council for Quality Care, Inc., a national consulting firm specializing in physician practice success. His leadership achievements include improving operational efficiency, redesigning primary care models, deploying information technology to drive quality and performance, and elevating the patient experience. For more than 25 years of his career in health care, Williams worked at Sentara Health in Norfolk, Virginia. At Sentara, a fully-integrated health care system, he served as the Chief Administrative Officer of the Sentara Medical Group and held that position for more than 12 years prior to his exit in 2009.
A native of Norfolk, Virginia, Williams attended Old Dominion University, also in Norfolk, where he graduated with a Master of Business Administration degree.
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?
When I was an undergrad, I started working as a financial analyst at a grocery store chain. Grocery stores have a very finely tuned finance model. They are very well managed from a finance point of view. So, it was a great learning opportunity. After I finished my MBA, I had a chance to become the first financial analyst at a healthcare company near me. And that was my start, in finance. It was good because I got a solid grounding in understanding healthcare economics, and it’s paid off in dividends over the years.
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?
At another healthcare company, we had just started doing some government contracting work. And we had a considerable proposal we’d been working on. We’d worked through the night, a last minute kind of thing. And I drew the short straw. I had to deliver it to Philadelphia by four o’clock that day. And so my assistant called the airport and she came to me and said, “There are no commercial flights. We’re gonna have to charter a plane.” And I said, “Well, okay. Charter the plane.” So, she chartered a plane, and I got to the airport and I met the pilot. And as I walk out on the tarmac, and he’s walking toward this plane. I thought, “Wow, that plane looks great. This is going to be fun.” And then he walks past that plane, and there’s another little smaller plane. And I thought, “Maybe not so good, but okay.” Then, he walked past another plane.
And, another plane. And finally he stopped at this little plane with a little bubble top on it. It looked like a crop duster to me. And, I said, “You have got to be kidding.” I don’t even know if I’ll fit in that plane.” And he said, “No, this is the plane your office arranged for.” And I said, “Well I’ve got to get to Philadelphia by four o’clock. Can we make it?” He said, “I don’t know, maybe with a good tailwind.” I got in this little crop duster plane, and it was the worst airline ride, airplane ride of my life. It was just horrible. And of course, I missed the 4:00 PM deadline. And so everybody was upset. I was young and foolish. I got back on the same airplane and went back. I should have known better. I should have waited and got on a decent airplane. But the government issued a change order and we were able to get back in the running. It taught me to check the details. When you are in a hurry about doing things and don’t pay close enough attention mistakes happen. The next time, I paid much closer attention to what airplane we rented.
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?
I met a physician early in my career. He’s retired now, a brilliant internist. And he really took me under his wing. He could tell there was a lot I didn’t know at that point, but he was a great coach and mentor. And he really taught me about the physician’s mindset. And he was very patient-centered and caring and gave me insight. I would have never learned about the intricacies of healthcare without him. And we really enjoyed working together, and I learned so much from him over the years. I will always be very grateful to him for his patience with a young guy many years ago.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When you started as CEO, what was your vision, and purpose?
We celebrated Springfield Clinic’s 80th-anniversary last year, which is really very special for all of us. And for an independent physician group to make it, 80 years is just phenomenal. As a healthcare clinic, our vision and purpose are very much aligned. The original vision and purpose of creating an environment where we can provide outstanding care to patients, create a great place to work, and make an excellent place for physicians to practice — continues to be our vision and purpose. I feel very privileged to be part of this. And I work very hard to continue that legacy.
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?
It starts by showing up. You can’t lead and not be present. I think back to my first weekend, where we were trying to figure out what to do about the COVID pandemic. We called the team together. And there was much uncertainty.
I thought back to one of the experiences I had a long time ago as a younger man when I went white water rafting every year. The first time I rafted, we went on a Class V river — which for those of you who don’t know white water rafting — that’s a pretty rough river. The guides started with this short educational session. And they said, “Look, I’ve got this hat. It says ‘Guide’ on it. When you fall out of the raft, you think I’m going to save you. And, that’s not the case, I’m not going to save you. I’m going to focus on the raft, the other people on the raft, and you are going to have to save yourself.” The guides called it “aggressive self-rescue” They taught us what that meant and how to save yourself aggressively. During the COVID crisis, no one knew what to expect. People were looking to different authorities to give them the answers. And it was clear to me that if we did that, that we were just going to struggle, and so, we took this perspective of aggressive self-rescue. What is it that we needed to do? And how do we put our patients and team in a position to rescue in formidable waters.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
No. I was fortunate. I had two great parents who were Depression-era folks, and they taught me the meaning of grit and determination. I don’t know precisely how they imparted any of that on me. But somehow, I picked up some of it. And I hope my kids picked up some of it from me.
Grit makes up for a lot. And, you just have to show up, and keep going. Don’t give up.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
We work really well together here, as a team, because from the day I showed up, I started telling them, I’m not a golfer. I don’t wanna work with golfers. I don’t want a team full of golfers. We’re going to play basketball. Sometimes I’m going to shoot. Sometimes you’re going to shoot. Sometimes you’re going to get blocked. We’re going to figure it out as we go. Each person is going to play their role. I found that I have a great team, and I must encourage each of them to play their role and fill in their part with confidence. I always say, “Look in the mirror. We’re running the company. We’re responsible for our patients. It’s up to us.” And it’s up to each of you to step up and do your part, and they did. They did and continue to do a fantastic job. And, there was no question that we quickly had a handle on what to do, because each of them really are experts in their area. They just sometimes need to be reminded of it.
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?
We really started before the pandemic, and created resiliency at the company through financial strength and a great team that had the wherewithal to face anything. Because the pandemic timing was impossible to predict, we had to ensure that both financial and team performance were at our level best right from the start.
We were prepared. And that made all the difference. There were some things we didn’t have right out of the gate that nobody could be prepared for at the time. We didn’t have all of the PPE we needed. But that’s where the team pulled together and reached out to their networks all across the country. And we were successful at getting supplies when many others weren’t. It started by really being ready for whatever. In this case it happened to be a pandemic. And we figured it out.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
I think it’s vital to do it yourself, to be authentic, to be caring. People want to feel confident that you will be honest and direct with them. When you are that way, people are usually willing to work with you, discover possibilities, and be able to say, “so what do we do next?”
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
Certainly, healthcare is an unpredictable industry to be in right now, isn’t it? It does, in part, go back to resiliency that I mentioned. We must prepare for some bumps in the road. Things are not always going to go perfectly, and you have to prepare, when others don’t.
At the same time, problems always create opportunities. And as a company, we prepared very well, and we were ready to face whatever was in front of us. Because of this preparation, it’s created even more opportunities for us.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
Looking out past the problem of the moment. I think that everyone can get sort of mired in the challenge that’s right in front of them and get discouraged. And I believe we’re all going to face difficult times and trouble. But that’s life. And, it’s right in business. It’s true for me personally. I think we have to be able to look out past that and know we can get beyond this. A good part of this is encouraging my team to stick together. We’re going to get through it, and there’s a positive future out there in front of us. We will make it there together.
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 first mistake I see companies make is that they stubbornly stick to what they’re doing. Change is such a challenge for some people and some companies. Most people are unwilling to pivot. I think we have to be willing to be flexible, and quite often, fear gets in the way.
The second is fear. I see people react in fear often. That never creates a good outcome. Pulling back, retrenching establishes a state of chaos.
It takes some courage to make the right decisions. I don’t always have the answer; not everybody on my team still has the answer. We create solutions together. If we find that we need to shift gears a little bit then, then we do that.
Lastly, You have to be willing to be vulnerable enough to say, ‘I don’t know everything, I can’t anticipate everything. We’re going to figure it out. And we will not let fear keep us from doing the right thing.
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?
We have continued to grow. It’s sparked more growth than I could’ve anticipated. There is a tendency for people to look for a lifeboat when it looks like things are not looking good. And not every company is well managed or prepared for uncertain times, and many go for the quick and fast route. For us, it’s driven by a lot of other physicians and physician organizations to come to us and talk about wanting to join Springfield Clinic. Because we have prepared, we have been able to weather this challenge quite well, while many others have not.
We have created an environment where physicians are saying, “How’d you do that? What’d you do? People want to be part of a winning organization. And, we’re winning. I mean, we’re winning really big. We’ve attracted some great interest in the group and that’s a really terrific thing.
I do have, you know, physicians that have said, you know, “Hey, should we be doing this, with all this uncertainty.” I say, “Absolutely!” We need to forge ahead because we need to keep our eyes on the other side of this. And we’re going to emerge that much stronger, that much bigger, much more able to face the next challenge. Because there will be another one.
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.
1. Stick together.
2. Put patients first.
2. Do the right thing always.
3. Be agile.
4. Appreciate your team.
- Stick together. When we first started working on how to respond to the COVID-19 challenge, we had different team members doing different things. There was a tendency for team members to challenge each other more than support, understand, and rapidly move to a decision. I quickly intervened and made sure we were all aligned, we all had a role, we all “owned it,” we all helped each other and instilled a vision that we will all finish together. Nobody gets stuck with anything; nobody gets left holding the bag; we’re all going to do it together. And, you know, it worked. The first weekend we were able to build stations to stop and monitor our patients at every door, creating 50 locations and multiple entry points. To do this in two days — in building barriers for doing patient screening was phenomenal. Different team members had different roles. We implemented and created all of the necessary protocols over Saturday and Sunday (2-day build), and Monday morning, we were ready to go. It wasn’t perfect Monday morning. However, we kept learning and improving. And we, we always did it together
- Put Patients First. Many healthcare facilities were shutting down. And I was concerned. I joked with my team, ‘Many people are scared. What do we do?’ I made the analogy with the team that if firefighters came outside of a high rise building that was on fire and looked at it and said, “Hm, I don’t know, it looks dangerous, I think I’m going to go home and wait and see how it turns out a little bit.” that’d be horrible. We are a healthcare practice. Patients expect and depend on us to be available and present and ready to help and, so that was our focus. And it was up to us to answer the hard questions. How do we do that effectively? How do we communicate to our patients and give them confidence in this time of uncertainty? Putting our patients first ultimately led to our success. Our patients appreciated that and stayed loyal to us. And frankly, we were open and caring for patients while most others were not/
- Do the Right Thing. Always. We almost always know the right thing, but often don’t dare to do it. In our setting, there are still many experts to give you advice and direction and many smart people who have different opinions about how to deal with COVID-19. There wasn’t one place you could go to or one idea. And in our case, we had to say, what’s the right thing for us? What’s the right thing for our patients? How do we show up each day and work hard at doing that? Sometimes despite criticisms and even though other people were maybe closing down more or making different decisions, we had to make the right decision for our patients and ourselves.
- Be agile. The days of, ‘there is a right answer, and you should just always stick to it’ are gone. In the world, everything changes so rapidly. With the COVID-19 situation, we are all learning every day. We had our task force together, and we communicated several times a day, and we were learning and re-learning constantly. We asked ourselves, how can we be more effective, and what did we learn today? How do we do it better tomorrow? We kept adjusting our protocols, approach, and fine-tuning what we were doing and getting better at it. Because situations changed so rapidly, we too had to become quick learners and adapt accordingly.
- Appreciate your team. People have so often worked with the idea that their work is drudgery and toil, and nobody ever seems to care or thank them. And I find that when you sincerely appreciate your team, they’ll do anything for you. And it’s not just me. They would do anything for each other. I tried to see as many of our patient screeners as I could. Imagine the scene. They’re in gowns and masks and goggles and hoods, and it’s hot. Patients were scared and anxious. We were seeing enormous amounts of patients. They were performing an incredibly hard job. And I would go by and ask everyone how they were doing and try to encourage them. And, you could tell they felt buoyed every time that I stopped and spoke to them. And that kind of appreciation goes a long way. And I genuinely appreciate our team and what they do, which makes all the difference.
Can you please give us your favorite life lesson quote and share how it’s relevant to you in your life?
“The longer I live, the more I realize the impact of attitude on life. Attitude, to me, is more important than facts. It is more important than the past, the education, the money, than circumstances, than failure, than successes, than what other people think or say or do. It is more important than appearance, giftedness or skill. It will make or break a company… a church… a home. The remarkable thing is we have a choice everyday regarding the attitude we will embrace for that day. We cannot change our past… we cannot change the fact that people will act in a certain way. We cannot change the inevitable. The only thing we can do is play on the one string we have, and that is our attitude. I am convinced that life is 10% what happens to me and 90% of how I react to it. And so it is with you… we are in charge of our Attitudes.”
― Charles R. Swindoll
Many years ago, Charles Swindoll, wrote just a brief piece on attitude and what it meant to him and what he had learned. And he talked about his life; he had learned that it’s not about your circumstances, not what’s happened to you, not how well educated you are, not how smart you are. It’s all about your attitude.
Attitude is the one thing that we have control over, and that every day, we have a choice to change our mindset. I printed the Charles Swindoll quote for my two children, who are now adults, and told them to tape it to their refrigerators. So, as adults, I tell them, every day, start your day looking at that and remember that how today turns out is up to you. It’s really about your attitude.
In the quote, Charles Swindoll finds that only ten percent of life is about all those other things, and 90 percent about your attitude. And I think there’s such a powerful lesson to learn. There are situations where we feel we simply don’t have any control over. However, that is not true. Attitude is the one variable we can solve for despite the circumstance. Having a positive attitude has helped us solve complex and critical decisions at Springfield Clinic better than we could have with a negative attitude. It’s a choice you can make every day. It works at companies, and it works as an individual in life. And it makes all the difference.