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 Tom Skelton.
Tom Skelton is a seasoned CEO with 30 years of experience in corporate management, strategic planning, and mergers and acquisitions, as well as strong expertise in both the healthcare technology and healthcare services sectors. Since 2014, Tom has been the Chief Executive Officer of Surescripts. He leads the nationwide health information network’s strategy, performance and operations, as it works to enhance prescribing, inform care decisions, and advance healthcare. Surescripts transforms billions of healthcare interactions each year with innovation and actionable patient intelligence. As the leading health information network for prescription and clinical information exchange services, the company processed 19.15 billion secure transactions in 2019, while connecting 1.78 million healthcare professionals and organizations with actionable patient data for 95% of the U.S. population.
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?
I began my career in healthcare technology nearly 40 years ago. I grew up on the product and service side, focusing on early automation and driving efficiency to make sure patients were seen and doctors, hospitals and pharmacies got paid. We had to do a lot of educating around the benefits of technology and the long-term value of going digital. I still remember the brochures we shared with doctors and hospital administrators to explain why they needed a computer. So, I’ve been in the industry for a long time! The healthcare industry has come a long way since those first, tentative steps into the digital world.
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?
One summer in the mid-1980s, I was asked to visit a prospect in rural North Carolina. My goal was technical due diligence. At that point, I had never been to the south other than to the beaches, and I made the mistake of showing up in the same business attire I’d have worn in OH, PA, NY, etc. When I met my contact, he loaded me, my three-piece suit, and my briefcase into his truck (no air conditioning) and took me around this small southern town. I met physicians and hospital executives, but we also stopped at vegetable stands, visited poultry farms, and ate at roadside barbecue shacks. It was a sweltering day, and by the end of it, I was a mess. It also wasn’t clear to me what I had accomplished. We spent over seven hours together but used less than one hour discussing the topics I had on my list. I left so focused on what I didn’t get done on my list that I didn’t realize he viewed the business opportunity as something easily framed if he found the right person to work with. Every time I meet someone new who has a different approach than mine, I’m reminded of that trip to Scotland County, NC.
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?
There is a large group of people. Folks that bet on me, trusted in my potential, and nurtured me with personal and professional support at points in time when I wasn’t always mature enough to thrive without their guidance. An early mentor was the founder of the first firm I worked for in healthcare information technology. He was a young, talented, Israeli immigrant who brought phenomenal insights and entrepreneurialism to the business. Fortunately for me, he was also quite patient. He gave me a lot of operating latitude and encouraged me to move beyond my technology roots and into the strategy and growth aspects of the business. His support was a vital aspect of my on-going growth and development. At one point, we were raising capital, and he invited me to participate in the meetings with our advisors and potential capital partners. At the time, I had no experience in this area, so the real value in my presence was just to learn. His approach and commitment to my growth helped shape what I try to do with others on their journeys.
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?
At Surescripts, our purpose is to serve the nation with the single most trusted and capable health information network, built to increase patient safety, lower costs and ensure quality care.
We were founded in 2001 when pharmacy associations saw an urgent need to replace paper prescriptions and formed Surescripts Systems to enable electronic prescribing. At the time, about one in ten doctors were using electronic health records software. The basic belief was that digitizing the process would open the door to future refinement and ensure that physicians and pharmacists didn’t need to step out of their workflow to help their patients. Later in 2008, competing organizations came together to build a national network to deliver comprehensive patient information to the point of care, turning data into actionable intelligence.
Now, Surescripts connects virtually all electronic health records (EHR) vendors, pharmacy benefit managers (PBMs), pharmacies and clinicians, plus an increasing number of health plans, long-term and post-acute care organizations, specialty hubs and specialty pharmacy organizations. Together, we processed 19.15 billion secure transactions in 2019 while connecting 1.78 million healthcare professionals and organizations with actionable patient data for 95% of the U.S. population.
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?
Earlier in my career, I was part of a public firm that missed its quarterly earnings. Following that event, the CEO/founder seemed to be everywhere at once. Despite whatever may have been going on in his own life, he managed to engage and connect with members of the team in personal and informal ways. Building on that experience, during times of uncertainty, I tend to engage more directly with those impacted. Sometimes it’s quite formal using traditional business settings; other times, it’s more personal. During such times, there is often great value in a less polished “from the heart” approach. In the end, it’s about connection and being genuine.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
I spent my formative years in a blue-collar family that scraped and clawed our way to success in Pittsburgh, PA. My mother just turned 82 and is about to celebrate her 50th year with the same family-owned engineering firm. She’s never let me think that quitting was an option. That’s why for nearly 40 years, I’ve worked towards the digitization of health care. I’ve seen how innovation and technology can transform health outcomes, plus, it is so fulfilling to work in an industry devoted to keeping and helping people stay healthy.
Last year, I gave a speech at our Network Alliance Forum that I based on the African proverb, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” I’ve been re-energized by people in the healthcare industry who are demonstrating resilience and adaptability during the COVID-19 pandemic. The last few months have been incredibly challenging for them. As a nationwide health information network, Surescripts plays a critical role in assisting those providers in delivering safe and efficient patient care. As the CEO of this network, I know we can go much farther if we do it together.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
Because the last few months — and the months ahead — will be challenging, I think it’s critical to regularly share and uphold our company’s values and priorities. For us, our three priorities during COVID-19 are to protect the health and welfare of our team, keep the Surescripts network fully operational, and ensure the future is bright by executing against our strategy. The Surescripts leadership team regularly shares updates about how we are achieving these priorities and how we plan to do so moving forward.
We also listen and share stories we hear from the frontlines. Providers continually inspire me by demonstrating their resilience, adaptability and devotion to delivering care in the face of significant disruptions. We’re supporting them and making a difference by delivering the technology they need to streamline processes, share information and improve patient care every single day.
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?
I’d actually like to give my team credit here as they do a fantastic job inspiring and motivating one another. We have a website where employees can “give a wow!” to one another based on our valued behaviors. Our mantra is “when you see it, say it.” Employees share stories and examples daily of colleagues whose work made such an impact that it had to be celebrated. Additionally, while we’re all working from home, our staff use informal channels where they can give each other virtual high fives and chat in a virtual “watercooler” channel as they used to do in the kitchen/office common areas.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
Surescripts created a set of valued behaviors that help guide how we work. One of our valued behaviors is “The Full Story, Told in Broad Daylight,” which means telling the truth in a timely manner, doing it personally, and setting expectations about what others can expect to see or hear moving forward. This helps our team bring any problems into the light and solve them faster.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
The reality is that our market has always been unpredictable. Change is constant in healthcare, so while we’re all facing new challenges, we’re used to having to make quick decisions and pivot.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
Be true to yourself and the culture you’ve built.
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?
It’s always easy to take shots at people and firms when they go through challenging times, so instead, I’d rather focus on my own experiences. I’ve found struggles intensify when leaders fail to engage their team candidly, attempt to gloss over key items, alter traditional means of communication, or generally misread the mindset of their teammates.
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?
Growth is important to us, but we are fortunate in that we are not chasing quarterly earnings or planning for an exit. We are driven by our purpose and the value we deliver to care providers and ultimately to patients. Greater use of our network means increased patient safety, lower costs and higher quality — that’s a meaningful impact.
That said, we identified early on that COVID-19 could become a distraction and potential excuse for failing to make progress against our strategic objectives. While we certainly have to recognize and accept the conditions of the market that we operate in, our job as leaders is to quickly decide if the turbulence requires a change in strategy or if the strategy remains intact, but the tactics or time horizon may have changed. Once that’s clarified, then the team and I can begin to communicate the new state of play and potentially adjust the objectives.
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.
- Be visible. When COVID-19 hit, the Surescripts leadership team responded to the uncertainty by engaging with the team through a variety of channels like town halls, all-employees emails, virtual social gatherings, etc.
- Communicate clearly and simply. Our focus was clear early on: keep the team safe, keep the network operating, and stay focused on our strategy. It wasn’t magic, but it framed much of the subsequent communication.
- Listen. Every individual reacts to risks and challenges differently, and their responses may have nothing to do with what goes on inside the business. Only by hearing the individual voices and aggregating that feedback can we meet the team where they are.
- Be genuine. We are who we are and attempting to change or refine our communication style during a crisis is likely to cause speculation about the sincerity of the message.
- Share your own story. It’s easy for folks, especially early in their careers, to forget that leaders face many challenges that are similar, if not identical, to the ones they face. We all have parents, loved ones, etc., who could be impacted by what we decide. It’s helpful to share your own stories as a way of highlighting the similarities we have in our lives.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
A mentor of mine used to challenge us, saying, “If you want to be a CEO, you cannot afford to be reasonable.” When I was appointed CEO, he gave me a quote that said, “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world: the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.” His coaching always boiled down to being unreasonably hard when challenging ideas and commitments but also to remember that each one is precious to someone. That balance is something I strive to achieve every day.
How can our readers further follow your work?