This interview, which was condensed and edited for clarity, was conducted at Portland House of Music on May 17, 2019.

Tell us about your start in health care.

I got a full scholarship to Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana, and graduated with a degree in biology. I thought I was going to be a laboratory scientist and my graduate work was in neurophysiology. It was all about studying dogs’ brains, if you can imagine. And I didn’t like it very much. I went out one evening with a fellow faculty member for a pitcher of beer at the local watering hole. And I said, “Paul, this thing is not going to work for me.” And he says, “Well have you ever thought about health care administration?” And I said, “No, I don’t know anything about that.” He says, “Well, you should really look into it, because your science will really help you.” I found an accredited program in Atlanta and said to my fiance, “That’s a place for us. We’re going to get out of the cold and head south.” So that’s what we did.

I understand a residency that was part of your post-graduate program turned into a full-time position where you stayed for 13 years. How did that come about?

Correct. After I finished my program and residency at Emory University Hospital, the chief financial officer came to me and said, “We’d like you to take over as director of material services.” I agreed. And he said, “Don’t worry, we’ll recruit. It’ll only take about six weeks or eight weeks.” And nine months later, I was still the director of material services. I was responsible for central sterile supply, which prepared all the sets that go into the OR for the surgeons and all the warehouse functions. I got to touch every corner, every nook and cranny of the organization from the boiler room to the OR. It was a great experience.

Let’s talk about how you got to Maine.

I got a phone from a recruiter who said, “We’d really like you to take a look at an opportunity in Maine.”

Had you been Maine before?

No. It was an interesting search process, a lot of unusual questions and descriptions of the work, very intensive, and I moved to Maine in April of 2006.

Let’s talk today about your team. Did you inherit them when you got here, or have you built your own team?

I’m a big believer in promoting from within. I also believe you need some fresh eyes that have seen how other systems work in different geographies. My team is a mix of the two. Form follows function, and I try to organize the talent to make sure that we have the best chance for success.

And now let’s talk about employment. What are the toughest positions to fill?

We over 12,000 employees, and right now we have 1,100 vacancies. We’re in one of the cycles where we have a nursing shortage. We’ve been successful with working with academic programs to increase the number of nursing students, but they’re still not enough. One of our most successful initiatives to recruit foreign nurses through a company that provides a two-year contract for them to work within our organization. After their two years, they can stay or move on. We’ve been successful at keeping a lot of those foreign nursing students. They come from Ireland, the Philippines, many places. We surround them and their families with a social network that makes them not feel so isolated, and they really become part of our family.

Let’s talk about your leadership skills. What are the principles are that you try to live every day?

I try to practice active listening so I can ask questions and hear responses rather than espouse my opinion on something. I count on the folks that work with me to know their stuff better than I do, and to know what to share with me so I can connect the dots when I need to do that. I’m a big believer in servant leadership.

What does servant leadership mean? What does it look like day-to-day?

It’s all about the higher purpose. It’s not about making the bottom line. It’s not about making sure that we have more market share than the guy down the street. It’s community-based and what is needed in the community. We’ve now moved well outside of the four walls of the hospital into the community in a big way. We’re working on are the opioid crisis, food insecurity, and lack of transportation. Servant leadership is about how we are improving the health of our community and the individuals that live in our community.

When I met you in your office I thought you were coming in from a trip because you had this giant suitcase, and I asked, “Oh, are you coming or going?” and you said, “No, that’s my briefcase.” What’s in it?

A lot of paperwork. And usually a laptop and an iPad and all of the kind of cords and stuff that go along with that. I’m a big fan of the small Moleskine journals. I have one for different topics, so there’s usually three or four of those in there. I do a lot of work for the American Hospital Association and am on their board, and so there’s usually a whole stack of stuff related to what’s going on nationally that if I have two minutes I can pull out and catch up on some reading. I consider it a good day when I can throw away about one-third of what’s in that. Because then I just load it up again.

That thing is impressive. How do you keep up with everything that’s happening in the health care industry? Do you ever sleep? Because the changes are just nonstop.

Thankfully, I don’t need a lot of sleep. I get a lot of windshield time because I am out and about a lot. I listen to a lot of podcasts. I talk on the phone a lot hands-free. And I have colleagues scattered across the country. We’re running these health systems, and I can call up a colleague in a different part of the country and say, “Have you seen this? What are you doing about this?” That’s the beauty of it. The American Hospital Association keeps us very well-informed. I’m just very lucky and blessed that I have good recall and retention. I like details. I love what I do. It’s such important and good work that I don’t think about it as really work. I think about it as my passion.

So what’s the best advice that you give?

Work with your colleagues as if they’re your family. We do a little squabbling internally, but when we finish that squabble we’re tight, and that takes trust. I give a lot of advice around, “Don’t assume you know what was behind that comment. Go and ask.”

What are your key accomplishments and biggest successes? What are your areas for development or improvement?

My biggest accomplishment is that I’ve raised two beautiful, wonderful people. I have a son and a daughter who I’m very proud of. As far as my work is concerned, I’ve worked in five systems and I’ve left them better than I found them. Many people have told me that I have been their best boss ever. And so developing people and their aspirations and their passions and their skills has been a significant accomplishment. And what was the second part of the question?

Yeah, what are your areas for improvement?

I don’t say “no” enough. I should be more selective. One of the folks who works with me says, “Michelle never saw a goal or an opportunity that she didn’t put on the list to do.” I need to be more selective about that, because it wears people out.

What keeps you up at night? We know you don’t sleep much.

Interpersonal issues. Trying to solve that equation of building the most highly performing team possible. What levers do I need to pull to get that dynamic to work a little bit better? To get a little bit more energy around a common purpose, a common goal.

What have you learned over the years is the best way to tackle this?

Tearing it down to the base, to the root. If you can get to the root cause of the conflict, it’s solvable. It’s when people layer on all this noise on top of the root cause and begin to attribute purpose or the reason that Joe said that. Well, you don’t know the reason that Joe said that. You need to get to the root cause of the issue.

What do you think the most important advancement in health care has been in your 39-year career?

There’s been so many. Science is exploding. It’s really fascinating to watch. We also deliver health care today in a very team-oriented fashion rather than just, “It’s about the doctor and his or her bag, and home visits.” Social determinants of health are now a part of the equation. That’s probably the biggest advancement I’ve seen.

An interesting answer. Unexpected, but awesome. Thank you so much for being down here with us this morning, and thanks to all of you for joining us

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