As interim CEO of WTH, James Ross was ready to hand off the baton; but instead he now anchors the team
Taking the reins as CEO of the nation's sixth largest public not-for-profit healthcare system was not what James Ross planned to do. Serving as interim CEO throughout the national search process would help maintain stability in the organization while finding the right candidate. As the search continued for nearly a year, Ross discovered what many already knew; he had been being prepped for the role his entire career, but thought others were more experienced.
Ross is the first to admit he is a blessed man. Not many people can say that they have truly grown up in the organization where they work. Jackson Madison County General Hospital is in his blood. He was born there, and as a child when he was too young to go upstairs to see his sick grandparents, his dad's friend, who was a security guard, would sneak him up. The Eagle Scout got his first taste of healthcare through a Medical Explorer's post. His career began after high school graduation as an EMT with the local ambulance service. That job helped pay for a degree in nursing from Union University, which included time at JMCGH for his training.
Ross knows he has been blessed throughout his life and career despite a couple of close calls with heart issues. His management career has taken him from vice president, over numerous areas, to COO. When the healthcare system found itself searching for a new CEO, Ross was asked to serve in the interim.
"I had no intention of even throwing my name in the mix. I felt that if this is what God wanted me to do, He would tell me," said Ross. "I was completely focused on helping us get through the transition and looked forward to being a part of the team to find the next CEO, because I wanted to make sure we had the right person that would mesh well with our corporate culture."
In his first few months as interim CEO, Ross was busy running through all the things it takes to keep a system afloat, but one thing remained constant. "No matter what is being thrown at us, at the end of the day, we will touch 1100 patients in a 24-hour period," he said. "And 99 percent of the time, I may be lucky to see one or two. With all that is going on, one thing is certain - it is not about me, but about a strong leadership team. And it's about 5800 employees giving their best each and every day, one patient at a time."
As the search process was starting to wind down, Ross faced a new issue. "I had always believed God would tell me if I was to do something, and I guess I was waiting for him to call me up Himself, but He has a way of getting your attention," said Ross. "A good friend pointed out to me one night on the phone, that God had been telling me that He had been preparing me for this opportunity and that it was now time for me to rise to the occasion and help take care of this wonderful organization that has taken care of so many."
The confirmations kept coming to Ross. "I had been very blessed that two very close friends, who also happen to be on the senior leadership team at my church, Pastor Phil Jett and Pastor Jordan Easley, had been praying for me daily. My family also encouraged me to do this," he said. "When my friend, that had been a mentor to me since the 1980's, called to say he had a few things to tell me and a couple of things I needed to work on, his voice started to get elevated as he talked about me taking on the CEO position. Part of his argument was the scripture from Luke 'to whom much is given, much is expected.' And he was right."
The search committee was about to complete the interview process of what may have been the final two candidates, when Ross recused himself from the committee. "I talked to my family and got their blessing then notified the Chairman of the Board that I would like to be considered for the position. The Board was pleased," said Ross. "Funny, I think we all needed to go through the process to get to this point. We had a great company lead us through the process and saw some great candidates. But at the end of the day, it was about doing the right thing for patients and families."
'From the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked'
For a guy who loves lists, Ross says that in his new role, he will still have one with him all the time, because that is how he keeps up with what is going on. "While I love interacting with people, families, patients, physicians and staff, there is not enough time to meet and talk about everything that is going on" he said. "Team meetings with vice presidents are a weekly thing and go for two to four hours. We open those with prayer as spirituality is a part of healing and part of the culture here."
Throughout the search process, Ross said they wanted to find someone, not only with the experience of moving an organization of this size in the direction of consumerism, but also to integrate physicians into more collaborative endeavors such as leadership and aligning practices in the system. He says the process also highlighted many of the great things already in play.
"We are working more closely with physicians and moving more assertively with quality," said Ross. "We are also learning to be more fluid and nimble when making a decision. While it is ok for us to make a fast decision, we must make sure we don't do it at the cost of the organization. It's something I have
recognized over time; that you have to try new things and if you fail, do it and move on to something else. We have got to adopt that in this age of consumerism."
Ross is ready to make sure the 18 counties WTH serves knows the impact the organization is having. "We need to do a better job on our branding, since not everyone knows what entities are a part of WTH," he said. "With millennials and up, patients face higher deductibles, so they are doing more research on where they can go. In this age of consumerism, we have to make sure folks know what we offer and where. The model the system is moving toward is one of - if you need a test, you will be seen that day or the next."
With 103,000 visits per year to its ER, Ross is keenly aware that some patients are using it as a primary care source. Addressing the need for access to this care, especially after discharge, is important across all 18 counties served by WTH. One means to address this need is to look to nurse practitioners and physician assistants. "Our ER group has hired both to see lower acuity patients," said Ross. "With the cost of a visit to the ER higher, part of our model will be to evaluate having an urgent care clinic on our campus."
Another part of the model for WTH is to put clinics in areas that may have had a hospital in the past. These clinics, much like ones in Trenton and Lexington, can contain a multitude of services from behavioral health, pharmacy to physical therapy all in one location. "This model of having the ability to cross reference services and specialties in one clinic is a model we are going to continue to push across our service area and we are currently looking to have one in Brownsville," said Ross. "We recently purchased a large primary group that had offices in Selmer, Adamsville and Henderson, as well as, has a great relationship with the UT Family Practice program."
While he has a great deal of experience, Ross is not one to think he can navigate the waters on his own. Through his role as CEO, Ross has the opportunity to network with other healthcare leaders and decision makers. In March, he became an American Hospital Association Regional Policy Board Delegate. He is also involved in a statewide Vanderbilt Healthcare Network and the Board of the Tennessee Hospital Association.
"Prior to now, I had just served on subcommittees, but still got to know many of the people that serve on these," he said. "It is a great group and an excellent sounding board and resource. In our last meeting, we had the opportunity to discuss, very openly with one another, what we can expect the next healthcare bill to look like, how much modification we can expect, as well as how we think it can impact our area and how much will our local leaders have in terms of input and the ability to share our concerns."
In the face of what may be more uncertain times, Ross finds comfort in his familiarity and experience with the organization. "People know me, they know they can talk to me and I think they all have a certain level of comfort in that as opposed to a new person coming in," he said. "When I was COO, I was coordinating daily who had what ball and who was moving the ball. As CEO, I am having to push myself to get out of my comfort zone, get out of the details and look at things from a broader perspective, while being more fluid and nimble."
How will Ross gauge if it is all running well? "Lots of trust, setting parameters and casting the vision, then getting out of the way," he said.
Ross believes it was a good thing to have the nearly year under his belt as interim CEO. "It was a difficult year in terms of some of the things we had to deal with and that happened," he said. "But at the end of the day, it isn't about me and never was. It is really about each and every employee and their interaction with a family or a patient and how did we do."