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Premier Inc CEO Susan DeVore: Why you need to make your own “rules” for how to succeed and rise through the ranks

Make your own rules. Earlier in my career, my infant child developed a fever in the middle of the night. And my first thought was about work…the deadlines that were likely to be missed, how tired I was going to be the next day, what people would think if I took a sick day. As […]


Make your own rules. Earlier in my career, my infant child developed a fever in the middle of the night. And my first thought was about work…the deadlines that were likely to be missed, how tired I was going to be the next day, what people would think if I took a sick day. As I was tending to my child, I realized my priorities were all wrong. In that moment, I decided that I was not going to worry about work. I was going to enjoy my time as a mother. So I rocked and sang and truly enjoyed that time quietly into the night. I decided in that moment that being a mom and a working leader wasn’t going to be a trick question. I decided, right then and there, that I was done trying to figure out the “rules” for how to succeed and rise through the ranks, all while trying to juggle my home life responsibilities. I decided that I was not going to pit my work and my home life against one another, ignoring one for a time while I tended to the other. I was going to make my own rules. There would be no more false choices of either/or. It would be both/and from now on. From that moment forward, I began to live one, blended life, made up of choices, compromises and non-negotiables. In part, it’s one of those choices that led me to healthcare. I view healthcare as one of the most important social and economic issues of our time, and my family members are direct beneficiaries of efforts to drive better, safer and more cost-effective care. They have become my focus group for what Premier must do to initiate positive change. And, as the CEO of a healthcare improvement company, I view myself as an advocate for their better future, as well as the future of the industry.


I had the pleasure of interviewing Susan DeVore is president and CEO of Premier Inc., a leading healthcare improvement company uniting more than 4,000 U.S. hospitals and health systems and approximately 165,000 other provider organizations. With more than 30 years of experience, Susan leads nationwide efforts to drive healthcare industry transformation from the “inside” by engaging a broad group of stakeholders to co-develop innovative solutions to care delivery. As an industry-leading thinker, Susan has consistently been named multiple times to Modern Healthcare’s 100 Most Influential People and Top 25 Women in Healthcare lists and is a regular expert contributor to outlets such as CNBC, TheStreet, Fox News, Bloomberg, The Wall Street Journal, Yahoo! Finance and Health Affairs.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

My father was actually the COO for a predecessor company to Premier called SunHealth. Amazingly, I’m here today, carrying on and helping to fulfill a legacy that my dad was part of from the beginning. I guess you could say healthcare is in my DNA.

I joined Premier years later because of its ability to bring together thousands of healthcare providers that had massive amounts of clinical and financial data, and were all focused on driving cost and quality improvement across the industry.

I’m a mother, grandmother, sister, aunt and daughter — and what I want for healthcare is what I want for my family. I thought Premier would be an organization that would provide me with personal and professional challenges that align with what I wanted to achieve as a person.

So, for me, being in this position is like destiny — I see this career path as my calling. Premier’s alliance of healthcare providers shares the same vision, mission and values. The work we are doing is making a big and important impact.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

One of the most interesting and challenging things we have done at Premier is to lead the effort to take the company public. As an organization, we realized in early 2012 that if we were going to accomplish the work of transforming healthcare, and if we were going to fulfill our mission of improving the health of communities, we needed greater access to capital so that we could make the right investments and deliver solutions that would bring value to our members.

It’s never easy taking a company public, but in Premier’s case, it was particularly challenging. Because we are owned by our member health systems, we needed to present the idea and get the support of approximately 180 member owners to succeed. So, we had to do a coast-to-coast road show to explain our strategy and garner support for the innovation and growth we could accomplish as a public company — in addition to the traditional road show with the investor community that companies do before listing.

It was a very grueling two-year process, but in the end, Premier became the first hospital-owned GPO to go public in 2013, creating a company with a market capitalization of approximately $4.5 billion.

Since going public, Premier has consistently achieved double-digit revenue and earnings growth, while acquiring a dozen companies, growing Premier’s employee base and expanding partnerships with providers and suppliers. And we did all of this while holding true to our mission, vision and values as a company. It’s an accomplishment we are enormously proud of, and one that is still generating financial returns for all of our stockholders, including our health system members.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

As a provider-led healthcare improvement company, Premier unites an alliance of more than 4,000 hospitals and approximately 165,000 other providers nationwide. Premier is also majority owned by those healthcare providers. And that’s where we stand out. Because of our unique alignment, Premier is uniquely positioned to work with health systems to understand their specific challenges and then work alongside them to fix healthcare from the inside.

Ultimately, fixing our healthcare system will require innovation by healthcare providers around cost and quality. Under the current models, however, there are limited incentives to address these challenges holistically. But because we have such a large footprint in healthcare, we are able to work with health systems that want to lead in driving needed change.

Premier’s provider-centric model allows us to develop solutions with health systems and introduce them across our entire member base. Rather than reinventing the wheel over and over, Premier provides a shared infrastructure that our members can tap into without having to build or buy it themselves. This cultivates a collaborative approach to addressing common challenges. The result enables rapid deployment and scale of solutions that we know work, making them easier and more affordable to implement while the results are more successful.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

Premier is always working on exciting new projects! But one that I think is particularly important is our enterprise analytics solution.

I think most people realize in this era of big data that there is no shortage of information. But finding the right information at the right time to act upon it is another matter. We say it’s like having data, data everywhere, and not a drop to drink.

As a company, we realized early on that the data we were collecting from our members (clinical data on 45 percent of U.S. hospital discharges) was interrelated. In other words, actions taken to move the financial numbers usually have effects on quality and operations. That’s why, years ago, we started housing all this information on a singular, interoperable technology platform so that we could pull data from multiple apps and see those interconnections, giving people a better view into total system performance.

Now, we’re working to take that platform to the next level, developing what we call the “control tower” — an enterprise dashboard view of total system performance, down to the individual practitioner level, so that systems have a single, data-driven view into their operations. With the control tower, they can see into the entire ecosystem of care delivered to patients, not just the care provided in the four walls of the hospital, to pinpoint opportunities and prioritize specific changes. These enterprise-level analytics are being used by providers to simultaneously improve cost, quality, safety and patient outcomes. These insights are also creating an opportunity for health systems to work directly with employers that are interested in improving healthcare costs and quality for their companies and employees.

In the end, this type of integrated, holistic data will enable health systems to continually improve the total cost and quality of care delivered, which of course is great for patients and great for our taxpayers.

What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?

First, I’d start by saying that leadership isn’t an innate gift. It’s a choice.

No matter where you are in your career, no matter where you are in your life, you never need permission to step up and lead. Every one of us has it within us to become a leader. And we are more powerful than we think. If we can impact and influence lives, we can call ourselves a leader.

Second, you need to know your “why.” Why you get up every day and do the work you do. Why is it motivating? Why does it inspire you? Why will your work make the world a better place? And if it doesn’t do any of those things…ask yourself if you’re in the right field!

When we are tired and feeling burned out, when we wonder how we got here — we need to remember why we do what we do. And we need to use that passion to keep us moving forward and to motivate those around us. Because at the end of the day, as much as our growth, our future financial success is tied to what we do, it’s also tied to the passion we put behind what we believe.

I’ve buried two of my siblings this year, and I am acutely aware that life is short. We need to act now if we’re to leave our mark. And it requires us to look beyond a paycheck, beyond a career, beyond a stock price. It requires us to look inside ourselves and find our True North: the why that moves us forward and pushes us to be more than we ever thought we could.

Third: be inspired! It’s easy to become cynical and jaded — don’t fall into that trap. Keep learning and being in awe of those that are making the impossible possible. I have felt frustration, but I have also been equally inspired by my colleagues, our healthcare members and partners, and by the ordinary people in our country who are choosing to use their voices and their actions for good. Over the last year, we’ve seen some amazing examples of people becoming leaders when those around them didn’t seem willing to speak up or create momentum for change. Watch them, learn from them, emulate them.

What advice would you give to other female leaders about the best way to manage a large team?

Good leadership isn’t just about being our best. Leaders should embrace their superpower — the one thing they’re better at than anyone else. But great leaders are also focused on discovering the superpowers in the people around them and combining those different superpowers to form a strong team.

It’s about finding ways to inspire, support and bring out the strengths and passions of those around us by seeing and fostering the best within them. This can be done in big ways like mentoring, career progression, sponsoring, candid feedback and training. But sometimes the small things, like listening to someone’s frustration or going out of our way to offer a few words of encouragement, matter just as much.

A nurse named Karen recently told me about something that happened when she was on a shift with another nurse who had made a mistake. A physician in the clinic started to berate the nurse. But as it was happening, without saying anything, Karen simply placed her hands on the nurse’s shoulders as she stood behind her. That tiny gesture told the other nurse everything she needed to know in that moment. That the experience was hard, but she was going to get through it because she was a part of a team, and they would figure it out together.

Lifting up the people around us creates a wonderful confusion about who is serving whom. Standing up when we know we should makes it so no one has to stand alone. We carry the burdens of the people around us, and ours are carried in return. True leaders realize that the most important resource we have is each other.

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?

No one achieves success alone. We all need sponsors, advisors and mentors. That person for me is Terry Linn.

Terry was a partner at Ernst & Young, and I worked for him for twelve years in my 20s and early 30s. We were doing strategic and financial planning for health systems and, at the time, I was very green and inexperienced. But Terry always encouraged me to take on work at any level of difficulty. He encouraged me to speak up and participate as an “equal,” even though I was just learning. He involved me in strategic discussions and forced me to have opinions of my own. I observed the way he adjusted his language, conversations and approach to be responsive to the people he was interacting with. I learned by observing and by doing and by thinking…. but mostly by working for someone who believed in me.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

The work we’re leading is very personal and highly rewarding. We’re improving quality to save lives and make the overall healthcare experience better and more affordable for patients across the country. And we can point to real results.

Collectively, we have worked with hundreds of hospitals to save more than $18 billion and 200,000 lives in one of our quality improvement programs. In another initiative, our members have saved $400 million for the government by improving quality and delivering more coordinated care. And in another program, a group of hospitals have avoided nearly 60,000 readmissions and saved nearly $750 million in the process.

We’re constantly thinking of the millions of men, women and children in America that Premier can impact. Impacting lives — that’s our passion.

My family, and the families across the nation, are depending on us to make healthcare better. It’s a big responsibility, but also incredibly rewarding work. I can’t imagine working in any other industry.

What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)

1. Silence your inner critic.

Author Mel Robbins talks about how our brains are wired to keep us from doing things that are hard or uncomfortable. We have inner critics that come up with a mental list of all the reasons we’re inadequate. We tell ourselves why someone else is smarter, faster, or better suited for the job.

It’s only natural. When we step into the spotlight, we risk being wrong.

So when we have an idea or think we need to do something, we hesitate because on a primal level, our bodies are sending out stress signals telling us to stop and think about it a little more.

But if we don’t meet the challenge, no one will. And then the moment is lost.

When at a crossroads, I ask myself “what’s the worst thing that could happen?” And usually, the worst isn’t all that bad.
 
Effective leaders have a bias for action. When they see an opportunity, they grab it, they don’t overthink it and they do not succumb to the fears raised by the inner critic. We need to find the courage to be the drivers of change. Or as one author put it… to be the first egg in the omelet.

Equally important is that once you’ve made the call, stand by it, own it and let it go. On my way to work, I often pop in the Frozen CD to remind myself to let it go, and to stop worrying and torturing myself with doubt.

2. Know your superpower.

Everyone has something they’re better at than just about everyone else. That’s their superpower. Maybe it’s an uncanny ability to “read” people. Maybe it’s being a financial whiz. Maybe it’s diplomacy. Are you creative and see things from different angles? Are you a subject matter expert in something?

I tell people to know and be confident in that one amazing talent, and then surround themselves with peers whose superpowers are different from their own.

There’s an author named Chris Fussell, who has co-written books with General Stanley McChrystal. In one of his books, he describes the philosophy of the Navy Seals and the trident pin they wear with pride. He explains that the trident is earned, not granted. It’s a symbol that each of them is part of an elite tribe where they are the best at what they do. Each of them must exceed the expectations of their teammates and they expect their teammates to do the same. It’s a reminder that they must earn their place in that tribe every day.

Navy Seals all know their superpowers, and those of the rest of the team. And that’s why they are such an example of excellence.

3. Make your own rules.

Earlier in my career, my infant child developed a fever in the middle of the night. And my first thought was about work…the deadlines that were likely to be missed, how tired I was going to be the next day, what people would think if I took a sick day. As I was tending to my child, I realized my priorities were all wrong. In that moment, I decided that I was not going to worry about work. I was going to enjoy my time as a mother. So I rocked and sang and truly enjoyed that time quietly into the night.

I decided in that moment that being a mom and a working leader wasn’t going to be a trick question. I decided, right then and there, that I was done trying to figure out the “rules” for how to succeed and rise through the ranks, all while trying to juggle my home life responsibilities. I decided that I was not going to pit my work and my home life against one another, ignoring one for a time while I tended to the other.

I was going to make my own rules. There would be no more false choices of either/or. It would be both/and from now on. From that moment forward, I began to live one, blended life, made up of choices, compromises and non-negotiables.

In part, it’s one of those choices that led me to healthcare. I view healthcare as one of the most important social and economic issues of our time, and my family members are direct beneficiaries of efforts to drive better, safer and more cost-effective care. They have become my focus group for what Premier must do to initiate positive change. And, as the CEO of a healthcare improvement company, I view myself as an advocate for their better future, as well as the future of the industry.

4. Lead from within.

Too often, people get caught up in the trappings of success. People will say to themselves that they are not a leader because they don’t have a C-Suite title, a big office, a long resume, or lots of people reporting to them to make change.

But those attributes do not make a leader. We have to recognize that the direction, the vision, and the ambition we need doesn’t have to come from some external force. We can’t get caught up in the idea that we need status symbols to make change. Those things don’t matter when it really comes down to it. Instead, we need to understand that the leaders we’re looking for are already here, inside of us.

We recently memorialized the anniversary of 9/11. And there’s a beautiful story from that tragedy that always reminds me about the power of leading from within. One of the victims in the twin towers was a young man named Welles Crowther. Immediately after the attacks, Welles threw a red bandana over his face to help him breathe through all the debris and ash, and he got to work putting out fires, leading at least 10 people to safety, working alongside firefighters to free trapped victims. He wasn’t a first responder. No one asked Welles to do what he did. No one even knew his name –it wasn’t until later that his family was able to put a name to one of the true heroes of 9/11. But he saw what needed to be done, he stepped up and he did it. That’s leading from within.

5. Mission drives margin — not the other way around.

As a rule, people are happier and more fulfilled when they unite behind a shared mission and vision that is larger than themselves — when they work for companies contributing to a bigger, more important social and civic legacy.

Premier focuses on our mission, vision, values and ethics because those things are the heart of what enables us to perform, to achieve, as an organization. They are core to our business model, and a marker that sets us apart.

In his book Corporate Culture and Performance, John Kotter shows that companies with strong, shared missions, values and a grounding in ethical behaviors have 7X the job creation rates, stock prices that grow 12X faster, and profit performance that is 750X higher than companies without them — a gap that tends to widen with time.

Simply put… Mission drives margin.

When it comes to the mission — there are two things I think about. Premier’s mission is to improve the health of communities. So while we are a publicly traded company that has to deliver the financial results for our shareholders, our members and our employees, we also have to care about our deeply social charge.

The other thing I think about is not just Premier’s mission, but the missions of our members. Our value isn’t just measured in financial returns, it’s also about our ability to help members reach their goals of better quality care delivered at lower cost.

For me, Premier’s vision, mission and values are deeply personal. We want better healthcare and better outcomes, and we are driven to deliver results because this affects people, families and communities. I believe we have created a culture where delivering results for healthcare is in the core values of our employees, too. That’s a core culture we’ve created, and it sets us apart.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I honestly think we are doing it! Transforming healthcare into a long-term sustainable system that delivers cost-effective, quality results and improves individuals’ lives is the movement to end all movements, and we’re right in the middle of it.

Every person in America depends on our healthcare system. And while there are so many amazing stories out there about caring individuals going the extra mile and saving lives, there are still too many sad stories of missed opportunities, mistakes and suboptimal outcomes.

My family experienced one of them.

When my grandson, Grayson, was 2, he got strep throat. He was on the road to recovery, when all of a sudden, his fever shot up to 104, and he lost the use of one of his legs completely. He wouldn’t eat, walk or play. He was admitted to a children’s hospital, where he had several MRIs, two surgeries, multiple antibiotics. But he remained in significant pain.

Meanwhile, the orthopedic surgeon and the infectious disease doctor were not on the same page, with conflicting recommendations for what to do next. My kids — and my grandson — were stuck in the middle.

Thanks to a strong support system and understanding employers, my kids never left his side. They kept track — on their own legal pad — of every activity, intake and output for fear that, with changing staff and disconnected data, something would be missed. They were fortunate to have very skilled and caring nurses who were pulling for Grayson’s recovery. And though the experience was hard on our family, we were the lucky ones. Grayson got better.

But not all kids in his unit were so lucky. Some kids were alone. For every empty bedside chair, I knew there was a parent desperate to be there — but who couldn’t. A parent who had to get through that unbearable time while going to work; paying the bills; making sure their kids had a home once they got better. And after the hospital stay, I knew not all of them would be able to pay for it.

This is why I am passionate about the need for change in healthcare. People are depending on us for change and for action, and Premier is committed to being that force for good.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

There is a quote that I love from W.E.B. DuBois: “The most important thing to remember is this: to be ready at any moment to give up what you are for what you might become.” What that means to me is to think about everything as an opportunity. Because there will always be barriers.

It’s easy to be pigeon-holed or typecast in your career. If you’re a successful operator, it’s hard for people to think of you as a successful strategist. If you’re a really hands-on mom, sometimes people will dismiss you as a serious career woman.

Thirty-five-year-old me had a hard time with the balance. I had three young kids and opportunities in my career, and the balance wasn’t always easy to strike. But I think you can lock yourself into the status quo if you’re not willing to try new things or ditch what you know for a risk.

The key is to go over, under and around the problems you’re facing, and literally defy the word impossible. And personally, I’ve redesigned myself over time to drive meaning and value in my personal life, while accomplishing as much as I can professionally.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

@DeVorePremier

Thank you so much for these inspiring insights!

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