Tips From The Top: One On One With Dr. Stephen Klasko, President of Thomas Jefferson University

I spoke to Dr. Stephen K. Klasko, President of Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia and CEO of Jefferson Health, about his best advice

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Adam: Thanks again for taking the time to share your story and your advice. First things first, though, I am sure readers would love to learn more about you. What is something about you that would surprise people?

Stephen: My students enjoy hearing that my first job, and my career ambition, was to be a disk jockey. I grew up in South Philly and spinning tunes on the radio was the coolest thing possible. Sadly, I got fired as a DJ and ended up in medical school and then launched a successful career as an obstetrician. Lesson learned: Throughout my career, the next step has never been obvious. But I tell students to find and pursue their passion, because a DJ could end up as a university president.

Adam: How did you get here? What failures, setbacks or challenges have been most instrumental to your growth?

Stephen: The key was starting to realize that what we’d been taught wasn’t always true, and what we cling to from the past may not help us design the future. I vividly remember lectures about the simplicity and wisdom of performing hysterectomies, only to visit the bookstore and see books like “The Hysterectomy Hoax.” I also kept hearing doctors who said business would ruin healthcare – that’s really why I went and got an MBA at Wharton, to see the “dark side” that was supposedly threatening our old ways of doing things. The problem then, and now, is that America’s healthcare delivery system is a mess. We have Star Wars medicine grafted onto a Fred Flintstone delivery mechanism. Healthcare in this country is fragmented for patients, frustrating for doctors, deeply inequitable for people who are poor, and occasionally unsafe for people who entrust us with their health. What excites me is that the prospect of patients taking charge – of using the consumer revolution to rebuild healthcare delivery that is accessible, transparent, equitable and integrated. That will only happen when the patient is the boss.

Adam: In your experience, what are the defining qualities of an effective leader? How can leaders and aspiring leaders take their leadership skills to the next level?

Stephen: Leaders, and their boards of trustees, need to self-consciously plan and appreciate the balance between execution and discovery. If your business is thriving, in an industry that has adjusted to the digital age, then focus on execution. But if the “fourth industrial revolution,” the digital age, is breathing down your neck, and you don’t want to be left behind, then flexing your discovery muscle is critical. Make creativity a watchword. Develop the teams who will redefine your future. For us, we’re working in two legacy industries – healthcare and higher education. There’s enormous financial pressure on both those industries, and both are critical to the future of our country and world. It’s why Jefferson’s vision statement is to “re-imagine health, education and discovery to provide unparalleled value.”

Adam: What are your three best tips applicable to entrepreneurs, executives and civic leaders?

Stephen: Break your own mental molds. I spend time using techniques to think beyond today’s problems. First, history of the future – what will be obvious ten years from now, and why can’t we start doing it today? I find that if the time scope is too short, people will respond with this year’s budget and regulation issues. Make people think ahead. Second, imagine your company just hired a brilliant, hot-shot change agent as CEO … what would she do? Third, flex your own creative muscle. Read something you’d never normally pick up. Go home a different route and observe something new. Pursue something you are passionate about – don’t put it off because the calendar is too tight.

Adam: What is the single best piece of advice you have ever received?

Stephen: Always have people working for you who believe they can do your job… including some who are right.

Adam: What is one thing everyone should be doing to pay it forward?

Stephen: Our board of trustees changed the formula for executive compensation this year – to attach incentives around markers of community improvement. We have to stop writing mission statements that include doing good things for the world, and then rewarding executives based on nothing but the bottom line. The social impact of business is critical to a better society – top executives need to hold themselves accountable for that impact.

Adam: What are your hobbies and how have they shaped you?

Stephen: The app world is so beautiful because I can now combine my two passions at the same time, running and music. I pick a theme song for every morning run. It reminds me to appreciate people who tell stories through their art.

Adam: Is there anything else you would like to share?

Stephen: If you want to see the future, find good people who are uncomfortable in the status quo. Pay attention to those people – and use them to build teams of diverse thought and diverse backgrounds.

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