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“Without a crisp sense of purpose, an organization might survive, but it will never win,” William Sanger ’88 told Executive MBA students April 22. “And it rests on the shoulders of the organization’s leaders to make that happen.”

William Sanger ’88, CEO of Emergency Medical Services Corporation

Planning to win

Focus on ‘purpose,’ says William Sanger ’88, CEO of Emergency Medical Services Corporation, and on the evidence you need to make good decisions

By Daniel P. Smith

4/26/2011 - Falling in love with your own ideas: Strike one.

Allowing corporate culture to create itself: Strike two.

Working without a purpose: Strike three.
 
Such was the candid message William Sanger ’88, CEO of Emergency Medical Services Corporation, shared with Executive MBA students on April 22 as part of the Executive MBA Luncheon series.

“The role of CEO is so much about culture and creating a sense of purpose,” said Sanger, a graduate of the Executive MBA Program and head of the nation’s leading provider of emergency medical services.

While so many strategic plans begin with a vision and mission — the proper starting points, Sanger allowed — most fail in execution. Faulty plans protect market share rather than foster growth; lack measurement, attention and adaptation; or exist in a vacuum sans the buy-in of human capital.

All of which, Sanger said, are recipes for struggle.

When Sanger assumed his current position at EMSC in 2005, he and the firm’s new leadership set bold plans for growth alongside strategies to ensure success. In February, EMSC announced it would be going private at a total value of $3.2 billion, a nearly nine-fold return for original investors from the initial $200 million equity purchase price six years prior.

Such success happened, Sanger said, precisely because the company’s strategic plan was monitored, measured and modified to ensure comprehensive and effective execution.

Borrowing a term from the healthcare industry he inhabits, Sanger said many C-level executives across the business landscape suffer from “diagnostic bias,” the act of reverting to routine in the face of empirical data.

“Too many of us fall in love with our own ideas,” Sanger said. “As you become successful, you begin to divorce yourself from empirical evidence … because your behaviors, processes and policies are your culture. That’s not a winning formula.”

One key to EMSC’s success, Sanger told students, has been his use of a “kitchen cabinet,” a collection of workers throughout the EMSC ranks who help leadership clarify, direct and tighten the firm’s vision.

“Employees have answers, too,” he said.

Any corporate success, Sanger said, cannot happen without a concrete sense of purpose emanating throughout the organization alongside planning that focuses on offensive strategies rather than defensive tactics.

“The focus must be on purpose and everyone’s role in realizing the vision,” Sanger said. “Without a crisp sense of purpose, an organization might survive, but it will never win. And it rests on the shoulders of the organization’s leaders to make that happen.”