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Gary Mecklenburg, former president and CEO of Northwestern Memorial Hospital and Northwestern Memorial Healthcare, visited the Kellogg School’s Evanston campus as part of the Executive Leaders in Residence program.

Healthcare made simple

Former Northwestern Memorial Hospital CEO finds excellence in enthusiasm and a straightforward goal of putting customers first

By Aubrey Henretty

1/19/2007 - “It isn’t the institution that gives patients a great experience,” Gary A. Mecklenburg told students assembled in the Donald P. Jacobs Center on Jan. 18. “It’s one person.”

Mecklenburg, former president and CEO of Northwestern Memorial Hospital and Northwestern Memorial Healthcare, visited the Kellogg School’s Evanston campus through the Executive Leaders in Residence Program, a Kellogg initiative that allows students and faculty to meet with distinguished leaders for a series of informal discussions. Calling on the wisdom of everyone from his own father to transcendentalist philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson, Mecklenburg reflected on his career in a presentation titled, “Searching for Excellence: What I Have Learned About Success in the Last 40 Years.”

During his 20 years at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, patient volume nearly doubled, Mecklenburg said, adding that despite this boom in business at NMH, the news for the healthcare industry is not all good. According to Mecklenburg, the rising cost of healthcare and a long list of other challenges are keeping industry leaders refining their strategic frameworks to remain competitive. Still, in the spirit of Emerson who observed that nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm, Mecklenburg urged the group to remain optimistic.

“People get depressed,” he said. “They say, ‘Why should I go into healthcare?’” For Mecklenburg, the reasons are many: “It’s exciting, it’s changing, it’s high-tech, and the people who work in healthcare are great people to work with.”

He also emphasized that surrounding oneself with great people is crucial to success in any industry. “People are your single greatest strategic asset,” he said. “Hire people smarter than you are. It doesn’t make you look bad. It makes you look good.”

With a nod to NASA’s mandate to “keep it simple, stupid,” Mecklenburg also underscored the importance of simplicity in business and in life. “We tend to make things and answers far too complicated,” he said. “Fundamentally, healthcare is a simple business. It’s taking care of people.”

Mecklenburg’s presentation was followed by a question-and-answer session with students. When asked how a hospital manager should balance the practical need to keep costs down with the desire to offer the best quality equipment, facilities and patient care, he gave a simple answer: Always put the patient first. “If you do the right thing first, it’s a lot cheaper than doing the wrong thing and then re-doing.”

Right decisions will follow wherever people are passionate about their work, said Mecklenburg. “Every organization has a purpose, a raison d’être,” he noted, but it is the true believers on the payroll who really make successful companies shine. “People who believe in their organizations — believe in their missions — walk through walls.”