A Conversation with Tommy Ibrahim, MD, MHA, Incoming President and CEO, Bassett Healthcare Network

Q. What would you most like to convey to the more than 5,000 staff who comprise the Bassett workforce?

Tommy Ibrahim, MD, MHA
     Tommy Ibrahim, MD, MHA

There is so much I wish I could convey to our teams across the system, but if I were to distill it down to a single point, it would be the following: I firmly believe that our people are our single most important asset, period. I have seen organizations, repeatedly, neglect or deprioritize their workforce, and then wonder why key operational parameters of safety, quality, experience and financial success lag or suffer as a result. In fact, a recent Harvard Business Review study concluded that 71 percent of managers believe that workforce engagement is the single most important factor dictating organizational success. Bassett has a rich history, with a storied legacy that we are all committed to and very proud of. To continue to build upon the incredible successes of our predecessors, we must continue to focus on caregiver engagement, ensuring our people have a sense of personal fulfillment and purpose in their work, feel heard and supported, have a place to express their creativity and ideas, are rewarded and recognized, and feel appreciated with fair and competitive pay and benefits. 

It is too early for me to know exactly where we are as an organization in each of these areas, but this will absolutely be part of my early learning and strategic planning. My team and I will always communicate, be visible, and work tirelessly with integrity and honesty to balance the needs, wants and engagement of our caregivers while ensuring the long-term success of the organization, and we will involve our people in the process. It is important to me that our workforce knows that we care and value every single one of them, and that BHN leaders will continue to demonstrate this through our actions. 

Q. You are assuming leadership during an extremely challenging time for all of health care. What motivates you to take this on, and what will it take to navigate the months and years ahead?

I believe every challenge presents an opportunity and this time is no different. For me, it is a privilege to be called into leadership now. This is a once in a lifetime chance to make a significant impact for the communities we serve and to position our organization or a prosperous future in an uncertain world. The future as we knew it, has changed. We will need to modify our thinking, develop 1,3,5, and 10-year strategic plans, and incorporate a quarter-by-quarter approach to adjust accordingly to this new and unusual environment. In many respects, COVID-19 is serving as a catalyst for us to rethink how we deliver care to meet shifting consumer behavior, re-evaluate our cost structure, and partner with others for value. 

Recently demonstrated through the resolute and skilled COVID-19 response, the Bassett team, and its practitioners, have shown the resiliency and adaptability necessary to tackle uncertainties and challenges in a dynamic and changing health care environment. This same tenacity built the Bassett Healthcare Network as we know it today and will help us all navigate towards a stronger tomorrow. I do not have all the answers. I will say this repeatedly because no single leader does. It will take all of us, working together, to identify creative solutions and leverage our collective talents. This, combined with the foresight to plan and a continued commitment to adaptive agility, will move us forward. Locking arms together, I am confident we will chart a bright future for Bassett, our caregivers, patients and communities, and build upon the unparalleled legacy created through a century of leadership and innovation.

Q. What is your leadership philosophy?

I wrote a paper on this very topic several years ago, discussing the differences between transactional and transformational leadership. Here is an excerpt from that article:

“Each person has a slightly different definition of the word leadership. Leading, for some, is synonymous with managing. These individuals focus on the “this-for-that” style of leadership – when you do this, you get that. When your team reduces the length of stay of patients in the cardiology department for a calendar year, you are recognized and rewarded accordingly. This style of management, known as transactional leadership, is concerned with managing the here and now. It is a leadership style fixated on the notion that leaders organize day-to-day operations and react to problems or demands.

“As health care providers, with demanding schedules and limited resources, transactional leadership becomes a default many are inadvertently thrust into. To continue to improve the care of our patients, we need something more than reactive, day-to-day leadership. We need leaders to inspire a shared, redesigned and unified vision of a future health care system where every patient has access to affordable, quality health care. We need transformational leaders.

“Transformational leadership implies deep-rooted change, whether that be at the departmental, institutional, or system level. Such change must be managed appropriately, sensitively and with broad-based consensus that includes important stakeholder buy-in. Broken down, there are four components to consider: Idealized influence, inspirational motivation, intellectual stimulation, and individualized consideration.

“Leadership, at its core, is a concept used to explain individuals rallying others for a common cause. Idealized Influence – followers identifying with their leader is essential. To be an effective leader, one must be an authentic role model, admired and respected. Moral and ethical conduct is critical. Followers strive to emulate your behavior.

“Inspirational motivation is the idea that leaders motivate their teams and inspire attractive future states. They add meaning and challenge team members in their work, clearly communicating an understandable and clear vision, while engaging members of the team and building confidence to accomplish goals. In addition, there is an active questioning of assumptions, reframing of problems, and promotion of solution-focused thinking. Such leaders challenge and intellectually stimulate followers to excel. They mentor, coach, and value people for their individuality, and remain sensitive to their differing views, needs, and circumstances. When this individualized consideration is present, the resulting climate fosters greater levels of human effectiveness. Influence, motivation, stimulation and consideration are the keys that contribute to empowerment and happy colleagues. With this recipe, transformation can be attainable.”

I aspire to be a transformational leader every day, and I motivate my teams to do the same. Transformational leadership takes the approach that positive organizational change occurs through the interweaving of each of these four concepts. To be clear, you cannot completely avoid “transaction.” It is a necessary part of management, particularly in complex health care. There is a “set point” predisposition, however. How you show up daily to lead others is your set point. I am not perfect by any means and I do not have all the answers, but I work continuously to adjust my set point within these four key principles and believe in the power of our people and teams to transform.

Q. How have your past physician experiences and executive leadership experiences prepared you for leading the Bassett network?

As physicians, we are wired to diagnose and treat. As a hospitalist who enjoys high acuity settings, I get instant gratification from identifying an acute condition through data and information and implementing a plan to correct the problem through sound, evidence-based protocols and strategies. The center of my world in that moment is providing the highest quality, safest, and most reliable care for that patient.  My experience as a physician has translated into a relentless pursuit of finding strategies to problem solve and implement systems and processes that are focused on our patients. I believe that patients should come first in everything that we do, and if we constantly do what is in their best interest, everything else will ultimately fall into place. As a clinical enterprise first, I will always challenge our teams across the system to pursue excellence in safety, quality, patient experience, and access. If we can use the same data-driven diagnostic and problem-solving skills physicians acquire over the years, we can put in place sound, fail-safe systems to help our caregivers do the right thing and truly make an impact in the value of services we are able to provide for our communities. This is our mission and the reason we exist. If we do this well, we will create a raving fan base, leading to pre-eminence, growth, and financial prosperity over the long haul. 

As an executive leader, with experience at one of the largest national health systems in the country (Catholic Health Initiatives, now CommonSpirit) and a dominant regional player (INTEGRIS), I have learned the importance of applying these critical principles around excellence in clinical patient care across a large scale, building infrastructure to create systems and integration, leveraging size to extract efficiency and value, creating a unified culture and consensus through teamwork and communication, while driving innovation and technology as an additional means to superb patient care. 

We will work together to explore many strategies that ultimately fall within two big buckets: 1) Optimizing our core operations, and 2) Positioning for the future. We will discuss these in great detail over the months to come. 

I am excited about the future and cannot wait to partner with all our caregivers and practitioners to continue building upon the good work of generations past.