Episode 86:
Crisis Leadership: Focus, Clarity, Communication, and Empathy
Renee DeSilva, CEO, The Health Management Academy
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In this final episode of Fireside Chat, we sit down with Renee DeSilva, CEO, The Health Management Academy, to review top characteristics of health system CEOs and other leaders during the COVID crisis. Renee shared plans for Season 2 of The Academy podcast, called The Academy Table, what the name represents and how it will enhance The Academy experience.

Renee DeSilva is the Chief Executive Officer of The Health Management Academy (The Academy), a peer learning organization that brings together health system and industry leaders to collectively address healthcare’s biggest challenges and opportunities. As CEO, she is responsible for the organization’s strategy, business operations, growth, and talent management.


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Renee DeSilva 0:03
The stakes are really high and the ability to lead with heart and empathy but being deliberate and being decisive, I saw so many of our health system members do that incredibly well. And so I think that the crisis level leadership requires a level of focus and clarity and communication and empathy that is not for the faint of heart.

Gary Bisbee 0:25
That was Renee DeSilva, CEO of the Health Management Academy, reviewing top characteristics of health system CEOs and other leaders during the COVID crisis. I’m Gary Bisbee and this is Fireside Chat. Renee tracked how she became involved in healthcare and the decision to join the Academy as CEO. She quickly appreciated the value of the membership model and the strength of health system and corporate member’s relationships with each other and the Academy. Eighteen months after joining the academy, COVID struck and she reviewed how the Academy, a company built on convening, adapted to an entirely virtual environment. She outlined plans for reinstituting meetings in the second half of 2021 and how lessons learned from virtual convening will add to the Academy’s service mix. Renee shared plans for season two of the Academy podcast, called the Academy Table, what the name represents, and how it will enhance the Academy experience. Let’s listen.

Renee DeSilva 1:26
The table for me, more personally, I think there’s a national conversation around ensuring that we have all viewpoints represented at the table, that you include different perspectives, never more important and never more of an impact on health outcomes than having the table set with folks that have a different viewpoint. And I look forward to the podcast really creating space for that.

Gary Bisbee 1:48
For my part, I’ve enjoyed hosting and producing the 86 episodes of Fireside Chat during season one of the Academy’s podcast. It’s been my pleasure to interview our guests who were unfailingly gracious with their time and willingness to share their thoughts and experiences. While Renee hosts the Academy Table, I’ll be moving to the Gary Bisbee Show, found on YouTube and most podcast platforms. Now back to our interview. I’m delighted to welcome Renee DeSilva to the microphone. Good afternoon, Renee, and welcome.

Renee DeSilva 2:26
Thank you, Gary. So happy to be here with you.

Gary Bisbee 2:28
Well, we’re pleased to have you at this microphone. We know you as the Academy CEO, of course, and we’ll enjoy today learning more about you personally, your priorities and learnings from your first 30 plus months as CEO, and your plans for the next version of the Academy Podcast. Renee, what was life like growing up for you?

Renee DeSilva 2:52
I am from the small and mighty state of Rhode Island, which means that you could get away with very little because everyone knew each other in the community. I was raised as the only girl, so I was raised in a house full of boys. I was the youngest of four. And my brothers got into lots of trouble growing up. And so I was born sort of 14 years after my youngest brother. So my parents, I guess learned all the things that had maybe gone a little bit off and quickly got me enrolled in a Catholic school where the nuns really ensured that I would walk a straight path.

Gary Bisbee 3:27
I know you went off to Syracuse and majored in public affairs, and there’s a very interesting story about you and the Maxwell School. Could you share that with us, Renee?

Renee DeSilva 3:38
I’d be happy to. After I applied to Syracuse, I was invited to participate in a scholarship competition that the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs hosted. This was 1993. So the assignment was to research Hillary Rodham Clinton’s healthcare plan and argue both sides of it. So you had to submit a paper and if you did decently enough on that, you were invited to campus to sort of defend your thesis in front of the broader group of Maxwell faculty. And so I did that, got sort of a crash course at 17 on what it meant to expand healthcare coverage, and ended up winning that scholarship competition, which the lead faculty Dr. Coplin quickly pulled me into the policy studies program as a major as a follow up to that. So that was my first foray into healthcare at a pretty early age. And that’s sort of how I landed as majoring in public administration at Syracuse.

Gary Bisbee 4:33
Well, did you ever think you’d actually be in healthcare as a career?

Renee DeSilva 4:38
No, I didn’t. I don’t think I even knew that that was a career path when I was in that very academic exercise. But it’s funny Gary, you know, we’re sort of still having a little bit of that same conversation in some ways.

Gary Bisbee 4:49
That’s a very good point. Well, what were you thinking post-Syracuse?

Renee DeSilva 4:53
I was always animated by wanting to be surrounded by really a fast-paced environment and really sharp people. And so as part of my path when I left Syracuse, I landed at Accenture and did really interesting work in the consumer products industry that I think really helps you become process-oriented and linear in your thinking. And I thought that this consulting path might be my path. And at some point, as careers tend not to be linear, ended up landing, realizing that at some point, I wanted to spend more of my time in externally facing roles than internally facing roles. I did a job search as part of me wanting to leave Rhode Island and relocating and stumbled upon a company called the Advisory Board as part of that process.

Gary Bisbee 5:40
That got you firmly into healthcare then.

Renee DeSilva 5:43
It did. At that time the Advisory Board was part, it was still connected to the corporate Advisory Board, so it had a corporate executive board, so it still had a pretty heavy corporate and healthcare focus. At some point in my early tenure, those two entities were disconnected and I stayed on the healthcare route. And so my first job at the Advisory Board was an individual performer meeting with hospital executive teams talking about our membership services. And that is the way that I learned healthcare in some ways was through the stories and the context and getting to know the leaders of local hospitals. And that is what I think got me really interested in the impact that healthcare can have and an appreciation for how very local healthcare is as well.

Gary Bisbee 6:31
So did you form any other opinions about healthcare, like, “I really do want to stay in healthcare for the rest of my career” or anything like that?

Renee DeSilva 6:39
If I were being honest, I would say that my career and my commitment to health care grew as the company grew. And so I can’t say that I was definitively committed to a healthcare track. I think what kept me in healthcare was an organization that invested in me, that itself was constantly evolving and transforming. And through the growth and an organization that I sort of stumbled upon, I think my own career path grew. And so from the conversations with individual hospital administrators, I began to then understand other elements of healthcare delivery. But it was really connected to the environment that I worked in and the career path that I thought was interesting in terms of just keeping the curiosity and the constant learning at the front of mind for me, personally.

Gary Bisbee 7:29
Well then the Advisory Board got into education and spun off EAB, and you went with the spin-off. What was your thinking there, Renee?

Renee DeSilva 7:38
Yes. So for most of my career, I had been involved in commercial functions and driving commercial strategy. Right before the Advisory Board transaction happened I started spending time on internal operations and performance management, working closely with our then CEO, Robert Musslewhite. And when the transaction was happening, EAB was being carved out. So I think as most people know, Advisory Board was acquired by Optum, the education practice was carved out and taken private, and that entity needed to be stood up as its own functioning, high-performing company. And I had done a lot of work on talent management and talent acceleration and DENI work, and the CEO that was going to leave the Education Advisory Board, EAB, asked me to join him as a chief talent officer. And to me that pivot, you know, if you think about careers and you sort of pivot and you find opportunities to stretch your skills and grow your impact, the chief talent officer position to me was a fantastic way to do that. So I didn’t leave healthcare as much as I ran towards a role that would help me sort of see a business more holistically. As you can appreciate in having led the Academy for so many years, the IP of professional services companies is its people. So you are going to be constrained in so far as your ability to recruit and retain and groom talent. And so I chose that path for the ability to have an impact at that level.

Gary Bisbee 9:05
That was a brilliant decision given what you’re doing now as the CEO of the Academy for sure. Why don’t we turn to the Academy? Let me just say, first of all, that we were delighted when you chose to join us. Thinking about, back in the early fall of 2018, what were your early impressions of the Academy and its membership and what you were thinking about as possibly joining the Academy?

Renee DeSilva 9:31
Yes, I remember our conversations fondly. We were sitting in a little restaurant in Old Town Alexandria chatting about this and it’s just such a special place. So I would say my observation was, the Academy was and is a small company and it, I would say, boxes above its weight in terms of impact. So I was just immediately struck by the nature of the membership that you had assembled, you and Sherry had assembled in terms of leading health systems driving so much of the care for our country. Those folks had served as major employers in their market that I was just sort of struck by the platform. That was my first observation, just the incredible members that were connected to the Academy. And the second thing was the level of, I would say, affection that they had for the Academy. You know, you sort of created something brilliant in that it struck into hearts and minds. And that was very palatable to me as part of my process. And that’s what really drew me to it, it’s just this amazing platform of not just providers, but also industry companies that impact the larger healthcare ecosystem. And it was just a force that I felt attracted to in terms of joining and really having a next major career investment here.

Gary Bisbee 10:41
Following your first year, what were your impressions after one year at the Academy? Did you kind of learn something that you maybe hadn’t thought about? Or did you see something that you weren’t aware of before?

Renee DeSilva 10:55
Overall, it just confirmed my sense as I was joining the company. I think one thing that struck me and really is one of our guiding principles today, is this notion of “member at the center.” I think a lot of companies say that, but when I watched how our teams really work hard to curate every conversation, every table, the care that’s put into thinking through the personalization and white glove service of every interaction – that struck me. We had almost as many programs, in terms of executive forums, as we had people employed in the firm. And the level of care that was provided to each interaction was just amazing to witness. So that was confirming in some ways. And then I think the opportunity was and is, is, you know, we have these fantastic relationships, this wonderful platform, the ability to generate insights in a way that is not a speaker behind the podium but really coming from what’s working at our member institutions. I think the question that we began to ask ourselves is, how do you continue to expand the reach? And how do you continue to drive impact on behalf of our members? And that’s what still continues to animate the work for us here.

Gary Bisbee 12:05
Roughly 18 months after you began, then we ran into the shock of COVID. And that hit the Academy as a convening business, as a small business, as a healthcare business. So you were hit almost from every direction. What were your first thoughts when the COVID surge began?

Renee DeSilva 12:27
I mean, the first was just, like all of us, just a deep sense of care for what our providers and the caregivers within those organizations were having to navigate. So yes, it was disruptive for the nature of the business that we operate. But more than anything, these are folks that we’ve grown to have relationships with and many of whom were on the front lines and just dealing with really unimaginable circumstances. What was interesting was they stayed very connected to us. So even late February, early March we were convening and pulling folks together virtually in this rapid fashion, trying to help them learn from each other. So I felt the privilege of being able to bring folks together and hopefully be a place where they could get ideas and process quickly all the decisions that were in front of them. So that was sort of the first thing. Never more important did you feel and sense mission and the importance of the provider community to all of us. They were operating as the de facto public health entity and we just, as a firm, had a just a deep respect for that work. And then, as you said, at the core of the Academy, we host 65 live events a year. And that is the heartbeat of this company. And so having to pivot that in figuring out a way to just still stay connected and still offer value, but do that in a way that was fit for purpose was where we went next. And so our teams really were driven by wanting to support members, we pivoted all of our programming to virtual, and we really tried to do it in the Academy way, which is to curate a small group around a table, in this case it was a virtual table, and have dynamic discussions that lead to a new thought, an interesting takeaway. So that was the pivot that we made. And I think, just reflecting on, I think we’re coming out of this, hopefully, I think we see a bright light at the end of what’s been a dark tunnel. I think our members have really stuck with us. And I hope that’s a testament to the value that we provided and just this “member at the center” ethic that really does animate our work.

Gary Bisbee 14:21
I think it is. And as I’ve told you, personally and in groups, Renee, you’ve just done a terrific job leading the Academy through this. So well done. A crisis like this puts a premium on leadership. I know you speak regularly with the CEOs of the health systems and in the companies. How do you think about the characteristics of a leader in a crisis? What have you picked up from that group?

Renee DeSilva 14:47
Yeah, it’s a great learning lab. I think this is true for our provider CEOs and executives, as well as our industry companies who really did really try to step up and be a great partner to health systems. I think the first for me that came through was the folks that were really effective at being a transparent yet an honest source of information, but doing so in a way where you’re not inducing panic. And so the premium on clarity and the level of cogent thoughts that were provided, I think was incredibly powerful. You saw all of your leaders, all of our leaders really leaning into that. I think the folks that were really able to just rally, and I don’t really know how they do it, I serve on a health system board and I always tell Steven Jones is the CEO to Nova, I would never want his job because the stakes are really high. And the ability to lead with heart and empathy, but being deliberate and being decisive. I saw so many of our health system members do that incredibly well. And so I think that the crisis level leadership required a level of focus and clarity and communication and empathy that is not for the faint of heart. And then, oh by the way, they’re doing that in the midst of a healthcare crisis and COVID crisis and an environment that was incredibly polarized and having to also deal with that within the middle of a really tough set of racial tensions. And so I think they were really affronted from all sides. And I think the folks that I really turn to as exemplars were just really clear and out front and visible. And I personally drew a lot of inspiration from that.

Gary Bisbee 16:24
So let me go back a bit. You’ve actually answered this question, but not directly, but I’d like to ask it directly. And that is, at the point you realized that we weren’t going to be able to continue on with the 65 meetings a year, how did you think about plans to get through the rest of 2020?

Renee DeSilva 16:47
A couple of things we did. One was, we had the power of partnerships come to mind here, too. We had really strong partnerships with many of our hotel venues and we really worked with them to just push out programming into 2021, where we’re more optimistic that in the back half of the year we’ll be able to bring folks back together. We were able to pass along any savings that we got from forgone venue costs back to our members. And so I think that was a really important signal. And then we did and we have really worked on accelerating parts of our business that are less dependent upon in-person moment. And so we’ve got a policy and advocacy arm that is thriving. We do some customized research that we can do outside of live events. And so we tried to do both, provide value on convening in a virtual environment and do that as efficiently as possible. So proving our value in a way that was helpful in the moment. And then what are some ways that we can serve and deliver additional value that are not connected to a live event. And I do think, and I can hear many of our health systems say this too, and our other industry members, I think we come out of this stronger in terms of clarity around our vision and our direction, understanding how to be agile in decision making, and just all the basics of blocking and tackling of cash flow management and liquidity management and ensuring that you have shored up partnerships that are important to you. I’d like to think that we come out of this stronger, although we are all very anxious to the day when we can be back in person with our members because that is where we get most of our energy. And I know my team in particular is really eager for when that can happen safely.

Gary Bisbee 18:28
The health systems, of course, saw a huge acceleration of telemedicine during the crisis and most of them are saying that that will continue the whole virtual aspect of care. What do you think about the Academy? Once you’re back meetings on a regular basis will you keep some of the virtual programming that you’ve developed this year?

Renee DeSilva 18:52
I think so. I think it’s a really good tool to punctuate and to reinforce things across the year, I think. We will all work differently coming out of COVID and we want to be flexible to how that work unfolds. I do think most folks have a real case of Zoom fatigue. I put myself in this category. So I do think people are going to be very eager to get back together. But we will definitely think about our, the way that we serve more broadly. And then I think there are, outside of convening, ways for us to extend our reach and impact that will have a strong impact on the larger healthcare ecosystem and patients that we’re excited to pursue as well that, you know, will be less dependent on the ability to get together a couple times a year.

Gary Bisbee 19:34
We talked about how your members/CEOs handled the crisis as leaders. Let me ask you the same question, Renee. Has the COVID crisis changed you as a leader or as a family member?

Renee DeSilva 19:49
Yes, I think so. And from a leadership perspective, I think the one thing you know but you are really sure that on the heels of anything that is disruptive, is how much you really care about your team members internally. And certainly not as a comparison point for how providers had to adjust, but I hope that I come out of this more vulnerable, if that makes sense. Just more aware of how important social connection is. And when that is lacking, that it requires all of us to sort of step up and really meet people where they are. So I just think the parts of leadership around meeting your folks where they are and being assessable and just the sort of empathy for how their lives outside of work, that came through, right? So for most folks who are caregivers, their children have been offline, they’ve not seen their family. And I think you come out of that and you sort of feel that. And so just creating an environment and explicit permission for that to be okay, for you to show up at work and just acknowledge that some days you’re having a great day and some days it’s harder. And I think being human and really leading with that, I think is one takeaway. I think it’s also just clearing out the noise. I think in times of challenge, maybe the best thing that you can do as a leader is take some things off the table. So not everything has to be done at 100% standard. It’s okay for you to prioritize with greater sense of deliberation on what your prioritizations are and giving explicit permission for that to be the case. And I don’t mean permission in a parochial way, but just helping take things off the table because you need to be aware of how heavy the load is for people broadly. Those are the two things that really stand clearly in my head.

Gary Bisbee 21:31
Well said. Well, why don’t we turn to the Academy podcast? And we introduced the first one Fireside Chat 85 episodes ago, seems like an eternity doesn’t it through all the COVID? But we’ll be wrapping up the first iteration of this Fireside Chat with this podcast and then you’ll be picking it up. What will you be calling the new podcast and what will your intention be in terms of the vibe and the content of the new podcast, Renee?

Renee DeSilva 22:01
Yes, so in season two, we will sort of migrate to The Academy Table. And when I say the table, it’s sort of, for me, invokes a couple of things and that’s my answer to what’s my vibe. So back to one of your questions, “What struck me about the Academy?” and this was from when I first was introduced. It’s just the real power of when you curate the right people around a table, man, the magic happens. And so I want to find a way to do that through this podcast medium. The table, for me, more personally, I think there’s a national conversation around ensuring that we have all viewpoints represented at the table, that you include different perspectives, never more important and never more of an impact on health outcomes than having the table set with folks that have a different viewpoint. And I look forward to the podcast really creating space for that. And then the final thing is, if I go back to this big crazy family that I grew up in, the dinner table was a place where you have lots of good debate, sometimes lots of joy, sometimes you had polarizing opinions sitting around the table from each other. And I do think infusing that element of good debate, great conversation, and joy all around the topic of healthcare and how it’s transforming with some of the more impressive healthcare leaders is what we’re hoping to create. Now, we will not be as prolific in volume as you have been, and you leave some very big shoes to fill, but we are excited to continue the conversation for sure.

Gary Bisbee 23:24
Well, the field may be grateful, Renee, that you won’t be that prolific. But seriously, I love the Academy Table. I love that concept and you’ll be terrific at it. So thanks, Renee, for this time with you and keep up the terrific work. You’ve done an absolutely marvelous job with the Academy and we’re looking for continued great things from you in the Academy.

Renee DeSilva 23:50
Wonderful. So good to catch up with you today, Gary. Thank you for all of your support over the last couple of years.

Gary Bisbee 23:55
Fireside Chat with Gary Bisbee is a Health Management Academy podcast produced by Think Medium. Please subscribe to Fireside Chat on Apple Podcasts or wherever you’re listening right now. Be sure to rate and review Fireside Chat so we can continue to explore key issues with innovative and dynamic healthcare leaders. In addition to subscribing and rating, we’ve found that podcasts are known through word of mouth and we appreciate your spreading the word to friends or those who might be interested. Fireside Chat is brought to you from our nation’s capitol in Washington, DC, where we explore the strategies of leading health systems through conversations with CEOs and other interesting leaders. For questions and suggestions about Fireside Chat contact me through our website firesidechatpodcast.com or gary@thinkmedium.com. Thanks for listening.