May 29, 2009

VMC leadership transition takes center stage at meeting

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Harry Jacobson, M.D., left, and Jeff Balser, M.D., Ph.D., discuss transition at the recent quarterly leadership assembly. (photo by Susan Urmy)

VMC leadership transition takes center stage at meeting

On Monday, Vanderbilt Medical Center is getting a new top leader. So, leadership transition made an especially topical theme for an installment of the Medical Center's quarterly leadership assembly, held last week in Langford Auditorium.

Some 700 members of the leadership team spent the morning celebrating the buoyant, booming 12-year tenure of the departing vice chancellor for Health Affairs, Harry Jacobson, M.D., 61, and welcoming from within their own ranks an already familiar leader, Jeff Balser, M.D., Ph.D., 47, to his new role as Jacobson's successor.

Jacobson and Balser capped the program with brief addresses, then moved center stage to take questions from the audience and from a moderator, Joel Lee, associate vice chancellor for Communications.

Invoking trust and transparency as organizational values and acknowledging the insidious power of the rumor mill, Lee began by asking the two leaders why there had been no national search for a new vice chancellor, why this leadership transition was so abrupt and whether it might have been linked to recent economic events or to dissatisfaction within the Board.

Harry Jacobson, M.D., center, was presented with the first elevate Five Pillar Leader Award by C. Wright Pinson, M.D., M.B.A., and Marilyn Dubree, M.S.N., R.N. (photo by Susan Urmy)

Harry Jacobson, M.D., center, was presented with the first elevate Five Pillar Leader Award by C. Wright Pinson, M.D., M.B.A., and Marilyn Dubree, M.S.N., R.N. (photo by Susan Urmy)

After acknowledging that national searches are traditional, Jacobson said there were several precedents for a VMC leadership appointment without an external search.

“There is nothing that has happened externally or internally, with the performance of the Medical Center or with any individual performance, that triggered this,” Jacobson said.

“People don't have to worry — the board and the chancellor, they are all very, very grateful and impressed with the performance of the Medical Center and the contribution of the Medical Center to the success of the University.”

“One of the great things about Vanderbilt,” Balser said, “is that it wouldn't actually ever do that; wouldn't make a major change in its leadership on the basis of some single event. We're too good for that.”

“We had a formal succession plan in place,” Jacobson said. “It was a plan that was approved by the chancellor and approved by the Board of Trust. So, with someone internally who has already been identified as the best successor, this is a normal process. What to you may seem abrupt, because of confidentiality, has been quiet. When I talked to Jeff in 2006 about him being the internal candidate to succeed me, I didn't just talk to Jeff, but also to the chancellor and the Board of Trust. There was a lot of behind-the-scenes work.”

“Harry is a wonderful mentor,” Balser said, “and he has brought me to a point where the board knows me very well and has, to the degree it's possible for a new person in the role, a tremendous amount of trust. I owe him a debt of gratitude for that. That's really what good mentoring and leadership succession is all about.”

An audience member asked Balser whether, in his first year as vice chancellor, he had some overriding goal that he would like to accomplish. Balser began by mentioning Vision 2020, the ongoing VMC leadership discussion about engaging more directly with the world outside and strengthening the impact of academic medicine.

“We've started to get into this in Vision 2020. I would like us, not in the first year but over the summer, to develop some over-arching strategies that the whole Medical Center believes reflect things that we can do that make us distinctive and will let us really propel the great things that we can discover and learn here into the community and out to the public,” he said.

Balser mentioned that one possibility would be to become the first center anywhere to figure out how to deliver personalized medicine.

Elevate, VMC's longstanding organizational improvement initiative, will deepen and expand to academic and research areas of the Medical Center, Balser said, and Vision 2020 will continue in an amended form.

The mood in the hall was one of good feeling for Jacobson and thanks for his important contributions to the Medical Center. During his address, Balser informed the crowd that Medical Research Building IV would be named in Jacobson's honor, pending Board approval. (The announcement had been made the previous evening by Chancellor Nicholas Zeppos at a dinner honoring Jacobson.)

Earlier in the program, when Marilyn Dubree, M.S.N., R.N., executive chief Nursing officer, and C. Wright Pinson, M.D., M.B.A., associate vice chancellor for Health Affairs, presented him with the Medical Center's first Five Pillar Leader Award, Jacobson had to quell a prolonged standing ovation.

Jacobson began the program with a quarterly progress report on quality, patient satisfaction, growth, finances and employee satisfaction and retention. He said the Medical Center is on track to achieve an operating surplus of $34 million for fiscal 2009. (Full details of the progress report are available at the newly reconstructed elevate Web site.)

The day's keynote speaker was Richard Kilburg, Ph.D., of Johns Hopkins University.

Kilburg offered his insights about predictable phases Vanderbilt will experience during this leadership transition, and offered some recommendations for leaders to thoughtfully guide the organization through the process.