When I accepted an offer way back in the dim recesses of history to become the CEO of the hundred and ten bed primary care hospital which would become NorthBay Healthcare, the Board Chair told me that his colleagues really wanted me to find a house in the service area. It was important, he said, that my family and I be looked at as part of the community the hospital served. At the time, I was commuting thirty miles from the eastern fringe of what would become Silicon Valley to Berkeley so I said I would do my best to comply. Not having a commute seemed attractive.
1981 was a grim year for buying a new home. Mortgage rates were at 16% and new housing starts were at an all time low. After several months of futility, I told the Board Chair that I had finally found a suitable home but it was in another county and would require a commute. He looked me in the eye and said “Try harder”. I got the message and eventually found a house which was our home for thirty years. I never liked that house but my family truly became part of the community.
I thought of this history because of several things which happened to me recently. Last week I was minding my business in the waiting area of a car wash when a woman in nursing scrubs came in. She paused and looked at me and asked “Are you Gary Passama?” That question always causes my heart to skip a beat. Why, I wonder, was she asking?
As I suspected, she was a NorthBay nurse and had just completed one of her regular 12 hour shifts. She said we had met at her new employee orientation six years ago and liked what I had said about NorthBay’s culture. She then pointed to her name badge and I congratulated her on her degree. No, she said, that was not what she wanted me to see. I took a closer look and then I saw what she was so proud of. She had a daisy symbol on her badge which meant she had been recognized as an extraordinary nurse as part of a program from the Daisy Foundation. She deserved great praise for this achievement and I thanked her for the great patient care it represented. She turned red in the face and started fanning herself. It was wonderful to be able to recognize her personally even though I am almost three years on the beach.
The next day I was with one of my daughters-in-law in a local supermarket. My job during these forays is to keep my twin two year old grandsons distracted in their stroller while their mom races up and down aisles food shopping. We got to the checkstand and there was a NorthBay nurse whom I have known for at least twenty-five years. We hugged (I know, I probably violated at least five laws but they do not apply when you are on the beach). She saw my grandsons and told me that she had just become a grandma for the first time. We talked about the joys of being a grandparent.
Later that week I was standing in line at a Panera Bread store. My mission was to buy two chocolate chip cookies. I was ashamed of myself as I watched other customers order kale salads and other such curiosities. As I looked around I spied another NorthBay person. She is NorthBay’s face to businesses as well as resource for the public’s questions about health plans and Medicare. I violated the law again as we hugged. She is a bubbly person with a great personality and an iron will. We talked about healthcare in general and our families.
I bring up these instances because I fear that as healthcare has become more corporate in nature we are losing a connection to the community, something that board chair felt was very important. When you live in the community served by your organization, you cannot avoid praise as well as criticism. I think that makes you a better manager and your organization more responsive.
NorthBay’s main competitors are Sutter and Kaiser. They have many other geographic areas that also require management attention. Their local top managers cycle through every few years but never become a part of the community. That weakness is a competitive advantage for a local healthcare system or small business competing against a big guy. A NorthBay senior manager living in the community has no place to hide.
One more story to tell—this week as my wife and I were leaving a pizza joint (no kale salad was on the menu, thank goodness) we heard “Mr. Passama, Mrs. Passama!” We turned to our right and there in front of the next door store was a small table staffed by very young Girl Scouts selling Girl Scout cookies. Behind them were two women who were the moms of the girls, both of whom were NorthBay staff members and former middle school students of my retired Science teacher wife. They were the ones calling our names.
I am a sucker for Girl Scout cookies. My favorite are the Trefoils, a shortbread cookie. While my wife talked to her former students, I listened to the sales pitch from the girls. They were well trained. When they learned I liked Trefoils they made sure I got a box. They then began extolling the virtues of a new cookie available for the first time this year–lemon cookies. I took two boxes. That made a total of $15.00. I gave them a twenty and told them to consider the $5.00 change as a donation. That sparked a brief argument among the girls as the donation apparently could be applied to two different possibilities. I suggested they take a vote but the oldest girl said she had already marked the donation in a specific column on the order sheet and that was that. That girl will someday be running Sutter or Kaiser or even better, NorthBay.
I am glad I tried harder and became part of the community that our relatively small but mighty healthcare system served. What I missed out on the national stage was more than made up by feeling like I had made a positive impact locally.
I also liked the lemon cookies. Try them the next time you see a Girl Scout in your community selling them.