After his first 100 days as chief executive officer of Carolinas HealthCare System, Gene Woods jokes that he has shaken hands with some 5,000 employees. “And I’ve got 55,000 left to go.”
Since starting work in May as leader of the Carolinas’ largest healthcare system, Woods says his highest priority has been “management by walking around.”
He has spent more time out of his office than in it, packing his schedule with visits to many of the more than 40 hospitals and 900 medical offices that make up the $9 billion public, nonprofit system.
Woods, 52, understands that many of the system’s 60,000 employees are millennials, born roughly between 1980 and 2000, so he has embraced social media, with frequent tweets (@GeneAWoods) and blog posts. “What I’m hearing when I go to a place is that they already feel like they know me,” Woods said.
Many employees, doctors and community leaders share the impression that Woods is personable and down-to-earth. But they also acknowledge that it’s early and that challenges lie ahead. For example, Carolinas HealthCare is facing an antitrust suit filed by the U.S. Department of Justice and the state attorney general. The government alleges Carolinas HealthCare has driven up costs through illegal efforts to prevent competition.
Carl Armato, CEO of Novant Health, the Charlotte region’s second-largest hospital system, said he’s hopeful that he and Woods can find ways to “work together to focus on improving the health of our community, despite being aggressive competitors.”
The two systems are longtime rivals, rarely cooperating on community projects. “Sometimes history’s hard to get over,” Armato said. “…Gene and I have both said, we’ve got to start small (and) figure out what it is that we could unite behind.”
Armato said he met Woods in May at a Charlotte Chamber event, but they’d been hearing about each other from other hospital CEOs they both know through national health care groups. “Two CEO peers told me how I should be able to work with Gene,” Armato said, “and the same people told Gene how easy I was to work with.…The beauty of it was, (by the time we met), I kind of thought I knew him.”
Easing the transition
Woods, who previously worked as president and chief operating officer for CHRISTUS Health based in Irving, Texas, said he’s mindful that a transition in top management can produce anxiety among employees. He took over from Michael Tarwater, who retired in June after working for Carolinas HealthCare for more than 30 years, 14 as the chief executive.
To ease the transition, Woods dedicated his first months to “meeting people where they work.…I wake up every single day figuring out, ‘How do I bring a little more inspiration to people who are doing great work and sometimes under very difficult situations?’ ”
As keynote speaker at a recent Urban League of the Central Carolinas event, Woods also aimed to inspire graduates entering the workforce. He recounted “twists and turns” from his own life. His parents divorced when he was a teenager in Pennsylvania, and he had few role models who had graduated from college.
After a caring English teacher introduced him to literature, Woods said he committed to go to college, albeit the one “closest to my house.” He eventually earned three degrees from Penn State. Without help from several mentors, he said, “I might not be here today.”
He offered “10 quick tips” for professional success, such as: Make time to care for yourself. Practice spirituality because “life is bigger than just you.” And smile. “It projects confidence and warmth.”
Patrick Graham, the Urban League’s president and CEO, said he invited Woods to speak because of something he’d read in the Observer. After the February announcement of his hiring, Woods was quoted saying he planned to “spend a lot of time with the front line because they really know what’s going on – more sometimes than us ‘suits.’ ”
By acknowledging that the “suits” don’t have all the answers, Graham said Woods signaled his humility as well as his respect for rank-and-file workers who are “the heartbeat of an organization.”
Woods says he, in turn, has been impressed with Charlotte. Over 30 years, Woods has worked for a half dozen health care organizations with facilities in 25 states and several countries. But he said: “I don’t think I’ve ever felt at home as fast in any place I’ve been than here. Both professionally and personally.”