Dr. Stephen Klasko recently renewed his contract to lead Jefferson Health. During his five-year tenure as CEO while serving as president of Thomas Jefferson University, Klasko has made several moves that garnered attention. It’s led to what some might call a meteoric rise. This year he was invited to speak at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, and was named one of Agenball’s 2019 class of disruptors. He recently took stock of his decisions and contemplated which might be his boldest yet.
WHAT WAS YOUR RISKIEST DECISION? Merging the university and hospital system into one entity. When I won the job as the first single campus leader in many years, there were three boards with different agendas and visions. Merging the university and the hospital boards required us to dissolve the Jefferson Health system, which was also owned by Main Line Health, put our $400 million of bonds into a hold until we could get the new entity rated and negotiate all-new insurance contracts, while maintaining our academic affiliation with Main Line Health.
The other risky decision was merging with Philadelphia University, a predominantly undergraduate university known for its top-five fashion design school and its design-thinking approach to higher education. That allowed us to expand to a full-service university with two campuses, 16 NCAA sports teams and the first design-thinking curriculum in a medical school.
WHY WAS THAT MOVE RISKY? By breaking up a structure that existed for over 20 years, I could have had the shortest tenure presidency of an academic medical center in history. To be successful, it required rapid but extensive strategic planning, scenario analyses, asset mapping and luck, all with a new and developing senior leadership team. Because Main Line Health CEO Jack Lynch is a forward-thinking leader, we were able to accomplish the reorganization while maintaining and improving our academic relationship with that organization.
As to the Thomas Jefferson-Philadelphia University merger, the risk was that either the health brand or the undergraduate/fashion brand would be diluted or confused. The good news is that both have strengthened. Thomas Jefferson University was named the No. 3 fashion design school this year at the same time that our healthcare and innovation reputation has steadily climbed.
ADVICE TO EXECS IN SIMILAR POSITIONS: Think about “what will be obvious 10 years from now” and do it today. We decided to stop talking about technologies like telehealth or artificial intelligence, but look at how we can use those technologies to create “healthcare with no address.” At a time when hospital beds are commoditized, think differentiation and diversification. Also, you cannot overinvest in faculty development. At Jefferson we have concentrated on the folks in the middle who have an opportunity to transform our culture, support our leaders who already “get it,” and leave alone the folks who do not want to change and have no interest in transformation, what we now call “administrative hospice.”
DESCRIBE YOUR LEADERSHIP STYLE: I believe in leading toward a “no limits approach” and subscribe to the maxim that “impossible” is just a word thrown around by leaders who find it easier to explain why their organization cannot disrupt than doing the hard work to do what was once thought impossible. So I surround myself with a team that sees a very different future in academics and healthcare … and is not afraid of it. I surround myself with very smart, innovative people who have large aspirations for themselves and the organization and I let them do their job without interference. I also believe in total transparency with our board so that they are never surprised. The combination of those allows us to maintain a culture of a 195-year-old university and a health system acting like a startup company.