How Scripps Health CEO Chris Van Gorder engages employees every day

It's not often you come across an executive of a $2.6 billion integrated health system with 14,000 employees who takes the time each morning to exchange pleasantries via email with a unit secretary who works at one of his hospitals.

But then there aren't many CEOs like Chris Van Gorder. I recently interviewed him to learn more about his frontline approach to leadership, which helped bring Scripps Health back from the brink of financial disaster and cut staff turnover in half.

As he talked about the importance of his Friday leadership rounds, when he visits and interacts with employees at one of the system's five hospitals or 28 outpatient clinics, he mentioned how one unit secretary from the 11th floor of Scripps Mercy Hospital in San Diego emails him every day.

And he responds every time.

She begins each email the same way, "Hi Boss." On the day we had our scheduled interview, Van Gorder says Arby Bautista (pictured with Van Gorder) had asked over email about his weekend and what was on his schedule for the day. Knowing that she worked over the weekend, he replied, saying he hoped she could take a couple of days off during the week.

"It only takes a couple of seconds" to respond, Van Gorder says.

But the first time he took those two seconds meant the world to Bautista. The two have been friends ever since. During a recent visit to the hospital, Van Gorder went to the 11th floor to see her, but she was on her lunch break. She sent him an email later in the day, saying she was sorry she missed him.

While some CEOs couldn't be bothered to take the time to respond to employee emails, Van Gorder says he does it because he believes in relationship-building. "I know if something goes bad there, she will tell me. And if things go well, she will tell me. That's invaluable. Often information gets filtered out and what comes to the CEO may not be as accurate as what you hear on the frontline. And the reality is, she is special. As the unit secretary, she is taking care of staff who are taking care of patients," he says.

The daily back-and-forth emails began a couple of years ago when Bautista was chosen to take part in the "Employee 100" program at Scripps, which provides an opportunity for frontline staff to meet regularly with Van Gorder.

"When I attended the first session, I was amazed and mesmerized for a chief executive officer to interact with us and to be so humble," Bautista recalled during an exclusive interview with FierceHealthcare. "After the sixth-month session, I sent him an email expressing how grateful I was to be in his class."

His response was warm and thankful, she says. Since then, she tries to email him every day, just to wish him a good day. "One time I was really busy that week and I wasn't able to send him an email for five days. He sent me an email saying, 'Arby, how are you? I haven't heard from you in the long time.' I said, 'I'm sorry, boss.'"

The job at Scripps was Bautista's first position after moving to the United States from the Philippines five years ago. Ten members of her family have worked for the health system. Though there are days when she is ready to pack it in due to the stress of the job, Bautista says she thinks about Van Gorder's responsibilities and is motivated to continue.

"If the CEO who has 14,000 employees on his shoulders and he tries to do everything, who am I to give up? He inspires me and it motivates me to hang in there," she says.

Bautista, last year's Scripps employee of the year, says Van Gorder is a rare species of CEO and notes that she is especially grateful for his no-layoff policy in this economy.

"I just want to say I'm blessed to have him," she says. It's rare "to have a CEO always there to support you and listen to you. He is not just the CEO. He is one of you. I'm really an advocate of what he is trying to do … I'm really thankful for having him for my boss."

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