Permanente CEO shares leadership lessons learned throughout his career

Executive looking out window
In the course of his career, Permanente Medical Group CEO Robert Pearl has learned some key leadership lessons. Image: Getty/Tom Merton
Robert Pearl
Robert Pearl, M.D.

Robert Pearl, M.D., CEO of the Permanente Medical Group, mentors up-and-coming doctors as a professor and put in his time in the OR, and he says that he took away key leadership lessons from doctors he’s met over the course of his career.

One colleague, Ernie Kaplan, M.D., a plastic surgeon affiliated with Stanford, was the inspiration for mathematical approaches that the medical group uses now to cut back on overcrowding, Pearl writes in an article for Forbes. Lessons learned from Kaplan, he writes, transformed his leadership approach and taught him to look at medicine not as “art” but as “science.”

“Ernie taught me always to look for and identify patterns in nature and life,” Pearl writes. “Since then, I have done so, always asking questions and looking deeper, until the patterns emerge.”

Self-reflection and looking at one’s own leadership experiences with a critical eye can improve communication and create a true understanding of strengths and weaknesses. Ask “ritual questions” to guide these internal conversations, he says.

Pearl credits his long-time mentor, Stanford faculty member Lars Vistnes, M.D., with providing the spark he needed to put himself forward as a candidate for Permanente Medical Group’s CEO. Vistnes, he writes, never told him what to do outright, but emphasized that he shouldn't miss opportunities.

From his mentor, Pearl says he learned that baby steps, even ones that seem insignificant, can add up to significant progress. For health innovation, he writes, this is especially important, as those who respond the fastest to new changes may not necessarily have greater success than those who take a slower approach.

Diverse experiences are necessary for leaders who will direct hospitals or health systems in times of change, so effective leaders should seek out challenges and take them on, FierceHealthcare previously reported. Lead by example and have a long term plan even if the immediate goals seem small.