Inside Steven Gabbe’s billion-dollar plan for OSU Medical Center

Dr. Steven G. Gabbe was aware that a lot of hours had been put in developing plans for a new cancer hospital on the campus of The Ohio State University. Gabbe was at OSU when the James Cancer Hospital first opened 20 years ago, and in 2008, he was back as CEO of The Ohio State University Medical Center.

He was excited that the project was moving forward but also aware that concern had been expressed about some of the plans that had been made.

“People wondered about the plan,” says Gabbe, who is also senior vice president for health sciences. “There was concern about the design of the hospital, which included two towers side by side with an atrium in the middle.”

This wasn’t the only concern and the uncertainty was great enough that university trustees wanted planners to take another look at the project.

“They challenged us to pause and go back and look carefully at those plans and then come back to the board of trustees and present to them our revised plans for the new hospital,” Gabbe says.

This opportunity excited Gabbe. He saw it as a great chance to go back to square one and get a clear understanding of the plan and its impact on the 16,000-employee OSU Medical Center.

“It was a billion-dollar project and most of the hospital was going to be paid for by our clinical revenues, as well as some philanthropy, but primarily by our clinical revenue,” Gabbe says.

It would have been completely natural for those who had put in a lot more time and effort on the project than Gabbe to be a little frustrated at the prospect of starting over.

“I’m sure some folks said, ‘Oh my gosh, now we have to go back and look at the plan again,’” Gabbe says. “But to everyone’s credit, no one was discouraged. No one looked at it as a burden. They all realized this was a chance to get to do this right.”

Get people excited

Gabbe began his effort to meet this important challenge by focusing on the opportunity he and his team were being given, rather than presenting it as a burden they would have to bear.

He focused on the fact that this new hospital would be built on a site that had previously been home to a tuberculosis hospital that was no longer needed.

“We now have effective means to prevent and cure tuberculosis,” Gabbe says. “And on this site, we hope to build a hospital that will provide care for cancer patients while at the same time, hoping there will be a day when this hospital won’t be needed anymore, because we’ll find cures for cancer.”

Gabbe focused on that opportunity, and then quickly moved into the challenges that were facing his team in making the opportunity a reality.

“Clearly describe the challenges you’re facing and why those challenges are important to everyone involved in the work group or in your company,” Gabbe says. “The project that you’re going to be working on impacts everybody’s position and the outcomes are going to impact everyone for years going forward.”

One of the keys to getting support on a big challenge is your ability to convey confidence and personal engagement. Your team needs to see that you’re not just passing all the work off of your plate.

“If you’re going to be leading an effort like this, you have to come in having done the work,” Gabbe says. “You have to have a vision for what you see that future will be. You have to understand the strategic priorities in the planning process. You have to be realistic about the challenges and about the difficulties. It’s going to be hard work. There are some understandings and some compromises we’re going to need to make.

“We’re going to make those together. You also have to make sure that people understand they need to be accountable for the decisions that are made and that those decisions need to be made together.”

Gabbe began by making sure that everything was put on the table at the beginning and nothing was left out. He began to ask questions, a lot of them, and had his team do the same.

“We kept asking the question, ‘Who else needs to be at the table?” Gabbe says. “What information do we need?’ One thing we did not want to do was create an elite planning group where people felt like it was being done behind closed doors, and they didn’t have a chance to influence the plan. This was too big and too important a project. Much to everyone’s credit, when we got done with the project, we did not have someone come up to us and say, ‘Well, you didn’t think about us.’ Or, ‘We weren’t involved.’ The group was very inclusive as we made the plans.”

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