How Michael Bass nursed Piedmont Newnan Hospital back to health Featured

8:01pm EDT March 31, 2011
How Michael Bass nursed Piedmont Newnan Hospital back to health

When G. Michael Bass walked into his role as president and CEO of what is now Piedmont Newnan Hospital a little more than five years ago, it was caught in a downward spiral.

Revenue was in the red. Patients were migrating out to competing hospitals. The management team was dysfunctional. While it did go on to become part of the Piedmont Health system in 2007, at the time, there was much speculation and debate about whether it would join a larger entity and whether to build a replacement hospital for the outdated facility — which caused many negative headlines in the local news and made employees embarrassed to work there.

“That’s what I walked into,” Bass says. “I must be slightly masochistic, because I’ve walked into three situations like this in my career where it’s just terrible. I thrive in that kind of environment. I don’t know what I’d do if I walked into a hospital and all I had to do was come into work. You look around and say, ‘How do we get this aircraft carrier turned around?’”

Replace disengaged managers

In his first 30 days on the job, Bass didn’t do anything except observe. In the first department directors meeting, he sat in the back and listened as the chief financial officer ran the meeting. He couldn’t believe what he saw — apathy. Even when it was announced that the hospital had lost $500,000, he said it seemed like yawns through most of the room. At the end, he asked the CFO if he could speak for a few minutes, to which he agreed.

“I went to the front of the room. I said, ‘I’ve been here 30 days observing, and let me tell you my perception of the management team here in front of me.’ I started using adjectives that they had never heard before. I said, ‘Basically, you’re disengaged, you’re not committed, you’re not accountable,’ and I went on and on and on.”

It was an interesting atmosphere after that as he looked around the room to gauge reactions.

“Half of the room would have stabbed me if they had a knife,” he says. “The other half, I could see them nodding in agreement, and you could see it in their eyes, ‘He’s right.’”

One of the first things he did was let two vice presidents go. A few months later, he worked with the vice president of human resources and the vice president of patient care services to create a leadership training institute.

“You give everybody every opportunity to develop the skills and be successful, and it’s up to them to seize the opportunity or not,” Bass says.

The purpose of the institute was to teach his managers the skills they needed to be successful. There were about 12 different learning modules that were offered covering the basics that he wanted to see in his managers.

“We basically walked through what we thought were some of the key tools that any manager needed to be successful, whether it be counseling or hiring, coaching skills, anger management, conflict management, professional presence,” he says.

The institute required mandatory attendance by all department directors and above, and that’s when the positive changes started to occur.

“Some embraced it and everything about it, and some thought it was a waste of their time,” he says. “Those are the ones that are most likely no longer with us.”

The next step in determining who to replace was to hold people accountable. Each fiscal year, goals are set by department, and those include everything from financial to patient and employee satisfaction to personal development. At the end of the year, if scores aren’t where they need to be, then that’s an indicator that the manager needs to be replaced.

Bass looked for A-plus people to bring onto his team as replacements.

“The A part is technical competence,” he says. “The plus is that intangible that truly differentiates an incredible leader and an excellent manager.”

Bass stays away from asking about technical qualifications and instead digs into what cranks them up on a Monday morning and how do they feel successful. His goal is to sort the canned answers from the real ones.

For example, when he was looking for a replacement for that disengaged CFO, he interviewed many candidates who had all the right credentials and were highly competent, but none of them seemed to have the plus.

But then one woman came in. She talked about not only what she could bring to the table but also what she believed her role in an organization was, what her role on an executive team was and what her role as a CFO was and how she would depend on other team members for her to be successful.

She was easy to speak with and had a comfortable confidence — not cockiness — about her. When she left, they looked around at each other and said, “That’s the plus.”

“The individual who is comfortable is relaxed,” Bass says. “They pause, they think about their response. They’re inquisitive but yet they are knowledgeable.”

He says that person will seek to understand the culture of the organization he or she is coming into instead of just learning what the organization can do for them.

“The cocky person is usually the person who you can’t get a word in edgewise,” he says. “They just want to go on and on and on.”

Another key that Bass says was crucial was the willingness to be patient. With that CFO, she was honest and said that if she were offered the position, she would need to give 90 days’ notice to her current employer. The hospital was losing money like crazy, so this was a tough decision. Bass and his team looked at each other and asked if they could afford to go another three months — for a total of nine months — without a chief financial officer.

“The answer was yes,” Bass says. “We could pick an A player, because there were plenty of them and hope for the best, or we could pick this A-plus player and wait the time out and have her come on board and know that she was the person, and that’s what happened. Sometimes you have to wait until you find that plus. Sometimes it takes a little longer.”

Build trust

Another thing Bass did early on to lead the turnaround was start trying to build trust with employees.

One aspect of this was setting expectations and following through on them. For example, he created a program built around having respect for each other, what each person brings to the team and how that translates into patient care. It was a mandatory, six-week training period; however, about 30 employees chose not to complete the program. At an executive team meeting, someone raised the question of what happens to the 30 who didn’t go through the program. Bass asked what they had been told would happen, and the executive responded that they were told their employment would be terminated.

“I said, ‘OK, then terminate their employment,’” Bass says.

Outcry ensued. Employees yelled that they didn’t know that mandatory really meant mandatory and that it wasn’t fair to them.

“It was setting expectations,” he says. “When you walk into any organization, not just hospitals, that isn’t functioning well and is in crisis and so forth, it’s true that a lot of the turning it around is setting clear expectations and staying the course.”

Following the terminations, the employees who remained felt hopeful and liked that there were actually consequences for those that hadn’t spent the time to take the classes.

“How do you build trust? There are several ways. No. 1, you say what you’re going to do, and then you do it so that employees know that if I say that this is what we’re going to do or this is what’s going to happen, then I’ve got to make sure that that’s exactly what we do and we don’t deviate from that. Trust is being open and telling it like it is.”

One of the other challenges Bass faced in building trust was whether or not to spend money. By early 2007, it had become part of the Piedmont Health system, so there was a lot of excitement about that, and as part of it, they would build a new hospital. But with a new hospital on the horizon, questions started to arise.

“Even though we knew we would eventually have a new hospital, there was a feeling that because of that, we shouldn’t be doing anything here to fix it up, catch up or anything because, after all, why waste money if we’ll have a new facility,” Bass says. “My approach was, ‘No, that’s not right.’ We’re going to be here for X number of years; therefore, we have to look like a hospital we want to be.”

He started spending money — and not just $10,000 here or $10,000 there. He revamped the cafeteria and dining area so they had a nice place to take a 30-minute break. He completely overhauled the women’s and children’s services areas. He renovated the emergency department and every nursing floor, and he made the locker rooms nicer as well.

“We pumped money — hundreds and hundreds of thousands of dollars — into it, knowing we’re going to walk away from it, but if employees don’t feel proud of where they work, then, quite frankly, that’s reflected in behaviors and attitudes, and it affects patient satisfaction,” he says. “It’s like a spider web. You can touch one part of the spider web, and the whole thing will vibrate, and that’s how those things work.”

And employees took note. They were gaining trust in this leader who actually cared about them and their work environment. As their attitudes shifted, the hospital was becoming one where they were happy to say they worked.

“It’s the little things,” he says. “It’s taking 50 little things that by themselves don’t do anything, but you put them all together, and that’s how you make changes occur. It’s constantly focusing and reacting. If you hear something that’s a major morale issue, focus on it and then communicate it — ‘This is what we hear, this is what we did, this is where we are now as result of that; thank you for your input.’”

As improvements were made, Bass gained more trust and employee satisfaction scores continued to rise. And as employees saw changes occurring, they came forward with more suggestions and concerns.

“If you ask someone their opinion and you never follow it or you never use it, then why in the world would they ever want to give it again?” Bass says. “But if you ask people their opinion and say, ‘To every extent possible, we’d like to take your ideas and make things better, and they see that we actually take ideas and implement it and use it to create a better work environment, it’s synergistic and it just grows.”

His decision to spend money turned out to be more necessary than he could have realized. Little did he know that just two months after they broke ground on the new hospital, construction came to a halt for 14 months because of the economy. It created anxiety in the employees of whether the new hospital would actually come to fruition, but in the meantime, they at least had a better place to work because of the improvements he had made, so all hope was not lost.

And today, things are quite different at Piedmont Newnan. Construction has restarted on the new hospital, so excitement is again brewing. Bass says morale is very high among his 1,000 employees — with the most recent survey yielding the highest participation of any of the Piedmont hospitals.

“Our employee satisfaction score has gone up by leaps and bounds,” he says. “It’s exciting around here. … There’s a bounce in everyone’s step right now.”

On top of that, in the last fiscal year, the hospital had a positive operating margin for the first time in a long time. Because of that, employees received success-sharing bonuses for the first time in their history, which was another reiteration of Bass doing what he said and gaining their trust.

“What was interesting was that we told them that these are the marks we have to hit, and if it happens, this is what will happen,” Bass says. “By God, it happened, and employees said, ‘We heard you, and we were hoping, but it really did happen — we really did get the bonus.”

How to reach: Piedmont Newnan Hospital, (770) 253-1912 or www.piedmontnewnan.org

The Bass file

Born: San Diego

What’s the best place you have ever lived?

The best place I’ve ever lived is where I currently live. I was a Navy brat, so we moved. I remember as a youngster we’d be complaining, and my dad would say, ‘The next place you live will be the best place you’ve ever lived. The next friends you make will be the best friends you’ve ever had.’ Isn’t it interesting that that’s the way it always turned out?

Education: Bachelor’s degree in business administration; North Carolina Wesleyan; master’s in business, Campbell University

As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?

A chemical engineer. The sad part of my life’s story is I graduated from high school in Virginia and was accepted at NC State University as a chemical engineer, but in five semesters as a chemical engineer, I realized it wasn’t what I wanted to be. I dropped out of college and got a job working for the state of North Carolina at a lab and shortly thereafter was drafted by Uncle Sam for the United States Army in 1969.

I had six years in the U.S. Army, which introduced me to health care. Back then, at age 20, when I got drafted, I was 6 feet 2 inches and weighed 128 pounds. I must have had an overactive thyroid because I ate nonstop anytime I was awake. After three days in Fort Bragg, N.C., I decided I wanted to have more say about, No. 1, more food that I would eat and, No. 2, how dangerous my job would be, knowing that Vietnam was going on full blast at that time.

So I went to a recruiter and I said, ‘I understand if I enlist for a third year — so I become an enlistee versus a draftee — I can choose what I want to be.’ He said, ‘Yes, sir, that’s how it works.’ I said, ‘I’ve been told I need to find something that’s in a hospital because they’ll have the best and the most food and should be one of the safest places.’ They pushed the list across the desk of MOS’s — mode of service, which is your job description — and I ran my finger down the list to the first one that had medical in it — medical equipment repairmen. He said, ‘We’ll send you to school in Denver, and we’ll teach you how to repair medical equipment.’ I said, ‘I’ll be working in the hospital?’ He said, ‘Yep,’ and I said, ‘I’ll take it.’ Thus launched my health care career.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?

I don’t know if there’s a specific one, but I’m the eternal optimist, always have been, so somewhere along the lines, someone must have told me to maximize the positives and minimize the negatives.