The Right Job For The Man

July 10, 2006
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HOLLAND — Considering that his job wasn’t specifically designed for him, it’s not a bad fit. But it’s also the first time Dale Sowders has had a job that wasn’t tailor-made to fit his personality, skills and aptitudes.

He got his first job out of grad school at Evanston Hospital, north of Chicago. The management philosophy there dictated that finding the right person for a given job was not as desirable as finding good people and creating ideal jobs for them.

“I think this is a very good business model, and I’ve tried to incorporate it myself,” he said. “They try to build the job around the person instead of the other way around. So the tenure there is very high and, unfortunately, that’s not terribly common in health care. There’s only about a three- or four-year average tenure in an administrative position; I was there for 12 years.”

Now, four years into his position as president and CEO of Holland Hospital, Sowders is incorporating the people-oriented management style he learned in Evanston. That allows for positions that engage the employee, but it also lets them build career tracks for themselves. As Sowders says, there’s no reason why people should have to leave an organization to advance their careers.

“Every position I have ever held except the one I am in right now was created for me — every single one,” he said. “So that’s another example of taking the job and building it around what a person’s strength may be. It’s a whole new definition of what a career track would be.”

His career track has been interesting. As a student at Ohio State University, he earned a bachelor’s degree in English and then moved directly into a master’s program in political science. Along the way, he got married and decided that politics was not the life for him. So, having completed the coursework for his poli-sci master’s degree, he started over.

He decided on health care management. His clinical residency landed him — by chance — in Evanston. As mentioned, that residency turned into the first 12 years of his career, growing in responsibility along the way.

When he came to Holland, he joined an organization in transition — though not necessarily to the same extent that is evident today in Grand Rapids. Holland Hospital is in a unique situation in that it is the primary health care operation in a one-hospital town.

“That, in a sense, is a good thing because we don’t have an arms race going on. That’s so common in other markets,” Sowders said.

At the same time, the hospital is stepping up its technological capabilities, adding services and moving forward with a major capital project.

“We’re in the midst of not whole new hospitals, but a fairly substantial investment for us,” he said, comparing Holland Hospital’s capital plans to the major investments being made in Grand Rapids. Although it may not be quite as grand as the new facilities being built by Spectrum Health, Saint Mary’s Health Care or Metro Health, the $47 million capital improvement project is the largest since the hospital was built in 1927.

The expansion provides a new emergency department, a higher-level nursery and a new intensive care unit. It also reconfigures the visitors and patients entrance to the hospital. The organization took over the rights of way for one block of neighboring 26th Street, which will become part of a new entry boulevard. The realignment and introduction of new services is aimed at making the visitor’s experience more logical and easy to manage. For example, when pulling in to the new entrance, inpatient services will all be in one direction, with outpatient treatment offered on the other end of the hospital.

“We’re kind of dividing up our campus based on the ease of access we’re trying to create, because we’ve just grown to that size.”

Cooperation is the other major theme of Sowders’ tenure as CEO. As the lead health care organization in Holland, the hospital has continuously formed partnerships with other organizations — cooperating to provide unique services instead of competing to offer more of the same. And that extends beyond the city boundaries. Holland Hospital has been forming new partnerships with physician groups and other organizations from Grand Rapids, as well as numerous lakeshore partners.

“I would argue that’s what a health care system ought to do. You collaborate with clinical leadership. We sort of set a vision of (what) we can do well for the community (and) then see what they specialize in doing over there (in Grand Rapids).”

The new nursery is a perfect example. Sowders knows that Spectrum Health has neonatal capabilities that are so far advanced, it would be foolish to try to duplicate or outdo them. But there are some things that can — and perhaps should — be handled in Holland for which the hospital currently doesn’t have the capabilities. Adding those capabilities will take some of the pressure off Spectrum.

“The Spectrum nursery has a very broad geographic reach for very high-level intensive care services. If we are capable of delivering and taking care of infants at an earlier gestation than what we’ve historically done, (Spectrum) has asked us to try to keep that type of patient out of their intensive care, because, with the right support system, we can do that and let them just do that higher-level acuity. They don’t need a neonatal intensivist to take care of a baby that’s just born two weeks early.”

For Sowders, the key to successful growth is deciding on the right areas for expansion, then figuring out the best way to do them — working with others.

“And if we can do that and, to boot, organize it with a couple other providers, that’s just a gain I think for everybody.”    

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