Inside Track: Freese Decker rounds into form as participatory leader
Spectrum Health COO and executive vice president strives for constant improvement in work and personal life.
For new Spectrum Health System Chief Operating Officer and Executive Vice President Tina Freese Decker, one of the best perks of the job is “rounding.”
Simply put, Freese Decker enjoys making the rounds at one of the health system’s many campuses around West Michigan, meeting with anyone who comes across her path, whether it’s a patient, physician, nurse, department head or building staff. She’ll sit in on daily meetings or ask questions about where Spectrum can improve — what patients and staff see or hear in day-to-day life at the hospital.
“It’s just fascinating to hear where the conversation goes,” Freese Decker said. “And when I talk to the employees, I just show up to one of our daily huddles where they talk about the business and what’s going on, and I ask them some of those questions. Because they’re often the first ones that get the sense (of what’s going on) and they have some really good ideas and I love hearing them.”
On a recent rounding session on one of the older floors of the hospital, Freese Decker encountered an environmental services employee happily working away. After a brief conversation with the man about why he enjoyed working on the floor, Freese Decker walked away with some great suggestions from someone who spent more time there than almost anyone.
On another, Freese Decker accompanied her chief of cardiology to meet with some patients and again gleaned some insight from the people who populate the health system’s halls. One patient she met with told her how great it would be to get up and walk around a bit, something he had been unable to do for quite some time due to his treatment. Later that day, Freese Decker received a note — the patient had walked to his room door.
TINA FREESE DECKER
“And I didn’t do anything — it’s all the caregivers that did it — but sometimes it helps for me to get inspired by them,” she said.
A native of Des Moines, Iowa, Freese Decker came to Spectrum Health in 2002 for a yearlong fellowship after completing her bachelor’s in finance at Iowa State University and dual masters in health care administration and industrial engineering from the University of Iowa.
The daughter of an entrepreneur, Freese Decker said she learned the strong, Midwestern values of hard work and importance of family values growing up in Des Moines. So, when she began to think about her future, she looked at a career where she could help as many people as she could, even though she didn’t know what direction that would take. After starting in pre-med, she decided she could help a greater number of people by shifting to the business side of health care.
“I really like to see how we can make improvements and how we can make a difference from a global perspective,” she said. “And so, I felt that where my head logically goes is problem solving — how can we make a better solution?”
At the time, Freese Decker said process improvement wasn’t really taught in the health care fields the way it is today, leading to her master’s degree in industrial engineering. While many of her teachers at the University of Iowa were working on projects in health care, she was working on airplanes and cars. But now, 15 years down the road, artificial intelligence has seen those two fields merge together, and Freese Decker has had a front row seat for it.
“I was drawn to (industrial engineering) because it talks about things like human factors and healing theory,” she said. “So, when you think about things like process improvement, there are a lot of industrial engineers that do that.”
After her fellowship, Freese Decker was brought on as Spectrum’s director of planning and strategic development, a time she cites as one of her major career breaks as far as encouraging her to see things from a global perspective. She has since grown through the ranks of West Michigan’s largest employer, holding various strategic executive positions including a stint as president of Spectrum Health United and Kelsey Hospitals, as the health system’s senior vice president and chief strategy officer, and as president of Spectrum Health Hospital Group, overseeing operations of Spectrum’s 11 statewide hospitals.
Her promotion to COO and EVP of Spectrum Health came in April as part of the health system’s efforts to streamline its leadership.
With the new role comes a hefty weight of responsibility. The lessons learned from her father taught Freese Decker she always can do something more, and it’s a mentality she said pushes her each day and one she carries with her in leading the more than 25,000 Spectrum Health employees and countless patients that depend on her to do the best for them.
“I expect people to deliver what they say they will deliver. I give them advice to move forward, but then I really let them do it,” Freese Decker said of her leadership style. “I try not to oversee what they have but expect them to come forward and be accountable for it. I believe we can all contribute toward the greater sum, so I think that we should share, be transparent about what we’re doing, be inclusive and collaborate, partner where we can. And sometimes, we have to lead but we need to do what’s right every single day.”
In looking to the future of health care, Freese Decker has been a strong proponent of Spectrum’s Healthier Communities Initiative, which involves teaming up with various community partners to improve the overall health of people in West Michigan, focusing on “wellness” instead of “illness.”
That includes a focus on behavioral health in addition to the physical side of wellness
“In almost every circumstance, we need to help not only the physical but the mental side of health,” Freese Decker said. “And it’s thinking about how do we help the whole person navigate health and health care? I’m just really intrigued about what we can do differently to transform our organization.”
In what little spare time Freese Decker has left, she enjoys spending time with her husband Jay Decker and children Maddie and Drew, born on the same day two years apart. Each May, Freese Decker said she bakes four birthday cakes — two for a family party and a special 3-D cake for each child. This year, she constructed a pool-shaped birthday cake and a lightsaber-shaped one.
Maddie and Drew are enrolled in a Spanish immersion program, so on weekends, Freese Decker takes Spanish lessons to better connect with her children and also provide an example of always striving to do more.
She acknowledges she’ll likely never catch up to her children’s grasp on the language, but said in the past year, she can at least better understand when she reads with them in Spanish. Once per week, she tries to have a dinner where everyone speaks in Spanish.
“I just think it’s important to show to my kids that you can have goals all the time,” Freese Decker said. “And that I don’t just work all the time; I do other things. That’s one of the important things is to show that you can try new things and it’s OK not to be really good at it, but that you tried.”