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Listening, Learning, and Leading: Bill Gassen, CEO, Sanford Health

Feb 24, 2021 07:00AM ● By Med Magazine

By Alex Strauss

Bill Gassen began his career at Sanford Health in 2012 as corporate counsel and transitioned to the human resources department two years later as vice president of human resource integration and eventually became the chief human resources officer. In 2019, he was promoted to chief administrative officer with oversight of human resources, technology solutions, legal, facilities, business development and the Sanford Sports Complex.

He took the helm in December at a time of unprecedented challenges for the healthcare system as a whole and for its more than 28,000 workers. As he settles into his new role, Gassen wants those workers - from the front lines to the back offices - to know that he's listening to them, working to understand their continued struggles, and committed to finding ways to address those struggles as an organization. We caught up with him in late January to find out how it's going. 

MED: Your professional background is in the legal field. How did you get connected to healthcare and how has that influenced how you lead?

BG: My mom was a nurse. So, early in my life I got a real appreciation for what it means to serve in healthcare and especially the significance and importance of nursing. I saw the passion my mom had for her job, but I also saw firsthand what it meant for her family. My dad was in the Air Force so my mom worked straight nights so that she could be home with us kids during the day. So I really understand that our people don't stop caregiving when they leave work. 

Later, as a lawyer in Sioux Falls, I had the chance to represent hospitals and physicians groups and eventually became in-house counsel at Sanford. That has given me a very well-rounded understanding of all facets of the organization - clinical, non-clinical, hospitals, rural healthcare, and our whole blueprint. I'm also married to a physician assistant. 

MED: You have spent a lot of time listening to Sanford employees in the last couple of months. What have you learned?

BG: Our caregivers have been through more this past year than at any time in history. The things that they have stepped up to do - often disregarding their own safety and wellbeing - have taken a toll on them. For much of last year, no one had any assurance as to when a vaccine would be coming or what interventions were going to work or whether we were going to see hospitalizations and death tolls rising. That was emotionally draining. And they still dealt with the same challenges that the rest of us did at home. Challenges of having sick loved ones, getting sick yourself, distance learning for children, job loss. 

MED: From what you have heard, what are some things that could help these workers going forward?

BG: Beyond things like mental and behavioral health services to support them while they are still in this battle, one thing that they really need is simply to be acknowledged and recognized and appreciated for the incredible work that they do. They're not asking for more money. They just want us to know that we understand what they've gone through. And, when there are opportunities, they need us to be responsible and show by our actions that we care. That is critically important. 

Another thing that we have heard is that our employees have a desire to serve in their communities and be seen as good stewards. So we recently rolled out a paid day of service opportunity. Every Sanford employee will have an opportunity to step away from their job and lean into their passions and interests and serve in the community on any day of their choosing. 

MED: What is one thing that the pandemic has taught the organization?

BG: I think it has reinforced for us the strength of being an integrated system. It allowed us to bring together the whole sum of our resources and leadership to benefit the whole company. It allowed us, for instance, to provide sufficient PPE to Good Samaritan Society facilities when other facilities were struggling. It gave us the opportunity to move COVID-positive patients to locations where we could provide the best possible care for them and reserve ICU space for those who needed it most. It reaffirms for me to need to be even more rightly integrated. 

MED: What lasting impact do you think the pandemic will have on Sanford as an organization? 

BG: I think it will definitely change us for the better as we move forward. It highlighted both the things we were doing well and the things we need to do better. It showed us that there is very little margin for not being prepared or not being in a position to be prepared quickly. And it has forced us to keep in mind that, when it comes to our employees, we have to take care of the whole person. We have to be mindful that when they come in every day, they bring with them their responsibilities outside the workplace.