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Commentary: Robert Earley on Leadership

🕐 12 min read

A political science graduate from the University of North Texas, Robert Earley was only 23 when he was elected to the Texas House of Representatives, where he served for 10 years. Before joining JPS Health Network in 2005 as a senior vice president focused on community and government affairs, he taught college courses at Texas A&M, ran an Austin-based public affairs firm and served as a TV political analyst.

Earley was named interim president and CEO in May 2008 and was named president and CEO in February 2009. Earley holds a master’s degree in health care administration from the University of Texas at Arlington. He serves on the board of the Meadows Mental Health Policy Institute.

I understand you taught ethics for 3 years. Did that in any way impact your leadership philosophy?

Everything I’ve experienced is impactful in my life, but I think the greatest impact has come from a mom and dad who cared. My mother is a wonderful woman. She questions a lot. She’s going to look at everything and say, “Wow, I wonder why that’s that way.” My dad is a man that hugs and leads by faith every day. So that wonderful combination of two loving people – I’ve got a little bit of that side of me that says we probably ought to have a “trust and verify” approach to life, and the other saying let’s high five, smile and laugh as much as we can. That probably was and is the best thing I have going for me.

Being in public office at a young age – I was there from 23 to 33 years old – I met so many people who were diverse and different. I represented an area from San Antonio to Corpus Christi. And they were small, hardworking rural communities. They enjoyed having weekend parades and festivals. They enjoyed working 12-hour days. That combination of incredibly hard work and enjoying church festivals and celebrations impacted me.

And then I got into teaching at A&M. When you’re at A&M and at St. Edward’s University, both of them are rich in tradition: if you’re at A&M, don’t walk on the grass; if you’re at St. Edward’s, you understand you’re from the Brothers of the Holy Cross. They had such strong traditions and they enjoyed life. I think that’s the commonality I have in everything I’ve done. … That mix between you’ve got to enjoy life, don’t take it too seriously, and yet there’s a time to work your 12-hour days and make sure you do them. That’s what was helpful to me.

You are well known for Robert’s Rules. Everybody here knows them. How did you come up with those three?

I think you get all these books on leadership – what you should do, what you shouldn’t do – and I wanted to put things in a very simple way.

Rule No. 1 says: Own It. What does that mean? It really means accountability, it means responsibility, it means taking pride in who you are and where you work. But the easiest way to say it is the difference between a car you own and a car you rent.

When you own a car, you want to wash and wax it, you want to make sure nobody dings it and nobody spills coffee on the mat. When you’re in a rental car, if somebody spills coffee you just move the mat over. Nobody parks a rental car a quarter mile away from the entrance to Walmart diagonally because you don’t care, it’s not your car, it’s not an ownership model.

And when we talk about Seeking Joy that’s how we treat each other. That’s how we treat our patients here at JPS. It’s a matter of making sure we smile, because when people come in the door at JPS they’re hurt, they’re scared, they’re lonely. It’s the same at any hospital. Nobody plans a spring break trip to the hospital. “Yeah, I got a week off. I’m going to a hospital, I’m going to get my nails done, etc.” It’s not that kind of place. It’s a tough place. But we can make sure we give people every opportunity to know that we can smile. And particularly at JPS where we have dozens of different languages spoken on any given day, the one thing that translates all languages more than anything else is a smile. I don’t mean to make that sound trite. It’s a way to make people feel better.

And then the last rule, just: Don’t Be a jerk. In life you’re going to disagree with people. You’re going to disagree with people you love the most. Who has not had a fight with their spouse? But how do you conduct the fight? If you’re cussing and yelling and you walk away, that’s not the way you want to do things.

We want to be able to have arguments and disagreements in a proper way. We work with people here 8, 9, 10, 12 hours a day. And we have to deal with really tough situations. So, we deal with those in a proper manner. We’re not asking people to act silly and always be happy, running down the hall with jazz hands. But if you can disagree in a proper way, “John I have to tell you, I don’t like the way that works, you do it differently than me. Can we talk that through?” That’s different from, “John, I don’t want you doing that garbage anymore, stop.”

That’s what we try to do, those three rules. It’s simple and it’s on everybody’s badge. And when we do our evaluations at the end of the year those are the components of our evaluations. So we put empirical measurement behind the words.

I think it has made JPS a better place. It’s made me a better person. But I’ll also tell you one thing: there are 6,700 people working at JPS and I think the world of them. This is an incredible place to be. People who don’t know JPS would be surprised at the kind of people who work here. They are mission-driven people. They come in that front door wanting to do something for somebody. And that’s inspiring, phenomenal. I’m lucky to be here and I know it. So I put this in bubble wrap every day. I protect it because I know how lucky I am to be here.

Is a sense of humor an important part of being a good leader?

One of the things I enjoy doing is serving food, most recently BBQ ribs and chicken, to team members in the JPS cafeteria. I do it because it’s fun to do. You don’t make a big announcement.

You just go down, put an apron and a hat on and you serve food. And it’s so funny, people will say, “Oh my gosh, what are you doing, why are you here?” We get a laugh out of it. I always make fun of people who just eat vegetables, because I think you have to have a little bit of meat, in my opinion. And it’s just fun.

I think, particularly in the stressful world this is, we have hard decisions that we have to make, our medical teams are faced with some really difficult stuff. They need to smile, they need to laugh. I think it’s pretty important. So whatever role I can play, I think I’m probably more goofy than anything else but I try really hard to make our team members smile.

JPS does some pretty unconventional things. Last month we had a game night where we had 1,500 employees come out to a pavilion. We played The Price is Right; we played Family Feud between nurses and doctors. We played Minute to Win It.

People said why in the world would you people do that? That’s crazy. Everybody laughed, everybody had fun. They brought their children; they came out with their families. And we think that’s pretty important.

At Thanksgiving everybody who works at JPS gets a turkey, a ham or a fruit basket from an administrator, handed to each one of them. I think the employees appreciate it but I appreciate it more because it gives me an opportunity to hug everybody, give them a high five and say hello to everyone that works here. I walk out of here on a cloud. So if you say, “It’s great that you do that!,” it’s all selfish reasons. I have joy doing it. It’s cool.

It’s been said that you have transformed this place back in 2009 when you took over. How does that process work? What did you see? What was first?

I think when I got here the first thing I noticed most was it was an organization lacking pride. People didn’t want to go to a cocktail party, a football game or go to church on Sundays and tell others that they worked at JPS. I thought that was sad.

So the first thing I tried to do was instill pride. And the first step I took was having a photographer take everybody’s picture he could. We took those pictures and lined the walls with them. I knew we had gotten traction when a team member came up to me and said, “I’m really mad at you.” I asked her why and she said, “My picture was on the first floor and you moved it to the fourth floor.” Then I knew that we were doing the right thing because it showed people, “I care about you. I want you on these walls.”

These walls don’t look alive. Let’s put pictures of people – the employees who work here – up on the walls. And then we did the same thing to the outer walls. We have 13, 45 x 40 foot signs on the outside of our building. They showcase the people who work here. It gives them pride.

And we started writing notes. When we went electronic we started doing these things called WOW cards. Somebody says, “Hey, I saw John the other day in the hall and he was helping a patient – thank you, John, for being a great guy.” We put that up on our 78 monitors, and say, “John Wright did great today. If you see him, tell him “Wow, thanks for being here.” They’re little things but I wanted to create that pride in people; that was the first step.

The second step and the step we’re really trying to work on now is: how do you increase your quality? How do you make sure that you’re spending the tax dollars wisely? How do make sure that we tell this community that we are a value to them and help them understand why JPS is even here. That’s important to us, not just yeah, we’re here for whomever needs us.

One, we’re here for everybody and two, we have a real dedication to taxpayers who provide money to support 40% of this place. And we’re here for our patients, all 1.2 million of them.

So, I think the key to your question is starting with pride. You feel that when you watch a baseball game, especially when the team is winning. Remember when the Rangers would make all these signals and signs when they’d get to second base? And then they’d go back to the bench and there was such comradery; everybody had a nickname. They had pride in themselves. And when they had pride in themselves, they’d play better. That’s what we do here, renewing our sense of pride.

You’re known for your dedication to your family, bees, and horses: How do you run this huge hospital and be this successful in work life balance?

Well, a couple things. I married way up! My wife is smart and beautiful, so I learn a lot from her. I want to spend all the moments I can with her. I have a daughter who just graduated from high school.

She played field hockey at school for four years and for four years I never understood the rules for field hockey. But I knew that she was on the field and that was the most important thing. I didn’t have any regrets about missing a bunch of things when we dropped her off at college this year. I feel sorry for those who missed those life moments because you’re not getting that back.

So, I’m lucky because I have a wonderful daughter and I have a wonderful wife.

The horses that we have – I have five Clydesdale horses, and they demand your time. They each weigh 2,000 pounds so they get pretty upset and pretty angry when you don’t feed them on time.

But they are medicinal for me. When we have challenges at JPS, really tough days, I will do two things.

One, I will walk the halls and see our team members; they always lift my spirits. And two, I go back to the barn and I groom a horse. It puts things into perspective. That horse needs me to feed it. It needs me to protect it from lightning. It needs me to make sure when there are health needs I’m there to take care of it because it can’t drive itself to the vet.

There are a lot of people at JPS who need all of us to be here. Even the non-medical folks like me. These people – our patients – need to be sure that our clinics operate right, so when they have the need, whenever it is, 24/7, we’re here.

It’s an easy balance for me because if I don’t spend time with my family, I’m not good here at work. I’m agitated and frustrated, so if I’m spending time with my family, including my four-legged family, it makes all the difference in the world.

Sometimes, particularly in the summer, I will get up at 4:30 in the morning, get out to the barn by 5, and feed the horses. And I will drive a Clydesdale behind a cart, run in the house, take a shower, put my suit on and be to work at 9.

I get to watch the sunrise behind a Clydesdale. That’s pretty cool.

John Wright, CSL, is president of Simple Leadership Strategies in Fort Worth.

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