President (KC Division), The University of Kansas Health System
You can’t talk to Tammy Peterman about her brand of executive leadership without regular references to caring and compassion. Or teamwork and collaboration. Or communication and empathy.
Each has been a key asset in her rise to president of the University of Kansas Health System’s Kansas City division, and she also serves as COO for the entire system. And she has applied them vigorously over the course of her career, first as a nurse, then in various leadership ranks as the hospital evolved from an operational basket case to become not just an award-winning provider of acute-care services but the region’s biggest.
The system’s annual revenues of more than $13 billion make it one of the largest entities in the region. More than 45,000 patients are admitted each year—twice as many as its closest competitor. And with the recent addition of the Olathe Health system into the fold, it’s easily the region’s biggest employer, topping 17,000 now.
Keep that last number in mind for a second. Peterman hails from a small town in western Kansas population 1,800 or so. The team under her leadership is now nearly 10 times the size of her hometown, where her father was a physician. “I had the opportunity to see health care from a unique perspective,” she says. “The experiences and observations I had growing up have influenced how I lead, how I treat people, and the positive outlook I have on life.”
That starts with a conviction that everyone on the team is important. “I learned very early the importance of valuing every member of the team and sharing appreciation and thanks for others’ contributions. As a leader in a large academic medical center, I see those traits as critical. Ensuring everyone on the team knows their role and how important they are is essential to the success of the organization.”
That well-established record of success wasn’t always so. Peterman came to the hospital as a nurse in the years before it gained independence from state control in 1998. At the time, virtually every key performance indicator—from finances, operations, outcomes, or patient satisfaction—set off alarm bells. The institution was nearly bankrupt.
Peterman has been along for the ride—often driving, in fact—in the remarkable recovery that has won the hospital and health system multiple awards for excellence in care.
“We didn’t know how bad things were until the performance data was shared in 1998,” she says. “I actually had the opportunity to be part of the team pulling together some of that data but didn’t have the full picture until the initial town hall meetings. The numbers were pretty dismal and potentially demoralizing.”
But she stayed on. And from it, she learned that “you have to be honest with people about what’s working and what’s not. But you also have to present a plan for how you are going to build on what’s working and fix what’s not, or you will lose the team. I stayed because I believed in what this organization could do. I believed in the team, the people, and the potential of the organization to rewrite its story. And I wanted to be part of that work. You don’t get a chance like that very often in your career.”
She has long partnered in leadership with CEO Bob Page, with whom she co-authored “Proud but Never Satisfied,” a chronicle of the hospital’s journey to excellence. Making that journey a success, she says, began with the understanding that “great service and great quality, provided by a remarkable group of individuals supported in the very best and right way, will lead to growth and sustainability of the organization.”
The story of her own success, and the hospital’s, can be a template for anyone who aspires to leadership.
“No matter what your title or role may be, take advantage of learning everything that you can—so bloom where you’re planted and wherever that is, know that all of those skills that you have you’ll take to the next job,” Peterman says. “The next thing I think is true for anybody, whether they’re in a leadership position or not, is to own everything that’s yours and a little bit more.
“Whatever you need to do, whatever your job is, do it. Do it well. Do it right. Do it consistently. But there’s always an opportunity to do just a little bit more, and in health care, that’s even more important. If each of us does just a little bit more, things don’t fall through the cracks, and this really complex industry that we’re working in becomes safer, more patient-centered, and produces even better outcomes.”