Earlier this month, North Mississippi Medical Center (NMMC) CEO Jeffrey Barber resigned abruptly, spurring speculation that something was amiss at the state’s largest hospital and primary health care system in Northeast Mississippi.
“Rumor control is important because anytime a change of this magnitude happens in an organization this size, there is at least a rumor a day,” said NMMC interim CEO Gerald Wages. “It’s important to listen, to know what those rumors are and to respond to them because 99.9% have no basis in fact. The quicker we respond to those rumors, the quicker we’re going to get through this process and get back to feeling comfortable in our jobs.”
The sudden departure of chief executives and key managers in hospitals has long-reaching effects, said George McGee, M.D., president of the Mississippi State Medical Association (MSMA).
“At any particular time, you’ve got a number of issues that the hospital and its physicians and medical staff are dealing with,” he said. “When you have a disruption in the principle leadership of the organization, it throws discussions or negotiations into turmoil, especially if it’s a sudden change with no smooth transition established to give physicians the peace of mind that issues they’ve been talking about have been followed through, from equipment purchases and services the hospital is attempting to bring in to providing additional support like malpractice insurance.”
Several Mississippi hospitals recently filled top leadership positions. Greenwood Leflore Hospital hired a new CEO, Jerry Adams. Danny Spreitler was named CEO at Gilmore Memorial Hospital in Amory. And Tim Moore accepted a position at NMMC-West Point.
“In general, most hospitals would have the second in command step in as interim CEO while a search committee is formed,” said Shawn Lea, spokesperson for the Mississippi Hospital Association. “The hospital board and medical staff are usually both very active in selecting the new candidate.”
Wages, executive vice president of NMMC who is serving as interim CEO for the second consecutive time, said senior leadership changes “certainly create anxiety and uncertainties and insecurities.”
“Over the next two or three weeks, we’ll be spending a lot of time addressing those concerns,” he said. “Those concerns are best addressed with good communication and we’re trying especially hard to communicate with all players in the system to try to give everybody a chance to say what they want to say, ask the questions they want answered, and get them information on what’s going on.”
Wages’ first plan of action called for a department head meeting to reassure leaders that the direction of the organization had not changed.
“Projects that are planned for this organization are still going to move forward and we have good management in place throughout the organization to operate the institution,” he said. “Management is going to operate the institution during the next six months the way it has the previous six months.”
Other top priorities: being visible to employees and contacting key members of the medical staff, said Wages.
“Quite a number of our medical staff have projects in the works that affect them directly and will affect our patient care, so I’m out there reassuring them those projects will go on and won’t change,” he said.
Like many hospitals, NMMC doesn’t have a particular plan in place when a CEO departs, said Wages.
“We operate on five-year planning processes,” he said. “We’re approaching the end of our fiscal year on Sept. 30, so we’ve already developed our goals and objectives for the coming year. All of our five-year plans were approved in June or July. Our annual plans, which fit into those five-year plans, are just in the finalization process right now. All of our departments have developed their goals and objectives for the coming year and we’ll have hundreds and hundreds of individual goals, so that doesn’t change. As I told our managers, all those goals will still be in effect and we’ll still be pursuing them.”
No plans will be put on hold because of a leadership change, said Wages.
“In our organization, projects don’t just pop up,” he said. “They go through a serious planning process, so anything of any magnitude would be going through a process certainly as much as two or three years and sometimes five. It would be extremely unusual for somebody to have suggested a project that wasn’t already in the process.”
The workload for hospital administrators will increase in the interim, said Wages.
“We’re losing such a strong person, so everybody’s calendar is filled up a little more than normal,” he said. “The change also places more demand on our calendars to be out with people, communicating, and to be a lot more visible, so it really crowds the calendar.”
Even though the search committee will work as quickly as possible, it will probably take six to nine months to find a replacement CEO, said Wages.
“Last time, it was a seven-month process,” he said. “It normally takes three to four months to identify a good batch of candidates, and then a couple of months to get people here to be interviewed and checked. Then the candidate will typically be at a good job and will need time to get away from that job.”
In the meantime, NMMC has incentive compensation programs in place to keep employees motivated, said Wages.
“Plus, we have ongoing training, and customer service seminars and those kinds of things,” he said. “A lot of motivational programs go on here.”
The loss of a community leader like Barber, who held the post for nearly nine years, also affects the community.
“Jeff Barber was an integral part of our foundation and helped with client sales,” said David Rumbarger, president and CEO of Community Development Foundation of Tupelo. “He will be missed. We are assured that the quality of service will not be diminished nor will the connection with the community suffer. (NMMC search committee member) Aubrey Patterson was on the search that located me, so I obviously have great faith in his ability to move deliberately to find the best fit candidate for the nation’s largest rural hospital.”
Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at firstname.lastname@example.org.