What does it take to be the president of the Johns Hopkins Health System and executive vice president of Johns Hopkins Medicine (JHM)? Kevin W. Sowers sat down with Paul B. Rothman, dean of the medical faculty and CEO of Johns Hopkins Medicine, for a fireside chat on March 29 during Sowers’ first Town Meeting since taking on this new role. To a standing-room-only audience in Hurd Hall, Sowers shared his candid thoughts on the state of the Johns Hopkins Health System and his ideas for the future, along with some personal stories about his early days as a nurse in oncology. He even surprised everyone with a piano solo. Read excerpts from his and Rothman’s conversation.
Rothman: How did your training in nursing prepare you for your role as the president of the Johns Hopkins Health System?
Sowers: I did not become a nurse to become the president of the Johns Hopkins Health System. When I became a nurse, nurses could not become presidents of health systems or even hospitals - it was not even common for a man to become a nurse. I became a cancer nurse because I wanted to make a difference in cancer patients’ lives. I know what it means to collaborate with a team of people to execute a plan of care for complex patients. I also know what it means to educate a generation of learners. I understood the importance of clinical trials, taking things from the bench to the bedside. It prepared me for the three missions of the academic enterprise, but it also prepared me for managing the complexity of the enterprise. One of the things about me is I am not afraid to make a decision. You may not always like my decision, but you’ll understand why I made it. I listen to all viewpoints, but I am always willing to make a decision even when it is difficult.
What are your goals for your first 100 days?
My first 100 days I’ve been asking many questions. The two phrases that I was best known for at Duke was, “Teach me” and, “Help me understand.” I also wanted to be out with people rounding the facilities. My first 100 days are dedicated to listening before I really begin to think through how we are going to move forward for the future of JHM.
What’s your approach to engaging employees?
I will tell you that the organization is only as successful as the people. If it were not for the environmental services people cleaning our rooms, our patients could have problems with infections. If it weren’t for the people down in food services that prepare food to nourish our bodies so that we can help heal patients and loved ones and also prepare the food for patients so they can heal, we would not be successful. If it weren’t for the people down in sterile processing and their ability to clean the instruments after a procedure and put the tray back together, surgeries wouldn’t happen tomorrow. For the doctors and nurses who are at the bedside, they’re an incredible part of the team. For the people who answer the phone, that’s the first interaction a patient ever has, and if that interaction goes well, that’s what they remember about JHM.
I ask you when you leave here today to offer gratitude for what you’re seeing take place in this organization. Because it’s each and every team member who needs to connect to our mission for us to be successful.
How have your life experiences shaped your view on diversity and how is that going to translate into what you want to do at JHM?
I grew up on a farm in rural Ohio and my family fell below the poverty level. I did not know we were poor because everyone around us was poor. I assumed that it was normal until I went to college. If you looked at me, you would never know that I might understand what it means to be poor.
When I was growing up and realized I was gay, I went to a church where they told me I was a bad person. I was bullied in high school and I was called names, so I know what it means to be different. Also, my partner Anthony is African-American, and it’s one thing to be gay and it’s another to be gay and in an interracial relationship. I understand the importance of conscious and unconscious bias.
We make assumptions about people that may not be completely accurate, so there is great value in understanding people’s stories.
What do you do in your free time?
I used to be a marathon runner until I fell about a year and a half ago. My marathon days are over, but I can still do 5Ks. I love to ride bikes, garden, and I love to spend time at our lake house.