People Like Us: On the Front Lines With Scripps Health CEO Chris Van Gorder

December 31, 2014

Chris Van Gorder
Chris Van Gorder

Chris Van Gorder began his unlikely executive career as a California police officer in the early 1970s. An injury he sustained while responding to a domestic dispute cut his police career short. He later started working as a hospital security official, a position that would impact his future leadership style.

Through the years, he rose to the executive ranks, eventually becoming president and CEO of Scripps Health in 2000, overseeing all functions of the San Diego-based integrated health system that has more than 13,500 employees and 2,600 affiliated physicians. He presided over a dramatic turnaround at Scripps Health, leading them from near bankruptcy to a dominant market position. Fortune magazine placed Scripps Health on the “100 Best Places to Work For” list for seven consecutive years and AARP named the organization the No. 1 employer in the nation for workers 50 and older.

And what has helped guide his success? His leadership style that puts people first. He shares his management philosophies in the recently released book “The Front-Line Leader: Building a High Performance Organization from the Ground Up” (Jossey-Bass).

In a phone interview with The Strategist, Van Gorder discussed his unusual career trajectory, the importance of storytelling and what it means to be a front-line leader.

You mention this anecdote in your book: In 1973, you were working as a security guard for a hospital in Pasadena, Calif., and you had a chance encounter with the CEO. How did that incident shape your views as a leader?

At that point in my life, I looked at people in senior leadership positions in almost pure awe and admiration. I mean, how could anybody accomplish that kind of a thing?

I never had the chance to meet the chief executive officer, but we obviously knew who he was. So early one morning, I’m doing my patrol in the basement of the hospital, and here comes [the CEO] walking down the hallway. I thought, “Wow, I'm going to get a chance to meet the chief executive for the very first time.”

As I got closer to him, he didn’t even make eye contact with me, and then he just walked by, no nod, no acknowledgement — no nothing. And I remember feeling immediately deflated. Good grief, am I that unimportant where the only other person in the hallway can’t even look at me, much less say hello?

I’ve never forgotten that. At that point in my career I had no aspirations of being in senior leadership, but as I progressed over the years, I’ve always remembered that the important part of any business is that front line. It’s the person who’s greeting the customer, is serving the customer. That’s far more important than who I am. My job is very much a support role, and we’ve got to let our people know how important they are.

How did a career in law enforcement prepare you for the C-suite?

The police academy is designed to not only teach you how to be a police officer, but also, the image you’re going to have to portray, and the fact that you are going to be the person who’s running in when everybody else is running out. You learn that you have to be decisive. You have to quickly assess a situation, watch body language, look for threats and then you have to act, sometimes in a millisecond.

The training that I received in law enforcement may be similar to the training people get when they’re in the military. You never forget it, and you take all of those experiences of your life and you build on them, and they define who you are and your style.

[My police training] has clearly defined my style in management and leadership. Number one is taking care of your people. One of the things you learn in law enforcement is you take care of your partner and your partner takes care of you, because sometimes there is that feeling that it’s the two of you against the world. My belief is if you take care of your people, your people will take care of you.

I also believe that you’re never going to have all the facts to make a decision. I trust the information I'm given, but if I have time to get more information, I’ll certainly get it. But I'm also not afraid of making a quick decision based on the information that I have, with the understanding that I am always looking at what the downside risk is. What’s the risk of saying yes? Certainly there is an upside, but what I always try to do is protect the downside. I think it’s greatly impacted my management style over the years.

What does it mean to be a front-line leader?

As a senior leader, you have to be in touch with your front line and not at a distance. You actually have to take the time to connect with the people on the front line.

A fly-by is just like that chief executive walking by me. If he had nodded at me, then I probably would have felt better. If he had said hello, then I would have felt better, but it would have been even more important if he’d stopped and said, “Hey, tell me about your job. What do you like? What don’t you like? Do you like working at this hospital?” Wow, that would have been incredibly impressive. More importantly, that chief executive would have received some feedback right from the front line. To this day I question if he couldn’t even acknowledge me, how in touch was he really with what the front line of the organization was even doing or thinking? That’s the reason I believe that you have to spend time with the front line.

In your book, you advocate opening up and sharing information about yourself to your front-line leaders. Why is this important?

I don’t think I did that in the early part of my career because I was guarded about what had happened to me [with my injury]. I found out that when I took down this barrier by sharing personal stories, I appeared more human to the people whom I was talking to, and they realized that you’re not born a CEO. I often say I am not my title, and I’m not.

I started working in a fast-food restaurant at Arby’s and I worked in a bookstore — all of a sudden, as when I watch the room, I can see that I’m connecting with people who are doing the very same thing and are facing their own struggles in life and would like to have hope.

I still believe there’s an American Dream, and the American Dream is that you can accomplish and you can achieve it. I think the best way for people who are going through struggles — and I went through struggles in my life — is [for them to] hear that somebody else not only managed the struggle, but succeeded; it gives them hope to hear that.

What is the importance of storytelling in organizations?

I believe that a manager has to be a teacher, and if you sit up there and you just teach hardcore facts, I don’t think people are paying attention. But if you can emotionally grab, and I can see that because of the ex-cop in me, I watch audiences and I watch their body language. If I'm just giving them facts, you can see them doze off. But if I can grab them with a story, I can look around the room, and every eye is just fixed on me.

What advice do you have for someone who might be new in the management ranks and is trying to develop his or her own leadership style? What would you tell them?

Be yourself. What you’re not going to do in life is change your personality into somebody who you believe has been successful and try to be like him or her.

Through the years, I learned more by watching things that didn’t work than I ever did from things that worked. So be yourself, learn from failure and never give up.


Chris Van Gorder on Taking Action and Telling Effective Stories

• Share, through media and conversations, exceptional things that employees do to serve your customers. Every organization has its heroes, and their examples can inspire us all.
• Tell inspiring stories about how the organization has given back to the community.
• Get personal. Look for honest, heartfelt stories from your own life that relate somehow to the workplace.
• Use storytelling techniques to bring complex, difficult or esoteric subjects to life.
• Create ample opportunities for employees to craft and share their own stories.

John Elsasser

John Elsasser is the editor-in-chief of Strategies & Tactics. He joined PRSA in 1994.



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