It was just a standard Wednesday. Not unlike any other Wednesday before it. The year: 1996, and my third day of a new job at the Fortune 500 firm Columbia/HCA Healthcare Corporation (now HCA), the largest healthcare provider in the world. It would become a day that would alter my career path dramatically, provide more experience, insight and strategic vision than any MBA program could hope to offer and lead to the birth of a fast growth company (Levelwing – INC 500), a marriage, two kids, phenomenal advice, mentorship and friendship.
I was barely 22 years old at the time. I walked into the cafeteria at the corporate office for lunch, by myself, not knowing a soul. It was my third day of work. As I ordered my food, I looked to my left, and the man standing in line beside me was none other than the Chairman & CEO of the company.
Clearly this was unexpected. He looked at me and reached out his hand for a shake and said, “Hi, I’m Rick.” I responded, “Hi Mr. Scott, I’m Steve Parker, it’s really great to meet you.” He responded, “Just call me Rick,” and proceeded to ask me what I did for the company. I told him that I worked in interactive services (my job as well as the few that I worked with was to create, manage and drive revenue from 350+ hospital websites), and it was my third day. To my amusement, he stated, “You’re the guy Tod just hired then, right?” Sure enough I was the guy Tod just hired.
As we managed our way through the lunch line, Rick asked me about my background and where I worked prior. I happily obliged, of course. I happened to work for a large competitor, HealthSouth prior. Then, as we paid for our lunch (Rick even paid for his own), he asked me with whom I was having lunch. When I replied, “no one,” he asked if he could join me for lunch.
I don’t remember much of that lunch other than…
A) Rick asked a lot of really great and pointed questions – a lot of them (which to this day he still does) and…
B) Being in a fair state of shock having been able to spend about 60 minutes with a man who would only a few months later be named one of the Twenty-Five Most Influential Americans by Time Magazine. So then and there it started.
A handful of days later I ran into Rick in the hallway as he was getting off an elevator. He said “Hello Steve, hope everything is going okay,” as he passed. Not bad for the CEO to know your name in an organization that employed over 285,000 people and was the 7th largest employer in America at the time.
About three months later, my department (all 5 of us at a 3,000 person corporate headquarters) would move to the same floor as the senior management of the company. It was at this time Rick and I would talk periodically, in the hallway as we passed one another or due partially to my naiveté in my stopping by his office in the early morning hours to chat (which I wouldn’t suggest, but at 22, you can maybe get away with but would fully be creepy if I were 38 as I am now).
Now, because of my semi-frequent conversations with Rick and because of the close proximity to all senior leadership at the company (being on the same floor), I was able to gain access to folks that most people never get access to in a company as large at Columbia/HCA (a company with $20 billion dollars in revenue and ranked 47th on the Fortune 500 list). The projects I was able to work on and meetings I was able to be part of were far-reaching beyond my experience, and today invaluable. I was literally involved in more at a company the size of Columbia/HCA between the ages of 22 – 24 than most people get in a career. I was very lucky to get that and equally grateful. I learned a lot.
Later, Rick would leave the company amid a board coup due to federal government investigations regarding Columbia/HCA billing practices. The media labeled Rick a number of things, but little was spoken of the fact that nearly all hospitals in the country were under investigation for the same practices. It just so happened that Columbia/HCA was the largest and publically traded – hence the first to bite the bullet.
When Rick left, I was one of the first few people to go to work for him directly. He bought a cable television network; we built it up, and sold it to News Corporation a couple years later. Over the years, Rick has been a trusted mentor and friend to me.
The following are some great lessons I have learned from Rick Scott (currently the Governor of Florida).
1. Measure Everything & Be Accountable – Rick was truly influential in moving heathcare to measurement and accountability based practices. In fact, in just under 10 years, Rick was able to significantly reduce healthcare cost inflation (from 18% to nearly zero), while also providing industry leading patient satisfaction and superior outcomes. In fact, although Columbia/HCA owned less than 7% of hospitals in America, 28 were rated in the Top 100 and 36% received Accreditation with Commendation, while only 8.5% of the industry received the same. Measurement and accountability create successful outcomes – in any business.
2. There is Always a Real Story – Clearly there was more to Rick’s leaving Columbia/HCA than meets the eye or what one reads online. It is clear at the time that the government (not unlike now) wanted control of the healthcare system. The fraud allegations surrounding Medicare billing at Columbia/HCA were and still are in my estimate, as well as many experts in these affairs, extremely unfounded. Considering the Medicare rule book has more pages and chapters than the good book, the Bible – I’ll put it this way, the government has made it so confusing, it is nearly impossible for any healthcare facility to do the right thing all the time. More government/more rules does not equal more accountability.
3. Don’t Go into Business with Jerks – Now I’m not saying Rick told me anyone was a jerk – he didn’t. All I’m saying is that it was painfully clear that very few people were willing to support and be a team when the cards turned. Especially in large businesses, I’ll just say it – there is a lot of covering butts that goes on – especially when big dollars are on the table. I still see this today with the companies I work with daily. Very few people are vulnerable – let’s just call it honest, and that is very unfortunate. Being vulnerable allows you to gain trust and move critical issues forward. I’ll gather that most companies don’t fail because their product or service is bad, more likely it is because those making decisions can’t work together well. It is ok to disagree but then you have to work together as a team and trust those around you.
4. Create Stretched Goals – Having goals is critical to measuring success and progress. However, it is always easy to achieve goals if they are low. Frankly speaking, it is far easier to establish goals that are easy to achieve so we feel great about our achievements. In turn, not only do low goals not truly challenge us, they do not allow ourselves, and our companies, to achieve that which we are truly capable. Goals can and should be measurable and also slightly out of easy reach.
5. Wild Success Does Not Create Great Happiness – This is such a true and undervalued fact. I have come to learn more about this over the last 10 years, though, through both personal and third party experiences. I once remember having a conversation with Rick, and we were speaking of a mutual acquaintance that had just made a lot of money selling his company. I believe the number before taxes was around $100 million. Rick’s had great things to say about this person – that he was happy for the friend because he had worked hard, but I’ll never forget what he said next: “What he does with it will be what matters.” From there we spoke for quite awhile about the responsibility that comes with a success event such as our mutual friend had. Moral of the story… When you are given, you have a responsibility to give back.
6. Starve Them a Little Bit – I’ll apologize to Rick’s daughters in advance for this one. Once Rick and I were having a conversation about how to keep kids grounded when they frankly had access to a very nice life and many resources. I’ll qualify this by saying Rick did not grow up with a silver spoon. Neither did I. My parents love my siblings and me dearly and were always honest with us. However, growing up we did not have a lot financially. I remember vividly as a 4 and 5 year old living above a warehouse that one of my Dad’s relatives owned in the worst part of town, and it would be kind to say we had a few roach and rodent issues in the little apartment in which we lived. Later, when I was a teenager, my parents were able to do a bit better financially. But as a young kid, that wasn’t the case, and my parents were always frugal. That said, it is safe to say my kids will never experience anything closely resembling my early years – so how do you keep them grounded? Rick’s response – “You have to starve them a little bit.” That doesn’t mean don’t feed your children. It means just because you can give them things they want doesn’t mean they should get them, and make them work for it.
7. Don’t Fall Prey to Negativity – Now, I’ve never had this conversation with Rick, but as we all know observation is just as important as what people say. Clearly Rick has had great success and failure as well. As the Governor of Florida in a very challenging economic climate and perhaps one of the heated political environments that has ever existed, he is either very popular or severely disliked, to put in mildly. I’ve seen Rick in a number of really positive and negative situations, and the one thing I will take from it is that he always handles both with calm. Personally, I need to do more of that. However, the point here is that in an endeavor, especially in business, you will encounter times when you are disliked (perhaps hated) and those are the times to remain calm and, as another former Governor told me recently, “don’t blink.”
As I mentioned early on, my life path and career altered greatly upon meeting Rick. Now I put myself in the position for some of these rewards, but had I not gone to work for Rick directly, I would have never met my wife’s sister Helen, whom introduced me to my wife Deanna (after I moved to NYC as part of the News Corporation acquisition) and mother of my two amazing kids, Isla and Cohen. I would not have started Levelwing with my business partner Jeffrey Adelson-Yan in New York City, and it certainly would not have led to the mentorship and friendship that I enjoy with Rick and his family today.
The great return out of all of this is now I am in a place to return the favor and learning. Over the last several years, Rick has reached out to me on a number of occasions for advice, and as I stated in #5, it always feels good to give back. A lot can be learned from those around us that have more experience than ourselves. My advice to you: take the time to listen, to watch and to learn. Every experience breeds experience and great advice. I, for one, am always learning.