Behind the Scenes: CEO

Julie Petersen

We recently sat down with CEO Julie Petersen to learn more about her leadership role at KVH.

You’re the CEO. What does that mean?
My title is Chief Executive Officer, but I think of myself as an administrator. Because we’re a public hospital district, I’m also the superintendent, which implies responsibility for public resources. I administer operations and strategy for the district.

What was your career trajectory?
I consider myself an “accidental” CEO. I’m a certified public accountant. I came up through Finance. I was a controller for 15 years, and then a CFO. My skill set is in reimbursement and understanding the financials of the healthcare delivery system, so the transition to CEO came with a lot of surprises. 
What I learned in that transition is how to listen, how to be present.

And now that you’re in the CEO role?
I consider it my job to have a 360-degree perspective. I’m a community member. I’m also directly responsible to the Board. I have relationships with the Board, the senior leadership team, the physicians. I learn about their concerns, their pressure points. I learn why people come to work, and what keeps them awake nights. Whether it’s department directors talking about how to motivate their teams or share patient satisfaction information, or it’s physicians trying to balance their responsibilities to the patients and their responsibilities to their own families – I am privileged to be a part of those conversations.

When the organization comes to a decision point, I can put the people together that have like interests or are going to impact one another. People want to do what’s best for their patients and their department. And so I ask, “How does that decision fit into what the rest of the organization is doing?”, or “Who else needs to hear about this?”

What was your best real-world preparation for this role?
My mother was one of the most positive people in the world. It had an impact on me. One of the disciplines that I strive to bring every day, is to go into every conversation, every situation, assuming that people are coming from a good place, that they’re trying to do the right thing. It’s about listening to learn. People have a true and valid perspective they’re sharing. And I learned that from my mother.

What’s the hardest part of being CEO?
Being candid can be tough. We put a lot of stock in transparency, and that means that even when people would prefer the platitude, you still have to say, “No, this really is a hard job. It really is hard to make a margin in rural healthcare. I am talking about finance a lot. We do talk about patient safety all the time. We do have to follow policies and procedures.”

Sometimes it’s easier to be agreeable, but in reality, we’ll never be able to choose between high-quality care and cost efficiency. You don’t get to choose. You get to do both. People want to be told, “It will be okay.” And it will be – because we’re going to work really hard to make it okay.

What’s the funnest part of being CEO?
That’s easy. I get to buzz around the organization and talk to anybody I want to. I get to go into the lab and talk to the lab about what’s going on. I get to go down to the emergency department. I always feel welcome where I go.

Most people don’t get that experience of being able to say “What’s going on back here? What are your priorities? What happens when you’re busy? What happens when you’re not busy? What do you need most?” Being able to do that, and having people share what’s going on, or when I’m the person that gets to say to a patient, “Can I help you find what you’re looking for?” – that to me is a great day.

What’s most meaningful to you about being CEO?
I truly believe in community healthcare. When you look at a strong, local community, you can feel energy around the schools, the arts, the neighborhoods, and downtown. The community with a community hospital has an extra element that makes them whole.

The great thing about community healthcare is that you become whatever your community needs. For some community delivery systems, it’s more long term care and primary care. For us, it’s a pretty broad spectrum. That’s the glorious thing about community healthcare: it’s not just about healthcare, it’s also very much about the community.

What do you hope to accomplish as KVH CEO?
Every person who’s had this job has built on the work of the person that came before them. And all of them have built towards the future, so you have to thank everyone who’s ever held this job. When I came to KVH, I looked around and realized that I was seeing problems that the industry is delivering to all hospitals right now. This was familiar territory. I was ready to start fixing the problems.

I’d like to see KVH advance down the path of our strategic plan. That means providing more access, and more engagement with the community. I want this community to be aware of the relationships we have with larger systems. We remain independent, but we get bench strength and get clinical strength from our deliberate relationships with other organizations.

What would you pack into a CEO “go bag” to get through the day? 
I would take a name tag so people knew who I was. I’d also pack a coat so I’d be sure to hit the clinics and go outside the building to touch base with other people, rather than waiting in my office for them to come to me to talk, which can take a lot of courage for some people.

I’m not someone who carries my phone with me everywhere. I don’t even carry a pad and pencil. Being single-mindedly present with whoever you’re talking with is something we’re not very good at, and it’s really rewarding.

Anything else you’d like to add?
Every community hospital is unique, but when I look at the elements in Ellensburg, it’s all there: the hospital, a strong school system, a state university, the flow of I-90, and the presence of county and city government. We are an incredibly dynamic healthcare delivery system. It’s a dynamic community. And it’s a pretty darn special place to work as a CEO.