Tom Gessel, a new leader with an Asante style
To introduce Asante’s new President and CEO Tom Gessel, we start with an icebreaker:
Choose one, dogs or cats? “Definitely dogs.”
Netflix or ESPN? “Netflix.”
Camping or glamping? “Glamping. It didn’t use to be that way but it’s getting harder to sleep on the ground.”
Onstage or backstage? “Backstage.”
That last one reveals a lot about Gessel, the first top executive to be hired from outside the health system since 1999. Like Asante CEOs before him, he is not a showman. Instead, he leads from the wings, offering guidance, support, freedom and resources to let others shine.
His style — low-key, collaborative and straightforward with a wry sense of humor — is partly who he is but also developed over 36 years in health care, most of it in leadership. Before joining Asante, he was an executive at Centura Health, a Colorado-based health system with 20 hospitals and 21,000 employees spanning two states.
His fourth day on the job, he sat down with Asante News to talk about his leadership style, the forces that shaped him and what employees and providers can expect from him.
What made you decide to join a regional health system in Southern Oregon? “I wanted to come to a region where I could get my arms around the health care delivery system and the needs of the communities served.
“It’s hard to get a singular sense of community in very diverse communities that are geographically separated by both time and geography like in my previous role. I wanted to be in a place where I could really focus on a region and be part of the preeminent health care organization with a great reputation.
“Asante really struck a chord with me. It’s an organization that’s highly focused on community service, quality and safety in an area of the country that offers so much beyond great health care.”
Let’s talk about leadership. What makes a good leader? “Everything we do, everything we accomplish, everything we’re successful at, is because we work as a team. I’m individually successful in nothing without others on the team. I singlehandedly deliver no results.
“The most important thing I do as a leader is surround myself with really good people and really good leaders who share my passion for health care, who express the leadership characteristics all of us find important.”
What’s your leadership style? “Let me put it this way: If we’re a high-performing successful organization, if we’re providing high-quality services, keeping patients and employees safe, we’re accessible and affordable, and a great place to work — and I get none of the credit? Then perfect, I’m very good with that.
“I always joke that one of my career aspirations is never to be on the cover of Modern Healthcare magazine.
“What you see of me today is what you get. I’ll be the same person tomorrow that I am today. If nothing else, I am steady, predictable, I don’t have good days and bad days — only good days. I don’t have ups and downs and highs and lows. What you see today is exactly what will walk in the door tomorrow. It’s very predictable. Unpredictability creates fear, and fear is bad for an organization.”
The pandemic strained not only our system’s finances, but employee morale as well. How will you help Asante move forward? “One of the things I can commit to is transparency and consistency going forward. I don’t know all the details from the past and can’t rewind the clock to fix them. What I can do, and what our leadership team can do, is be very transparent with our challenges and our priorities going forward.
“We’re going to be constantly vigilant about staying ahead of changing economic forces and the efficiencies we need to find. And we’ll be open about them.”
What’s your vision for Asante? “While I tend to get that question as the new CEO, I will say that Asante already has a great Vision statement — to be our communities’ trusted health care partner, every person, every time. What I will do is provide clarity about our priorities over the coming months, and we will focus on those priorities.
“And we’ll be clear about our challenges. We may still have to do difficult things. For example, no one likes to do cost-efficiency work, but it’s a necessary part of the industry right now. It’s not unique to Asante, it’s across the country. The good news is we’re well-positioned — better than most — to handle the rough road ahead from a national economic standpoint, from an industry challenge standpoint.”
What’s your biggest communication challenge? “Meeting every stakeholder with the right content, in the most helpful channel to each person, in a timely way is the tough challenge of effective communication. Communicating once with one method is seldom adequate.
“In my role I often have access to information before some other people do, so I have a head start in processing that information or thinking about solutions. I have to be careful that by the time I reach a decision, I risk making the false assumption that everyone has come along with me. Even worse, I may fail to include the right people in the decision-making process. It’s a good lesson to learn.
“As leaders we often forget to talk about the ‘why,’ and narrating the reasons we make the decisions we do. If leadership stumbles in communicating, it’s often for that reason.”
Group president, Centura Health, in Centennial, Colorado
Master’s degree, health administration, Virginia Commonwealth University
10 THINGS ABOUT TOM
Hometown: He grew up in rural Ohio, where his grandparents had a 100-acre farm with dairy and beef cattle.
His father was a gregarious industrial supply salesman with clients ranging from factories to mines. “He was the kind of guy who could sit on a bench outside of Wal-Mart and meet new friends.” His mom was a bank teller who advanced to branch manager before retirement.
Childhood: The third of four children, Gessel learned the value of listening. “I didn’t really speak much until I was at least 3 years old. My parents worried something was wrong. A lot of it was my older siblings were speaking on my behalf. I’m choosy with my words and I don’t use too many of them.”
Family: He and his wife, Kelly, have a grown son, a 22-year-old business consultant in Austin, Texas.
Luna, the couple’s 12-pound toy Australian shepherd, can catch a Frisbee as large as she is.
Personality: “I try to leave a little white space on my calendar each day just to be able to regroup and to think ahead of what’s next.
“On the other hand, I relish being in roles where I’m around like-minded, hardworking people who are all trying to achieve the same thing. That’s why I love health care.”
Career ambitions: After an undergrad degree focused in biology and chemistry, a college internship in the finance department of a large hospital in Columbus cemented his future.
“I was a fish in water. I just loved it.” The former high school class president would inevitably move into progressive leadership roles in his 36 years in health care.
Literature: Gessel says he doesn’t read as much these days but reading the Old Testament in grade school left a lasting impression. “The storytelling, the fire and brimstone, the walls falling at Jericho … just this tapestry. I loved the artistry of the language.”
When he was old enough to get a library card (“my favorite gift ever”) he checked out every Hardy Boys book he could.
Musical tastes: Classic rock (Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Bruce Springsteen) and classic country (Hank Williams Jr., Waylon Jennings). “My wife’s a big Grateful Dead fan.”
Favorite comedies: His tastes span the absurdist sketch comedy of “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” to the goofy “Caddyshack” and “Animal House.”
Hobbies: Finding and fixing up cars. “Not the interesting kinds of cars like old Mustangs or exotic European cars, but rather simple, boring and affordable cars like mid-’90s Chevy trucks.”
Definition of character: “Integrity, respect, excellence, community service. It’s putting the interest of the team before our own personal interests. If leaders share those passions around excellence, constant improvement, and treating people with kindness and compassion, that’s a good start to being successful.”
If you have a question, please contact the author or relevant department directly.