The Business Journal Interview with Mark Wallace, C-Suite Executive of the Year

This article originally appeared in the Houston Business Journal on August 28, 2015. 

HBJ Award

 

Mark Wallace wakes up every morning before the sun comes up, takes his rescued pit bull, Tate, and black labrador, River, out for a walk. Only then does his day begin. First on his to-do list is touching base with his staff.

Communication is a defining aspect of Wallace’s nearly 26-year tenure as president and CEO of Texas Children’s Hospital. Those who’ve worked with him can attest to that, as they’ve likely received an email from him before they’ve stepped out of bed. But that’s the routine of the man who’s taken a hospital from a seven-story building in the Texas Medical Center to 70 locations around the greater Houston area and is recognized almost annually as one of the best pediatric hospitals in the country.

His leadership and civic involvement won him Best Nonprofit CEO for HBJ’s 2015 C-Suite Awards. Wallace garnered the highest score from the judges out of finalists in all the categories, he is HBJ’s Executive of the Year.

What got you into health care?

I decided about the age of 14 or 15 I wanted to be a hospital CEO when I grew up. This was 1967 or 1968, before health care matured as a profession for CEOs and attracted really good minds and students coming out of strong MBA programs. I read an article — I was about a sophomore in high school — about how strong the industry would be. It was a bullish outlook because of Medicare and Medicaid.

Health care has exploded in growth in terms of the number of hospitals, the industry itself, the complexity, size, massiveness of the industry and is a significant percentage of America’s GDP today.

But beyond the idea that it’d be a good industry to have a career in, what drew you to it?

Growing up in a spiritual, church-based family in Oklahoma City with conservative parents, we went to hospitals all the time for visitations. When anyone who was family, friend or neighbor, or anyone from the church was in the hospital, we always went to see them. It was part of culture; it was part of tradition.

I was always taken with the way hospitals looked, the way the doctors looked, the seriousness on their face, the smell of hospitals back then.

At our church, there were many prominent physicians and surgeons. I looked up to them. They were leaders in our church and really high-quality people that I wanted to be associated with.

It was the overall culture, ambiance and environment of what I perceived hospitals to be. I contrast that with the fact that all my family was in oil and gas. I wanted something more centric around people and physicians, nurses and so forth. My entire life I’ve been incredibly people centric.

So how do you apply that catalyst for wanting to be in health care to your leadership today?

CEOs lead in the C-suite. They spend a fair amount of time in that corner office and the C-suite leading, managing, making decisions, allocating resources, meeting with people, receiving information about activity levels, revenue, operating margins, top-line growth, rating agencies et cetera. Leading from the C-suite is very important.

All CEOs, whether nonprofit or publicly traded, have to be effective in the boardroom with your trustees, the structure of your governing body. (The governing body) ultimately possesses the fiduciary responsibility for all of these entities. We have to be effective there as well. But what I learned growing up in my life, at church, visiting the hospitals, playing athletics, is I enjoy the interaction with people.

The third aspect of being a CEO is leading in the organization. That’s where my leadership has the greatest impact.

I thrive in being out in the organization, meeting with employees, medical staff, exposing myself, being vulnerable.

There are 70 different places where we deliver care at Texas Children’s Hospital. The Texas Medical Center location is just one.

The employees can’t believe the CEO takes this much time to travel to their location, to come in and talk about the hospital and how we’re doing.

That’s what has made me a good CEO — my willingness to be out there and be interactive and to listen. Everyone thinks I have great vision into the future of health care and what Texas Children’s ought to be doing, maybe I do, but that vision I get is from listening.

There’s an incredible amount of growth in Houston’s health care industry right now, with over $1 billion in Texas Children’s Hospital expansion projects alone. What will this all look like when it’s finished, and how will it change Houston’s role in the world’s health care system?

Houston and the Texas Medical Center aren’t just the largest compilation of medical institutions in the U.S. and the world. It’s in my opinion, in aggregate, the best when you consider Texas Children’s Hospital, UT’s M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, Baylor College of Medicine, just to name a few.

We take patients from all over Texas, every state in the U.S. We receive patients from about 40 foreign countries every year. One way to describe Texas Children’s is that we’re a regional, national and an international referral center. More and more, a higher percentage of our patients are coming from great distances to get to the doorstep.

That’s the future for Texas Children’s Hospital: being a magnet for these big cases.

How does it feel now looking back a quarter of a century later knowing you helped build one of the best hospitals in the country?

I’m amazed and proud of the pace and the acceleration of this organization. That we’ve done so much so fast for the community, for the children, for the families and now for women that we’re dedicated to taking care of. We went from one seven-story building to where we are now. We weren’t mentioned in the same breath as Cleveland Clinic, as Johns Hopkins, as Mass General, as Boston Children’s or Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia 25 years ago. It gives me immense pride that we’ve accomplished that.

At the time we were doing it in 1989, 1995 and 2000, as we were building all of these blocks to create centers of excellence, it didn’t dawn on me so much at the time that we were doing as well as were doing, that we were growing as well as we were.

This wonderful relationship the employees have allowed me to have with them has been extraordinary. It just dawned on me about a year ago what we’ve done, and as I was realizing that it was also about what we’re getting ready to do next with The Woodlands and (the 19-story expansion in the medical center) and $50 million expansion at the West Campus.

All of the titans of the medical center I’ve known are amazed at what Texas Children’s has done, how rapidly this unfolding story has developed and matured. That trajectory keeps going on and on. It thrills me to no end to know we’re touching so many children’s lives.

What do you want your legacy in the Texas Medical Center and Houston’s health care industry to be?

As a CEO, I don’t like to think about legacies. I don’t think it’s healthy for CEOs to think about their legacy, because they might start making decisions that are more about their legacy than to the mission and the priorities of the organization. I never want to do that. I’m not trying to leave any legacy.

I will be remembered for my passion; for my passion for my employees and medical staff, and for our patients and families. Finally, for my passion for leadership. If there’s anything else that stands out about my career here, it’s the energy, focus and passion I’ve put into leadership. It’s unique for health care.

The leadership emphasis we’ve embedded into the culture at Texas Children’s is unique. It’s a primary reason we’ve flourished and been able to go from there to here in a short period of time.

It’s one thing for the CEO to be a great leader, but the really great CEOs make sure that leadership development cascades down throughout the organization. The best companies in the world are those who have great front line leaders. It doesn’t matter if you’re Nordstrom’s or Apple, you have to have a great front-line there on a 24 by 7 basis interacting with customers, clients and important stakeholders. That’s what has allowed us to go as high and fast as we did.

I took all this power in the box at the top of the organizational chart called president and CEO, and I cascaded that down by building and developing leaders and giving them authority to make decisions.

You celebrated your 25-year anniversary. Will we see a 50-year anniversary from you? How long do you plan on staying with the hospital?

I’m 62, and it doesn’t bother me saying I’m 62. This has been an incredible journey at Texas Children’s. I’m as energetic today as I was 10 or 25 years ago. My passion is running probably higher than it was then. I love the leadership aspect of leading one of the great health care institutions in the world called Texas Children’s Hospital. I don’t think about retirement.

For all of the executives, there’s a leadership development plan in terms of who would back them up and what we’d need to be doing to the people in the bullpen should something happen. That’s what I’m working on, every month I update that. It’s hard for me to quantify if I’m going to retire in five years or 10 years. A CEO serves at the pleasure of the board. That’s No. 1. No. 2 is how long the good Lord wants to bless me with health so that I have the energy, vitality and drive it takes to lead an organization of this significance, size and pace. As long as I’m healthy and as long the board wants me here, I’ll sit here.


The Wallace File

Age: 62

Family: Wife, Shannon, two children and six grandchildren

Starbucks order: Quad espresso

Hobbies: Spending time with family, traveling, playing golf and all sports

Favorite music: Jazz

Favorite books: “The Art of Possibility” and “The Human Side of Enterprise”

Favorite movies: “It’s a Wonderful Life,” “The Godfather” and “The Time Machine”


By the numbers

350,000 — Square footage of Texas Children’s in 1989 when Mark Wallace started

10 million — Square footage of Texas Children’s in 2015

1,400 — Employees in 1989

13,000 — Employees and physicians of Texas Children’s Hospital in 2015