From Badges to Business: How 2 Policemen Made Major Career Moves
Perhaps surprisingly, Chris Van Gorder and Michael Snyders say their training and experiences as cops prepared them well for new careers as a CEO and an entrepreneur. Here are their stories.
Long before he was CEO of Scripps Health, a nonprofit health care system that includes five hospitals and 26 outpatient treatment facilities worth about $2.6 billion, Chris Van Gorder had to give up his police career. In his 20s, he had been on the Monterey Park, Calif., police force about five years when a woman fleeing police hit his cruiser head-on.
Van Gorder spent a year in and out of the hospital and rehab. He briefly returned to the force on “permanent light duty,” which meant no more promotions. For someone who had hoped to become police chief, this wouldn’t do. “I made the decision to retire,” a low point for him.
“I was angry and, in retrospect, felt sorry for myself,” he admits. On the way home from yet another doctor’s office visit, “I realized I had to take responsibility…. I started to rebuild my body and my attitude.” And he sought a meaningful new career.
Before joining the force, Van Gorder had enjoyed working security at a hospital emergency room, so when the hospital that cared for him needed a head of security, he applied, despite sketchy qualifications. “I said, ‘I’ll be honest with you: I’m not sure why you should hire me,’ ” he recalls. “ ‘But you won’t find anyone more loyal and dedicated.’ ” He offered to work for 90 days at minimum wage and promised to quit if his supervisors weren’t satisfied. They agreed (at more than minimum wage), and he won the job after the probationary period.
“There’s a lot of synergy between law enforcement and health care. Both are dedicated to helping people,” says Van Gorder. In his new book, The Front-Line Leader, he discusses how the people-first orientation of his first career informed his success in his second.
From his security job, he “watched what administrators did and thought that looked kind of fun.” Van Gorder applied for a promotion, knowing that he had no chance despite his bachelor’s degree in political science/public administration; his aim was getting on the CEO’s radar. The CEO suggested he return to school, so Van Gorder took a full course load on top of his job. He graduated at the top of his University of Southern California class with a master’s in public administration specializing in health services administration.
Realizing he was pigeonholed in his security position, Van Gorder left to head national development for Diamond Benefits Group. But after his oldest son was born, he wanted to travel less, so he called the encouraging CEO, then at Anaheim Memorial Hospital. Weeks later he hired Van Gorder as a vice president.
Van Gorder joined Scripps as chief operating officer in 1999 and became CEO in 2000, when the company was losing $15 million a year and suffering internal strife—doctors had voted no-confidence in leadership. He applied police training to the problem. “People fight because they don’t understand each other’s position. One of the first things you do [in domestic disputes] is separate the parties. If you can calm them down, you can fill the gap of understanding. And if you fill the gap, smart people generally come up with the same or similar solutions.” Bringing together the squabbling physicians and business administrators bridged the gap so Scripps could make a recovery as robust as Van Gorder’s.
He believes most people will face a major wake-up call when life throws them a curveball. “When you do, and you make the right choice for yourself, the joy and excitement of the future comes back. You start looking forward instead of backward.”
And yet Van Gorder returned to his old career, in a way, by volunteering with the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department, overseeing volunteer search-and-rescue and law-enforcement units. “The woman who hit me took away a career before I was ready to give it up. The day I retire from the sheriff’s department, it will be because I choose to. It will close the circle for me.”
An Illinois State Police uniform still hangs in Michael Snyders’ closet. It’s a souvenir from a career he loved. Snyders, a colonel when he retired in 2010, hasn’t stopped protecting the public, though.
In 2013, six months after the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School, a law enforcement buddy approached Snyders: What if they could devise a way to prevent, or at least lessen, the carnage in school shootings? “It was, literally, an idea tossed out over a sandwich,” Snyders says.
The resulting products, rolled out in 2013 and 2014, are the Hero911 and SchoolGuard cellphone apps. Free for law-enforcement professionals, Hero911 creates a network that subscriber schools contact for help with school shooters, potentially bringing assistance more quickly than a 911 dispatch. “At any given moment, 75 percent of U.S. police officers are off-duty, on vacation or in training,” Snyders says. “We wanted to leverage off-duty police when seconds save lives.” The Hero911 app alerts all officers and agencies that are in a 10- to 15-mile radius. “If I’m on vacation in Florida and happen to be, say, 5 miles from a school shooting, I would be alerted,” Snyders says.
Schools can buy the corresponding SchoolGuard app, which simultaneously contacts the Hero911 network and calls 911 with the push of a panic button. The app’s other functions include a teacher assist button, independent of the other panic button, that provides a location to responders and alerts other teachers and staff at the school. By November 2014, more than 15,000 officers had downloaded Hero911, and 100 schools had joined the network.
Thus Snyders moved from front-line to online law enforcement, the latest in a series of career adjustments—one being his promotion to colonel. “Street officer was the best job I ever had,” he says. “There was a lot of pride in dealing with the public, and a lot of good front-line police work taking place every day.” The promotion put him behind a desk dealing with facility closures, union issues and layoffs. “The fun part of the job was transitioning away from me.”
Then he retired. “I miss police work. The label retired is a big deal.” Snyders ultimately eased the disconnect by joining a monthly get-together with other retired officers. “We relive the memories, talk politics, stay up on family. You can’t replace the friendship and trust that grew from patrolling midnights together 25 years ago.”
While Snyders’ new venture, a nonprofit, continues his dedication to public safety, it’s also a new world. “As a colonel, I was always in uniform, on the go, very visible. It was a life-altering change from being out and about to working at my desk in a dark basement.” Snyders no longer has a staff handling administrative details, no longer has officers saluting him. He went from being the guy whose calls everyone took to “just another vendor.”
The pace and process are different, too. “In law enforcement, there are regular think tanks and work groups and meetings and meetings and meetings. For this business, our internal team of four kept everything confidential. In some ways, the business world moved very quickly, but it was more isolated and contained.”
Snyders’ pride in his new business parallels what he felt on the police force because of similar core values. “Our decisions are based on doing what’s right. I’m not doing this to make money.”
In fact, to launch the apps, “I invested my piggy bank,” Snyders says. The investment jeopardized his financial security, but he—like other cops—is no stranger to risk.