Giving People Purpose

UPDATED: March 8, 2011
PUBLISHED: March 8, 2011

On Louis Shapiro’s third day as the president and CEO of the celebrated Hospital for Special Surgery, a single-engine light aircraft owned by New York Yankee pitcher Cory Lidle crashed into the Belaire apartments. The apartments are connected to the Manhattan hospital by guest facilities for patients’ family members. Lidle and his flight instructor were killed, and 21 people were injured, including 11 firefighters.

The new executive was about to see his nationally acclaimed team in action.

“I remember I was meeting with someone, and we were interrupted with the news that a helicopter may have hit our building. I said to myself, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me. Am I dreaming?’ ” Shapiro recalls. “What the experience told me, however, was that no matter what, you always need to remain calm. You have to stop for a moment and develop a plan, show leadership. Fortunately, that is what happened. The way we responded made me proud of the people who are here.”

That pride in the people of the Hospital for Special Surgery (HSS) has continued to drive Shapiro in the way he leads the oldest orthopedic hospital in the United States to be the best at helping people get “back to doing what they love to do,” he says.

Healing people is personal for Shapiro. Growing up in a row house in a blue-collar Pittsburgh neighborhood, he witnessed his parents struggle with numerous serious medical conditions, and he developed “an orientation toward hospitals” and an appreciation for helping people regain their mobility and independence.

Dreaming of a career in medicine, Shapiro had his mind changed by an organic chemistry class. “I remember it as if it were yesterday. The text was a 3-inch yellow book. I said, ‘OK, this isn’t for me,’ ” he says with a laugh.

Shapiro wasn’t ready to give up his passion for healing, however. Fortunately, he also had a natural interest in business. A family friend introduced him to the field of health management and ultimately became a mentor. After earning a master’s from the University of Pittsburgh, Shapiro worked at three healthcare concerns before HSS hired him in October 2006.

Although HSS was an industry leader when Shapiro arrived, he has made his mark. In the last three years, the hospital has grown an unprecedented 30 percent. Shapiro, who oversees all strategic and operational aspects, has guided the organization through significant expansion. Today, HSS is recognized as the leader in its field of musculoskeletal healthcare. U.S. News & World Report named it the top hospital in the nation for orthopedics in its 2010 “America’s Best Hospitals” issue.

Before he could lead the hospital to these achievements, however, Shapiro had to listen.

“The first thing I did when I arrived was very deliberate,” the 51-year-old executive explains. “I spent probably three solid months talking to everyone at the hospital. I met with each member of our medical staff, one-on-one, to absorb the culture, to understand the history of the organization and understand what the staff view was, from personal objectives to group ones.”

He invested a great deal of time with employees, who number 3,000 today. After that, he spent time getting to know board members.

“I went from being an outsider to being an insider in a very short time, and I developed a pretty clear picture of what we needed to accomplish. From all these meetings I accumulated a list, and that developed into our strategic plan for the next two years.”

Shapiro continues to get to know the people at HSS, focusing daily on employee engagement. “The most important part of my job is managing and nurturing the culture of the organization,” he explains. Believing that this is important is one thing, Shapiro notes; making sure you are doing it is another.

This year, the hospital will surpass 25,000 surgeries. As an academic medical center, HSS not only cares for patients, helping people get their mobility back after injury or disease, but also teaches medical students from Weill Cornell Medical College and has an extensive research program with internationally recognized scientists.

“We grow at about 10 percent a year, which is a lot,” says Shapiro, who attributes an increased demand for HSS services to word-of-mouth from satisfied patients. Changing demographics also contribute to that growth as baby boomers age; by 2030, it is projected that more than 570,000 primary hip replacements and nearly 3.5 million primary total knee replacements will be performed annually in the United States. Shapiro’s task is to have HSS prepared for the needs of that wave.

Shapiro makes sure he walks the talk. Every other day, his morning starts in the gym, where he spends a half-hour investing in his own health.

“I’m usually in the office by 6,” he says. “I have a chat or two with people on the way in. One of our security officers at the front door is probably our best ambassador. I usually spend a few minutes with him. Then I like to have some quiet time before all the daily activity starts, to do some thinking and organizing my day.”

The focus of his day is often making sure the organization hires the right people and that the staff members then know what is expected of them. Shapiro meets with every person who is hired during an orientation session and follows up after he or she has gotten a taste of the job. “Three months into their time here, we get together with them and ask them if everything we told them at their orientation is true,” he says. “If not, we want them to tell us.” Once a month, Shapiro has a breakfast for employees, who are invited at random. There are also town halls and leadership rounds.

“There is no trick to this, but you have to listen and respond,” he says. This engagement with the people on the front lines gives Shapiro a good idea of what’s working and what’s not. “I realize that we are far from perfect and there is considerable room for improvement.” But the resounding message in these sessions is that you have to love what you do, Shapiro says.

He tries to pass on this sense of purpose to each new employee, saying, “We expect that you are going to wake up every day excited to come to work and give 110 percent as an individual and a member of the team. You can never, ever, take one day off from doing that. If you do, we can’t accomplish what we are here to accomplish. It’s my responsibility working with you to make sure we have the environment that allows you to continue to feel that way.”

Two Steps to Better Health Care

Lou Shapiro recommends:

First, take responsibility for your health. If you do that, you will need to be less concerned about healthcare coverage. There are a lot of things that Americans do that cause us to be less healthy than we should be. Eat right, exercise, don’t smoke, watch your weight.

Secondly, take responsibility for your care. You have to be an active participant in the process. Don’t assume that all things are created equal. Research the doctor and hospital you are going to. Ask questions.