So Dale Sowders decided to look for work elsewhere at an organization that better fit his view of how a health system should operate — one that delicately balances financial performance with providing the appropriate level of health care a community wants and needs.
He found it in 1999 at Holland Community Hospital.
Three years later, the 41-year-old Sowders is preparing to take over as president and CEO of Holland Community Hospital Feb. 1, upon the retirement of Judy Newham. He promises to further the carefully crafted hospital culture that puts mission first and drew Sowders to Holland in the first place.
“To me it defines what success is,” Sowders said of the way hospitals must balance between financial performance and their role in the communities they serve.
“If success is defined just by surviving financially, then I don’t think an institution knows if it’s meeting needs. I think you have to ask the broader set of questions,” he said. “Why do you exist? That’s a great way to summarize it, and it’s not only what you do and why you do it, but how you do it.”
A native of Cincinnati, Ohio, Sowders began his career at Evanston Northwestern Healthcare in Evanston, Ill., where he became assistant to the president in 1987.
Sowders, an English major at Ohio State University who also holds two master’s degrees in political science and health administration, once weighed a career in law. As he considered a career path, Sowders opted for health care administration instead, seeing it as an area that blended his interests and abilities in economics, politics, business and sociology.
“It certainly plunged me into something deeper than I ever envisioned, but it had all those elements,” Sowders said. “I’m driven by taking chaos and putting some order to it.”
After two years at Evanston Northwestern Healthcare, a teaching health system affiliated with Northwestern University, Sowders moved up to assistant vice president in 1989 and then to senior vice president in 1992, responsible for a large portion of the system’s clinical operations.
But health care changed dramatically in the 1990s, generating intense financial pressures for hospitals. Those pressures brought about a situation at Evanston Northwestern that Sowders believed led to too much of a focus on finances, and not enough on mission and the role a hospital holds in a community.
“Personally, for me, it just didn’t have the right balance,” he said. “It just wasn’t a fit I was satisfied with.”
After enlisting the aid of an executive search firm, Sowders initially set his sights on a position in his native Cincinnati. When it didn’t pan out, he maintained his contacts with the search firm, which called in January 1999 with information about a position at a hospital in Holland, Mich.
Sowders, the father of two young children with his wife, Greta, knew next to nothing about the community. But as he looked into and eventually interviewed for the position, and learned more about the community, he concluded that it had everything he was seeking.
“I had never stepped foot in West Michigan. I had to get out a map, literally, to find Holland,” he said. “As I began to research it, the more I saw, the more I liked.”
Drawing him to Holland was the community’s conservative nature and high degree of philanthropy and charity. The family’s first Thanksgiving in Holland was spent serving dinner at the Holland Rescue Mission.
Sowders also saw the position at Holland Community Hospital as matching his career goals, even though it represented a lateral move professionally.
“That’s how important it was to me to have the right fit,” said Sowders, describing how he found a hospital that was “very serious about its mission” of caring for a community and “finding need and meeting it.”
“That is very appealing to me, both personally and professionally, as an ethic,” he said.
Come Feb. 1, Sowders will take over from president and CEO Newham, who enjoys a high level of respect among the hospital culture as well as within the community and health care industry.
His top priority is earning the trust of the hospital’s workforce and medical staff, as well as the community the hospital serves. He views his role of CEO as that of a consensus builder who can bring varying, and sometimes competing, constituencies together to examine and resolve issues, particularly when it comes to the hospital’s future direction.
“It’s my job to make the decisions. It’s not my job to determine the parameters,” Sowders said. “What makes a CEO successful is how much they understand all those needs that are competing and then put together a vision that achieves success for the institution and the parties.”