October 10, 2017

Why Inova's retiring CEO doesn't want his replacement to be 'someone like me'

Daily Briefing

    Inova Hospital System CEO Knox Singleton during his 35-year tenure transformed Inova from a "modest hospital system" to a $3.5 billion organization—but now Singleton is stepping down from his role, convinced Inova needs a new leader with different skills to navigate the next stage of development, Colby Itkowitz writes for the Washington Post.

    Singleton, who's currently 69, will retire July 1, 2018.

    An 'accidental' career in health care

    According to Itkowitz, Singleton, originally from a small Appalachian town in North Carolina, came to health care "accidentally." When Singleton graduated from the University of North Carolina with a business degree, he had the option of joining the Peace Corps or working in hospital administration in Cleveland. He jokes that he picked the more "exotic" choice and went to Cleveland, Itkowitz writes.

    Later, in 1982, Singleton came to Inova to oversee operations for three not-for-profit community hospitals that employed about 1,000 people. He became CEO a year later.

    During Singleton's tenure, Inova has grown into a multi-billion dollar health system that employees about 17,000 people. The health system now includes specialty hospitals—such as Inova Children's Hospital and Inova Women's Hospital—clinics for patients with low incomes, and one of only laboratories in the country that's researching patients' genes for inherited risk factors.

    Singleton, who helped launch the genomics program after he and his mother were diagnosed with lymphoma, said the program remains one of the most exciting facets of health care for him. "I became convinced that was the biggest scientific discovery since World War I when doctors discovered bacteria and viruses," he said, adding that genomes are "the first time you could see the future of your health."

    Meanwhile, outside of Inova, Singleton has been recognized for his charitable work, which includes running a community development organization for Haiti and advocating for affordable housing in Northern Virginia.

    'You wouldn't pick someone like me for the next decade'

    But when it comes to a successor, Singleton said Inova needs someone with a different skill set. "You wouldn't pick someone like me for the next decade," he said. "[I]f we want the second stage to kick in ... I think it would be someone with a deeper appreciation of the science, the research, and more of the clinical knowledge of how these new systems are going to evolve."

    Singleton said he's optimistic about the future of health care, especially when it comes to the potential for personalized medicine. However, he also raised concerns about health care access disparities. "There are a lot of people who can access some of the best health care in the world, they have access to really good care and professionals, but alongside that is a large and growing group of people who have real difficulty accessing health care."

    John Niederhuber, the former National Cancer Institute head whom Singleton recruited to head Inova's genomics institute, said of Singleton, "He wanted to seriously take Inova to a whole other level," adding "He's spent a whole lifetime building this system, and everyone owes him a lot for that" (Itkowitz, Washington Post, 10/8). 

    Next: How to establish a succession management process

    To learn more about how to assess retirement risk across the workforce and how to address the common pitfalls to succession management, register for the two upcoming webconferences:

    The first session, on Tuesday, October 17 at 3 pm ET, will discuss how to develop a two-fold approach to mitigating disruptive staffing gaps due to retirements and various ways to encourage high-value staff to delay retirement.

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    Our next session, on Tuesday, October 24 at 3 pm ET, will discuss common pitfalls to succession management and how to avoid them.

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