Csuite Q&A: Bob Chaloner CAO of Stony Brook Southampton Hospital


Q: Is this where you thought you would end up?

A: It’s an interesting question because healthcare administration is where I thought I’d end up but didn’t realize that I would become a CAO. When I finished college and was trying to decide what I was going to do with my life, I was planning to choose between law or something else.  I was undecided, but knew I wanted to live in NYC. It depended on where I would go to graduate school. I interviewed at Columbia and was very attracted to their public health and urban planning program and thought, all right, I’ll become a hospital administrator. And essentially, that’s what I’ve done. I spent some time in planning but I’ve been working in hospital administration for 30 of the 35 years that I’ve been working. I didn’t know that I would end up being a CAO, but I knew I was going to have a role in health administration. I also never thought I’d end up in the Hamptons.


Q:  Who has influenced you the most?

A: Ruth Hass, my first boss at Lenox Hill, was the COO. She was my first mentor. She had a way of dealing with people that made work seem fun. You’d come into her office and you never felt like you were working. You felt like you were just sitting around chatting, but she was organizing. She had an ability to get you to do stuff and afterwards, I found myself wondering how she talked me into doing something. She taught me that the number one skill is motivating people to do what needs to be done, while empowering them to think it was their idea, all for the good.

 There have been lots of people along the way who have influenced me. At Franciscan Health System, our president was a man named Jim Flynn.  He had this wonderful ability to quietly organize people and had this notion of a system, coaxing people to work together. Currently, I am very lucky to work with some really good board members. Peter Larson, who was my board chairman, has a sense of community and ethics that showed me how this community is different. We need to be open and responsive. Our current chairman, Ken Wright, is having a huge impact on me. He was born here, is a builder, and his passion for improving healthcare for the community is infectious.


Q: What are you most proud of?

A: My two kids and the relationship we have is absolutely what I am most proud of.

Work-wise, it’s where the hospital is today. I have a team of people that work really well together. This hospital is a fun place to work. It’s not even the financials, it’s the fact that the team gels. People talk now about how it’s a nice place to work, people work well together, we support each other. If I did anything, I feel proud of nurturing a caring culture in the organization. It wasn’t like that when I started. It wasn’t a bad culture, it was just a culture that was down in the dumps, people were scared and frightened. We have a place now where it’s a nice place to work. I feel very proud of that. Not because I want everyone to be happy and smiley, because I want people working and not worrying.  I do want them feeling like they are doing their job because they want to do their job. I think that’s the goal. I’m very proud of that.


Q: What motivates you?

A: Making things better. It’s a sense that we can always try and improve things a little bit. Never leave well enough alone. There is always an opportunity to just keep improving. For healthcare, it’s not just trying to ride herd, it’s trying to get more people served with limited dollars. We need to keep searching for better ways to serve more people at the highest level of quality possible. The answer isn’t to expand the pie, it’s to use what we have better than we do today.


Q: What are your 5 year goals?

A: Professional goals are pretty straight forward, the hospital is moving forward, we are doing really well, we merged with Stony Brook and we started planning for a new facility. I want to bring all of that to fruition. That’s really my goal. I hope to help the hospital achieve top 10% performance for community hospitals. I want to be the best community hospital we can be. I really want us to be integrated, not to the point where we disappear, but to the point where we have seamless transition of care with our new Stony Brook relationship. When I retire at some point, I want to say yes, the place is great, it’s tucked in, everything is good and our community is well-cared for.

Personally, I want to do a lot more traveling than I’ve been able to do. I want to spend as much time as possible with my new grandchildren. I’d like to catch up on the reading and home projects that I haven’t done. I’ve got this real urge to see the world before I get much older. This year we are going to Uganda, to trek for mountain gorillas. Then to Ethiopia to see the ancient empire and underground churches, finishing the trip with a couple of days in Zanzibar. I want to see every state in the US, as many of the European countries as possible, never been to Asia, and much more of South America, so basically everywhere.


Q: What keeps you up at night?

A: The complexity of our healthcare system. The financial fragility of it is probably the thing that is most scary. It’s hard to meet the needs of this community with the dollars that the system provides us. We are not cash rich. We are stable, we’re doing pretty well and being partnered with Stony Brook is a good thing, but I still worry about how we are going to meet the all the needs with the limited resources we have. It’s stressful just thinking about that. Billing is incredibly complex, keeping the revenue cycle intact, keeping the cash flow going, that’s absolutely what keeps me up at night. Potential hits to healthcare reimbursement are frightening.


Q: How do you successfully stay connected to key influencers who do not work in same office or geographical area?

A: ACHE is a big one, I attend conferences, I read a lot of the ACHE materials. I stay involved in the local hospital association out on Long Island. At the Nassau Suffolk Hospital Council we have a great team, Kevin Dahill and Wendy Darwell are amazing. I stay in touch with them and stay active on that board. I try to be involved with them and supportive. I maintain close contacts with a number of colleagues out here, as well as my long term contacts in Albany and elsewhere.


Q: Through our careers, we are faced with difficult decisions. How do you approach risk-taking?

A: I am a big believer in gut instinct. I’ve done the pros and the cons list but it always comes down to what feels right to me. That is influenced by certain things. One is, you sometimes know if it’s the right thing or not, sometimes it’s a matter of the people who are involved in it. I tend to look for people I trust and trust their opinions and judgment. There was one time in my career that my gut said “don’t do it” and I wish I had listened. If it feels right for you, it probably is. No one can tell you what’s right for you, only you can know what’s best. Every decision you make, isn’t the last decision you are going to make, I think that’s part of relaxing a little bit. If you make a mistake you can find another opportunity.


Q: Does Southampton have a formal mentor program?

A: Not a formal program but we do a couple of things here. One is we encourage our leaders to participate in internships. We try to encourage the senior staff to be available, coach and provide advice. I have a couple of people through ACHE that I’ve been asked to mentor. I’ve been lucky to have that experience so I feel like I need to give back and I feel like I need to do the same thing. I teach at Columbia and Stony Brook so when students are looking for opportunities, I bring them in and expose them to how we run a hospital. People have to start somewhere. It helps us too, because sometimes new people bring in new perspectives. We have a residency program here that we’ve done really well with. It has rejuvenated our medical and administrative staff. They ask ‘why’ which challenges us to pontificate.


 Q: Are there qualities you look for in the people you mentor?

A: I like people who are straight forward. I don’t like sneaky people. I want to be able to trust the people that I’m working with. Obviously, bright and questioning are preferred traits. I’d rather someone say, “I don’t know” than assume they have all the answers. I like people who are motivated and willing to go that extra mile. The worst is when someone wants to do nothing. I’m looking for the person who can identify a problem and wants to dive in and fix it. There are also the people who are only doing it for their resume. Within 15 minutes it becomes obvious and it is painful for both parties. For those people, I want to encourage them to focus on what they are doing now instead of focusing on the next job. It’s what you are doing right now that really matters.