Healthcare has seen a significant change in its landscape, from technology and innovations to mergers, acquisitions, and competition. Effective leadership, particularly for healthcare organizations, is necessary to navigate this shifting landscape.
In this edition of Alumni Chatter, I have an opportunity to talk to a leader who has risen out of the local Central Illinois ranks, Dr. Keith Knepp.
Keith Knepp, MD
President and CEO UnityPoint Health – Central Illinois
Keith is a 1993 graduate of Illinois State University, a 1997 graduate of the Peoria Campus of the University of Illinois College of Medicine, and a 2000 graduate of our Family Medicine Residency Program. He then went on to practice 6 years as a full-time clinical family physician in Eureka, Illinois, before he served as full time faculty for the Family Medicine Residency Program.
Keith then started his career in hospital leadership in 2010 as the Chief Medical Informatics Officer and from there he has succeeded up the corporate ladder having assumed the roles of Vice President of Systems Integration, Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer of Methodist and President of UnityPoint Health (UPH) Peoria hospitals and clinic. On April 1, 2019, Keith assumed the role of CEO of UnityPoint Health in Central Illinois.
In May, Dr. Knepp was honored as a recipient of the 2019 Distinguished Alumni Award at the University of Illinois College of Medicine Peoria.
KW: Keith, thanks for taking the time to talk with me. You are a perfect individual to talk about leadership because of the various roles you have had during your professional career. What is the style of your leadership and how has it evolved?
KK: Thanks for the reminder of my path. I have not strayed far from Central Illinois as you can see. I certainly did not plan that as my career trajectory. The many people I followed opened doors and I did not know how to say no sometimes. I have always been a leader who has tried to listen well and I think that has served me well. I am also someone who feels a sense of ownership and tries to solve problems in front of us. Both of those things I think have led me to a collaborative leadership style, where I try to get input, listen and solve problems together. In addition, I still find it is important to do those things. If you do not get input then you will miss parts of the puzzle and you really have to learn how to listen to people and actively listen to their perspective. I think over time in terms of what has changed, I have learned that you really have to over-communicate the vision of why we are going where we are going. And that can mean a high level vision – the highest level of strategy in the organization or it can just be change x in department y needs to happen for this reason and saying it once to the people who report to you or to the physician or department chair is just not enough. It needs to be communicated multiple times, in multiple venues and multiple ways so that over time people will remember. Over communicating why we are doing what we are doing and the vision for the reasons for the changes we make, I think is just critically important. My own self-reflection is that I still think we do not do it enough. I think I have shared something and then realize there are still those who have not heard or have not remembered and we need to keep saying it.
I think another thing that has changed for me is I have always been a relationship-oriented person, which has led to a collaborative style and try to get along with everyone. Feedback to me though at points in my career has been if you are nice to people all of the time and that is what you are worried about they sometimes do not hear what you are trying to say and you do not communicate clearly the hard message that needs to be delivered. Sometimes the hard message is no, sometimes it is I need you to do something different than you are doing today, you can’t do that anymore, you can’t talk to people like that, or this is the change that has to be made and the decision has already been made and I am here to tell you why. It is easy to beat around the bush and to speak in generalities to make vague requests, which makes the conversation be less challenging, but it does not communicate the message that really needs to be heard. I have had to learn to be more direct and hopefully that can still be delivered in a way that is kind, empathic and considerate of the other person’s position, but it is still direct enough that they hear the message that needs to be said.
KW: What or who has influenced your leadership style?
KK: Some of it is my personality, but a lot of it is also mentors and having an influence by leaders that I saw be successful. Of course, one of those were Dr. Tom Golemon, the Department Chair for Family & Community Medicine at UICOMP and here at the residency he very much had a collaborative and engaging leadership style. Our CEO, who just retired, Debbie Simon, was the same in terms of getting input from the team. She made sure she heard from everyone before her decision was made. I just saw that as an effective way for your team to rally and go in the same direction.
KW: What principles guide your work?
KK: I think the most important principle is that you have to keep patients in the center of what you do; resources are limited and decisions still have to be hard but, whenever we get to a place where we are asking what is the right thing to do we always have to go back to when we are in healthcare and ask how does this affect the patients. Another key principle is you do what you say and you say what you do. So make sure if you promise something is going to happen you can deliver on that and then you have systems in place to make sure you don’t forget to come back and do that because people very quickly remember if you say you are going to do something and it doesn’t happen.
KW: How has your leadership style impacted some of the decisions you have had to make in your various roles?
KK: I think as I reflect on some of those bigger decisions we needed to make as an organization here, whether it was large strategic decisions, like the affiliation with Proctor and Pekin Hospitals with Methodist, the decision to become part of the UnityPoint Clinic and integrate our physician group, or maybe some of the detailed decisions around that (how are we going to evolve our compensation plan, our employment agreements, what services are we going to provide at each hospital). We have just learned that the original direction of a path is improved when we stop and get input from the stakeholders and make sure we have considered all perspectives. Therefore, I think it has served us well in all of those examples I have given and taking the time to get all of the input. That said, the other things I spoke about, communicating the vision, saying why we are doing something and then over communicating about that, all those instances were really really important and there were times we just had to be direct and say this is the decision and this is why to make sure people clearly heard and understood that. I think another lesson learned along the way is in leadership there are almost no perfect decisions. It is the job of a leader to make a decision often times and a decision wouldn’t be required if it was all win and no lose and there wasn’t a pro and a con and so it takes some time to get comfortable when a decision you have made has negative consequences to it because someone will be significantly impacted by that and you will think it is the wrong decision because of that and sometimes we make those decisions not even knowing for sure what the right decision is but it still needs to be made. It helps when you remember just that fact that there is no such thing as a perfect decision, but a decision still needs to be made.
KW: What advice would you give your younger self?
KK: To take more time for myself, my family and my friends. Especially in leadership positions, our careers and professions will take as much as we are willing to give. It is okay to commit a large part of our energy into the work we do because it is important to work, but it is not the only thing that matters. The people in our lives are very important too.
KW: What does it mean to you to be around home – to grow up here, complete your education and have your professional career in this area? Is that important to you?
KK: It is very meaningful to me. I feel incredibly grateful to have the opportunity to lead at this level in an organization in my own community. I grew up feeling like the small town of Eureka was my community (a town of 5,000) but it is only 20 miles from Peoria, where I live and work now. Over the years, Central Illinois has become my community and so to stay here and have the professional opportunities I have, I am very grateful for. It is meaningful to feel like what we do here in healthcare delivery is impacting my friends and family and the community I live in. I know that is true for everyone. I know that when we move to new communities they become our own and I am not diminishing that for people who aren’t native Central Illinoisans, but for me it is a cool part of this opportunity.
KW: Lastly, I when I came here in 2007, I was told that you actually had a perfect score on the board exam. You can clear up that myth right now.
KK: (Laughing) That is a myth that never dies. I have no further comment.
KW: Thank you for sharing your leadership values and pearls, Keith.
Calling All UICOMP Grads who are Family Physicians
Alumni Chatter is a forum designed to reach and connect with UICOMP graduates who are family physicians and/or graduates from the UICOMP Family Medicine Residency Program. This platform will be used to interview former and current students and residents. I would love to share with our readers and your fellow classmate alums where you are, what you are doing, and the impact you are having on the communities you serve. If you are interested, let me know on our Facebook page or Instagram. I hope to talk to you on the next addition of Alumni Chatter!