Life and Leadership: A Dialogue with Tom Zenty

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UH Research & Education Institute Update | November 2020

UH Chief Academic Officer, Mukesh K. Jain, MD, sat down with CEO Tom Zenty for an exclusive conversation to learn more about the factors that launched and guided Mr. Zenty's career in hospital administration, what achievements he is most proud of during his tenure at UH, and his thoughts on what his life might look like after UH.

Tom Zenty, CEO University Hospitals Thomas F. Zenty, III

Tom was born in Carbondale and raised in the small coal mining pop-up town of Jermyn, Pennsylvania. His mother worked in a dress factory for 60 years, and his father was a factory worker. Both parents worked two jobs to ensure that they could provide a proper upbringing for Tom and his sister, efforts that inculcated in him the value of hard work and the importance of giving back. These early lessons would one day attract Tom to University Hospitals, an organization founded on the principle of giving to and serving the community’s most needy.

As a high school student, Tom spent his Saturdays shadowing his first mentor, a family physician, who encouraged him to pursue a career in medicine. After a few months Tom told the doctor, "I admire the work you do, but I see that you make a difference one person at a time, and I want to make a difference on a large-scale." At this nascent stage, Tom had already discovered that he was more interested in the epidemiological and business side of medicine. The doctor suggested hospital administration as a career path in which he could make this large scale difference to a community.

With his family doctor's help, Tom became an administrative volunteer at St. Joseph's Catholic Hospital, where he would meet his second mentor, who would watch over Tom’s career development through college and graduate school. When Tom was a senior at Penn State, she called the program directors at various institutions, including at Xavier University, one of the country's oldest hospital administration programs. This support was critical. Tom earned his graduate degree from Xavier University, and acknowledges this mentor as having had the most profound impact on his career.

After graduating Tom identified a dozen residency locations, including a struggling Catholic hospital in Connecticut, where he interviewed with the hospital administrator, a petite Irish nun. She said, “Thomas, as you can tell, I have made a lot of mistakes, but I need bright young people to help get me on the straight and narrow and get this organization where it belongs. I want you to come here.” Despite being accepted to residency programs in San Francisco and Miami, Tom completed his residency at this Connecticut Catholic hospital. In this first job, Tom learned invaluable lessons and leadership skills that would serve him for the entirety of his career. Tom would stay in close touch with her until the week before she passed away at age 92.

Following his residency in Connecticut, Tom served as chief administrative officer of two hospitals in New Jersey. He commuted weekly to New York University to obtain his two master's degrees and to the University of Connecticut to teach graduate classes. He eventually made his way to Arizona for five years before landing at Cedar Sinai Hospital in California where for 10 years he served as Executive Vice President.

While enjoying 340 days of sunshine and the beach a short drive from his office, Tom received a call from a colleague about an opportunity in Cleveland. Tom was extremely interested, as he knew Cleveland was one of the best healthcare cities in the world and that University Hospitals had a rich tradition of contributions to medicine. He began his tenure with University Hospitals in 2003. 

When Tom arrived at UH, the hospital was fiscally challenged and thus suboptimally positioned to meet its tripartite mission. He recalled the adage that “if you don’t define your strategy, your competitor will define it for you...and you will always be playing catch- up.” He used this thought process as he began his role as CEO. He defined a strategy, set measurable goals, removed non-performing businesses and non-mission critical enterprises, and turned the future around for University Hospitals.

Critical to his success was establishing a strong leadership team. Together this core leadership team addressed the manifold challenges facing the organization eventually setting it on a more favorable path.

After stabilizing the finances, deliberate efforts were taken to expand the UH academic footprint by establishing a renewed relationship with CWRU in 2006. The result was a full working relationship, with academics established as one of the five pillars of the UH system. Tom credited Dr. Robert Salata, a UHHS Board member for nine years, for the “wealth of information and wisdom, courage, and honesty” he brought to advancing the academic efforts with CWRU. And over the subsequent years, the relationship has continued to evolve to accommodate the needs of both organizations.

In addition to creating and growing our relationship with CWRU, Tom is also proud of how UH has become the primary affiliate for faculty and continues its commitment to develop and advance research and education at UH. “From where we were to where we have come is remarkable,” Tom noted. Developing and growing the relationship with CWRU is one of Tom’s proudest achievements of his tenure as CEO.

As for explaining his success as a CEO, Tom said “I never think of work in the first person... there is no place for the first person singular in leadership, especially in healthcare. I have played team sports my whole life and I know how important it is to be on a team that has a common vision and purpose.”  He noted that both of his parents were patients at University Hospitals. These experiences offered firsthand experiences of how “the caregivers are therapists, family, and friends; they are all professionals yet so much more. And this year, with the pandemic, I see once again how the people at University Hospitals show such enormous commitment and emotional sacrifice.” It is these relationships and trust he shared with a team of like-minded members, and a UH community that believes in and works toward a shared mission that he will miss the most from his current position.

Looking ahead, Tom will continue to live in Cleveland, at least during the summer months. He plans to provide his wealth of knowledge and expertise and split his time with two entities moving forward – a venture capital organization and as a general partner in a private equity firm, both focused on healthcare.

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