A Closer Look: Tony Coleman
President and CEO, Broadlawns Medical Center
As the new president and CEO of Broadlawns Medical Center, Tony Coleman says one of his biggest responsibilities is to remove barriers and create trust so that every physician, nurse and staff member can carry out their respective roles in the hospital.
Coleman, who began his career in health care administration while serving in the U.S. Navy, became the leader of Polk County’s safety net hospital in December following a national search. He most recently was vice president of operations and assistant hospital administrator for Kaiser Permanente’s largest and fastest-growing health region in San Bernardino, Calif.
Having grown up in a blue-collar neighborhood of Los Angeles, Coleman’s initial goal as a 17-year-old leaving home was to pay for college through the Navy and the G.I. Bill. Through serendipity and a lot of hard work, he instead went on to earn his officer’s commission and serve as a naval health care administrator. He retired from the Navy in 2016 after a 20-year naval career.
When he’s not working he enjoys attending live concerts, playing bass guitar and meeting people. Coleman succeeds Jody Jenner, who was president and CEO for 15 years.
How did the Navy lead you to a career in health care administration?
When I enlisted in the military, my goal was to join the Navy and do a four-year enlistment and then earn the GI Bill so that I could pay for my own college, because I didn’t want my mother to continue working to support me while I was in college. While I was in the Navy, I ended up marrying my childhood sweetheart. We had a child. And then unfortunately, because of the rigors of military life and sea duty, I ended up getting divorced and I became a single parent. So my goal then shifted and I started looking at: How was I going to take care of my daughter? I couldn’t do it at sea. … So I started going to college at night and on the weekends, to earn a degree to become a teacher. At that time, one of the city colleges was holding their courses in the military hospital, Naval Hospital Charleston. … One night, I walked past an office that said, “Lt. Heath, Human Resources.” … Up until that point, the only Navy officers that I knew were ship drivers and warfighters because I had been at sea. I thought, “Wow, the Navy has human resource officers?” It just piqued my interest. So the next day I called the hospital and asked to speak to the lieutenant and made an appointment. … I told her a little bit about myself so she knew I was a single parent and she said, “This is a good way for you to still be able to provide for your daughter and maintain your military career because Navy officers that are health care administrators don’t go to sea; your job will be to run a Navy hospital.”
What did your Navy career teach you about leadership?
Looking back on it, when you join the military and you’re young, you just kind of do your duty. It was my duty to get up in the morning and muster with everyone else, and it was my duty to wear my uniform just so, and it was my duty to stand watch. … But at some point, you make the turn and realize that you’re part of something bigger than yourself, and that’s when duty becomes a desire. That was probably one of the biggest lessons I learned in the military, and what I bring here today. … I happen to be the CEO, which is an enormous blessing. And I’m just one piece of the puzzle. I cannot do this job, I cannot be successful, without Katie [Wengert, Broadlawns’ chief marketing and external relations officer, who was sitting in on the interview]. We will not be successful without Katie, so I have to empower Katie. I have to demonstrate that I trust Katie, that she’s in the right place and that I believe she has everything she needs to do her job. … So my role becomes the job of empowering every one of our employees to believe in that same philosophy.
How good is Broadlawns’ operational and financial health, given what hospitals have been through with the pandemic?
When I started looking at this opportunity and researching the hospital in the past, I [came to] understand that Broadlawns at one point was on the brink of bankruptcy. And Jody Jenner, through his leadership, brought us back and now we’re very strong financially. So because of his leadership and the work that everyone did here, we’re able to withstand this pandemic. But there are certain things that money can’t buy. We’re in a really good financial position, but there’s a shortage of people. … If you don’t have the supply of people, it just makes it tough — that’s where we are today. But I’m a firm believer that you train how you fight. That’s another thing I was taught in the Navy, and I look at this pandemic as the equivalent of a military deployment. When I was in the military, we trained every day when we were at sea, whether it was a fire drill, a man-overboard drill or an attack drill, so that if it really happened it was just second nature and you spring into action. … The pandemic is health care’s deployment, and we’ve been training for it for years and years. It’s not without some strain and pain — you see it on the faces of our staff, but we’re still meeting the mission of this community.
What’s the best advice you’ve gotten from an influential mentor?
It’s a piece of advice my mother gave me. She would always tell me, “It’s nice to be nice.” And that simply means to treat everybody with dignity and respect. Because you don’t know where they came from and you don’t know where they’re going. … You never, ever know what somebody’s going through, and your smile could literally be the difference between life and death, especially in the times that we’re living. People are depressed in record numbers; there’s a mental health crisis going on. [Statistically speaking], 22 veterans today are going to commit suicide, and tomorrow 22 more will commit suicide. So I would hate to think that I had something to do with that because I lost my temper and triggered something. Just lead with kindness and treat everybody with dignity and respect, and when you do that, especially in a field like health care, they understand how much you care about them, and they’ll transfer that to the patient. That’s our North Star — the patient.
Coming from outside the organization, how do you see Broadlawns in terms of progress in health equity?
I think we’re in the best position to ensure health justice. You mentioned health equity. Health equity is the path and that’s the road that we’re driving on. But health justice is the goal. When you achieve health equity, that’s when you provide the same level of care regardless of a patient’s socioeconomic status. We do that extremely well here. Our family birthing center is a perfect example of that — world class. And we now attract private-pay patients or patients who may be more financially stable and have private insurance. And we also deliver babies to people who have no insurance. So here you have health equity, where you have people who have means and they have resources, and they’re not really affected by the social determinants of health, and they receive the same level of care as a person who may be a refugee who’s only been in this country for 11 days, or someone who doesn’t have a job and doesn’t have insurance. We are practicing and we are demonstrating health equity because those two groups of people get the same level of care.
From your discussions with the board, is there a strategy for continued growth in facilities in the next few years?
Thank you for asking that question, because that’s a very exciting question. And my answer is like, I can hardly contain myself as I explain this to you. So our strategic plan has four different pillars right now. The first pillar is our workforce — diversity, equity, inclusion, belonging, making sure that we train and keep the best-trained workforce. The second pillar is going to be our patient outcomes — how do we make sure that we produce the best patient outcomes? The third pillar is going to be affordability, making sure that we maintain a financially viable organization, and that we build and strengthen some of our service lines that are needed in the community and that are doing well, and that we also look for … different service lines where we see emerging needs. And the fourth pillar is going to be our community outreach, our upstream community health. … The definition of what health equity looks like to the community is going to guide our efforts in our upstream community health, because I can’t sit in my office and say, “This is what health equity looks like for the Greater Des Moines area.” I don’t have that answer — I’m new here.
What types of civic involvement and interests do you bring with you?
In Los Angeles, it was really difficult to be involved civically, because of the geography, personally, of where I chose to live and where I worked. I chose to live in a community that was impoverished because I wanted to bring some of my desire, some of my passion to that community. And so to the extent that I could assist in the evenings and on the weekends, I did. It wasn’t near as much as I wanted to and I wasn’t there long enough to really crystallize anything, because I was there for maybe two years or so. But to answer your question about what are my desires, some of my passions, I do have a heart for young folks, for young kids, and I have a heart for mentoring. And so I would love to be involved with mentoring the youths in this community.
What do you enjoy doing in your free time?
I love going to live concerts; I do play bass guitar. Not very well anymore, because I don’t have the time that I used to. But I love anything to do with music, listening to records. It’s so interesting — today’s my daughter’s birthday and she called me this morning because I bought her a record player; she grew up with me listening to records and now she’s getting into records on her own. And I love people. I love talking to people; I love meeting people. I love hearing people’s individual stories. I love getting to know what’s important to people. What do you know, where do you come from, tell me about your life, tell me about your family. I love listening and meeting people. I will always listen.