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June 14, 2017

The Rearview Mirror And The Windshield

As I look ahead, I’m also looking back. Not because I’m wistful or have regrets. I’m looking back to celebrate the good and share some of what I’ve learned.

By Dean Gruner, MD

As I look ahead, I’m also looking back. Not because I’m wistful or have regrets. I’m looking back to celebrate the good and share some of what I’ve learned. Perhaps my experience of 16 years in executive leadership at ThedaCare, the last nine as CEO, may help someone else. These thoughts are my parting gift as I retire in a few weeks, and hand over this column to my successor.

First, there’s nothing I’ve appreciated more than the opportunity to make a difference. I’ve collaborated with so many people in this community, all of us pulling in the same direction to work for good. Our community culture is that business leaders are community leaders. Local business leaders know their involvement is good for the community, and good for business.

I recall a continuing education event at Stanford some years ago. The professor asked, “How much do you want power?” He asked us to rate our response on a five-point scale. The average response was three. Who wants to admit they want power? Our professor said, “Everyone should have put down a five. As a leader, you should want power – but you have to want it for the right reason. This is especially true if you lead a nonprofit organization.”

That was revolutionary for me! Power for the right reason. At ThedaCare, the opportunity to make a difference in the community has been my desire and shaped my tenure as CEO. It’s been a privilege.

Now for some insights into learning that comes from experience.

Almost all organizations are people dependent. When it’s not about people, it’s about people. Leaders have to pay attention to people. I’ve worked to incorporate that into my leadership, and ThedaCare has worked hard at that, too.

I decided a long time ago, when I was in medical school, that I needed to be a consistent person. Putting on a business hat, then a doctor hat, then switching to a husband and father hat was too difficult. I have always aimed to be true to myself.

Words have a greater impact than we often realize. I have often said something in passing, or as an idea, and found out later there were gaps in understanding, and in follow-up action. Speaking carefully is critical.

I’ve never wanted to throw in the towel, but sometimes the philosophy of my upbringing, that problems can be solved by working harder, has crept in. That philosophy isn’t always true, or healthy. Instead, I’ve tried to remember adversity is a part of life, and my faith provides direction and hope.

Talking with you through this column has been a highlight of these past few years. Thanks for listening and sharing. As I turn my gaze forward, the view of the road ahead looks great. I’m optimistic because we have outstanding people at ThedaCare who deliver exceptional healthcare, and keep making it better. And, I’m impressed by my successor, Dr. Imran Andrabi. He’s kind, thoughtful and people-centered. His clinical and business expertise, his experience as a family physician, and the fact that he’s sharp as a tack help ensure our community is in very good hands for years to come.

— Dr. Dean Gruner is retiring as president and CEO of Appleton-based ThedaCare this month. To send your thoughts to him before his departure, email