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Larry Edelman

At Mass General and the Brigham, picking outsiders as presidents may be the best way to end old rivalries

Dr. Anne Klibanski, the CEO of Mass General Brigham, says that in the search for heads of the company's two main hospitals she is looking for "a wise and steady leader" with a commitment to "move us into the future."
Dr. Anne Klibanski, the CEO of Mass General Brigham, says that in the search for heads of the company's two main hospitals she is looking for "a wise and steady leader" with a commitment to "move us into the future."Partners

Executive churn isn’t typically a good look. But the time is right for a changing of the guard at Mass General Brigham’s premier Boston hospitals.

Massachusetts General Hospital’s president, Dr. Peter Slavin, said Tuesday he would step down after 18 years in the role, an announcement made a little more than a month after his counterpart at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Dr. Betsy Nabel, ended her 11-year run.

Both leaders chose to call it quits after long and successful stints in grueling jobs. No organization likes to lose such talent, but Nabel and Slavin had deep roots at the institutions they led: They were products of a era when MGH and the Brigham took a dim view of each other and competed aggressively.

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With the departures, the corporate brass at Mass General Brigham have a rare opportunity to put a new generation of executives at the top of each hospital as they push the rivals to work together in ways they long resisted.

Don’t be surprised if the new presidents are outsiders, even though the posts are almost always filled by someone from the MGH-Brigham-Harvard Medical School pantheon.

I’d argue that Mass General Brigham has little choice but to recruit a pair of leaders who are unencumbered by the old jealousies and animosities that marked the MGH-Brigham rivalry. It’s the only way the company, still hampered by competition between its hospitals and doctors groups, can recast itself as a truly unified health care system — and leverage the efficiency and lower expenses that such an integration can bring.

The two hospitals have “very different cultures with many really excellent clinicians and scientists at each place, but they each think they are better than the other,” one veteran of the Boston hospital scene told me. “The bravado, sharp elbows, condescension about clinical/academic/scientific work outside of their walls permeates the organization,” this person said.

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The integration drive was engineered by trustees Scott Sperling, Jonathan Kraft, and John Fish — known inside and outside of the company as “the three amigos” — and is being implemented by Mass General Brigham’s chief executive, Dr. Anne Klibanski. They’ve acknowledged the challenges, especially around evolving the corporate culture, but have said a lot of progress has been made.

Still, as they search for new hospital chiefs, I am told the focus is on adding racial diversity to the leadership team, as well as diversity of perspective. In an interview with my colleague Priyanka Dayal McCluskey, Klibanski said expanding diversity throughout the company is important to her and described the type of candidate she’s interested in for the MGH and Brigham jobs.

“I’m looking for a wise and steady leader who is passionate about patient care, about innovation, about research, about communities, and really committed to people, and committed to working with me and leaders across this health care system . . . and move us into the future,” she said.

Klibanski said it would be a national search, and discounted the notion that the jobs would be less appealing because power has shifted away from the hospital presidents to corporate executives. The hospital presidents will have an “enhanced” role, she said, “being president of their institution, but [also] being leaders in a health care system.”

None of this guarantees that Klibanski and the three amigos will turn to outsiders to succeed Nabel and Slavin. But I am betting they do. It has worked in the past.

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The late Dr. James Mongan was a Stanford-trained doctor who became a health care policy expert for President Jimmy Carter and later president of Truman Medical Center in Kansas City, Mo. He was recruited to be president of MGH in 1996 and moved up to become CEO of the parent company, then called Partners Healthcare, in 2003.

He was widely viewed as a great leader.


Larry Edelman can be reached at larry.edelman@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeNewsEd.