David DeSimone is a senior vice president of organizational transformation and chief legal officer at CentraState Healthcare System. He has the rare distinction of experiencing Brown University during three important life stages: as a Brown pre-college student during high school, as a Brown undergraduate, and as a Brown graduate student 25 years later in the Brown Executive Master in Healthcare Leadership program.
In the interview below, David leverages his extensive knowledge of Brown to shed light on the value of Brown in the cultivation of strategic leadership skills in the healthcare sector.
Why did you choose Brown for an executive master degree in healthcare?
I chose EMHL because I wanted an educational credential and the experience that would broaden my profile beyond my corporate attorney expertise. Prior to EMHL, I was highly valued for my legal and strategic advice but I wanted greater engagement in business decisions. I wanted to stop being pigeonholed as an attorney.
As I researched graduate degrees, I didn’t want just an MBA. I wanted a leadership degree with real hands-on, problem-solving learning opportunities.
What was it about your Brown experience that made you think EMHL was the right place for industry leadership training?
I cringed at the idea of sitting in a graduate class with professors lecturing to me. I wanted to be a full participant, engaging in conversation with professors and peers who had the experience to add critical value and perspectives to the conversation.
This orientation stems directly from my undergraduate experience at Brown. You’re not born with excellent problem-solving skills and they don’t suddenly emerge on day one on the job. You have to build this capacity.
Problem-solving is built into Brown’s DNA. Most famously, Brown requires undergraduates to design their own curriculum. As an undergraduate, I remember being struck by both the responsibility and opportunity for creativity and experimentation that came with curricular design, especially in contrast to my highly structured high school that made these choices for me.
When I graduated from college, I felt confident in my ability to make critical decisions by having successfully navigated the wide-ranging choices offered by Brown’s New Curriculum such as Unsolved Problems in Biology, Yacht Design, Management Theory, and Products Liability.
How does EMHL embrace Brown’s cultivation of breakthrough thinking?
EMHL is intentionally designed to facilitate hands-on, collaborative problem-solving through a hybrid approach with both in-person and remote experiences. During the residential sessions, we worked in the trenches with each other on group projects. Via an internet classroom and audio and video conferences, we continued our assignments both individually and on teams in between the on-campus sessions.
Whether in person or remotely, we had to come up with solutions collectively to real problems. We all had impressive backgrounds across the healthcare sector and different regions of the country. I felt like I was learning from people’s real life experiences, not just textbooks.
At EMHL, we didn’t just learn how to conduct statistical and financial analyses. We learned how to take the results and solve problems facing stakeholders in today’s rapidly changing healthcare environment. For example, we developed strategic plans for companies to implement change, we conducted a table-top exercise to assist a community in responding to a mass epidemic, and created a new health plan offering through economic analysis to meet the needs of employers.
Was the Critical Challenge Project (CCP) part of that hands-on experience?
Absolutely. The CCP was a change of life experience for me. Originally, I was nervous about how I was actually going to solve a major challenge in the healthcare sector that I could implement in my workplace.
The program prepared us for this type of transformative thinking. Each of the nine courses gave us tools to solve industry problems. And the program design “built-in” group brainstorming sessions that cultivated a culture of supportive critical engagement where we each brought to bear our expertise on each others’ projects.
What was your CCP on and how has it impacted your career?
I focused on creating processes to prepare physicians to take on risk-based payment. It was originally designed for the healthcare system that I was working for when I started my EMHL courses. Mid-way through the program, I took a position closer to my home at CentraState Healthcare System as the senior vice president of organizational transformation and chief legal officer. I had to shift the focus of my data and relationships for my CCP to my new workplace. With the CEO and physician leaders acting as an unofficial editorial board for my CCP, I was able to align my project with CentraState’s initiatives for population health and payment reform and establish myself as a key business voice on the executive team.
It’s been well over a year since you completed the program. How does EMHL live on in your life?
EMHL still shapes the way I think and operate at work. Hospitals tend to be siloed and, as such, not conducive to collaborative thinking. Confident in the results of applying multiple perspectives to a problem, I make an effort to encourage multi-stakeholder engagement to accelerate the changes that we need to make as an industry.
Also, my cohort members continue to drive my career learning and growth. Two weeks ago, I received an email from a classmate regarding a bio-ethics challenge he faced at work. We went back and forth brainstorming ideas. It felt like we never left the EMHL program.
Brown has been the place where I gained confidence at significant crossroads in my life. It gave me a new direction when injuries ended my high school basketball career; at college when I switched from pre-med to management and healthcare policy; and as a senior executive when I wanted to expand my career from advisor to decision maker.
I expect EMHL and the foundation I developed at Brown to long be a source of inspiration, guidance, and support as I confront new crossroads in this rapidly changing industry.