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University of Tennessee Medical Center president: ‘It’s not about me’ | My Favorite Mistake

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Keith Gray, who became UTMC president in July, says he learned that he needed to focus on the needs of others as a leader.

Keith Gray repeatedly talks about helping others.

Gray became president of the University of Tennessee Medical Center in July. Next spring, he’ll add the title of chief executive officer. He’ll step up to the top post when Joe Landsman, UTMC’s longtime CEO, retires April 1.

In a recent interview with Chief Healthcare Executive®, Gray discussed the concept of servant leadership. He shared his plans to improve patient care and close disparities in health outcomes among underserved groups in Tennessee.

He also talks about his journey at UTMC and taking lessons from some missteps along the way.

When asked about learning from setbacks, Gray spoke humbly about being focused on himself at the beginning, and realizing that he didn’t have the proper perspective.

“It probably came out of a series of small mistakes or lessons learned, but realizing that in this role, it’s not about me,” Gray said. (See part of our conversation in this video. The story continues below.)

Gray joined UTMC as a surgical oncologist in 2007, and he has held a number of leadership posts, including becoming chief medical officer at UTMC.

He talks about focusing on building his career years ago, and realizing he needed to think differently.

“I wanted to grow my practice,” Gray said. “I was thinking about my patients, and I wanted to build initiatives that benefited me.

“But really, what I've learned through some of those mistakes is that it's not about me,” he continued. “Everything that I do here, again, is service-oriented. It is about other folks.”

So as he looked to develop new programs, Gray said he thought about how those initiatives would make a difference for others. He talked about envisioning not just a victory for himself but “a triple win.”

“Everybody wins,” he said. “The patient wins, you win, and the system and the community wins. So that's what I've learned, going really from being focused on me and my practice, to focused on the patients in our community.”

Gray demonstrated his passion for helping others about a decade ago, when he teamed up with others at the medical center and the University of Tennessee at Knoxville to establish the Physician Leadership Academy. He said it’s designed to offer additional training for doctors who are moving into administrative positions.

He recalled that he lacked some skills when he became chief of staff in 2012.

“I knew pretty quickly that I didn't have the administrative or the leadership skills required to be the leader that the organization or the medical staff needed,” Gray said.

“I had been promoted based on my clinical acumen and accomplishments,” he added. “But, you know, the skill sets don't necessarily overlap. And so I knew, in that moment, that I didn't want other medical staff leaders to be in a similar position, and feel the way that I felt unprepared for that position.”

Gray said about halfway into his career, he became more “engaged in the community, advocating for the health of the entire community, advocating for urban youth, really developing partnerships in the community through leadership programs across the state.”

Now as UTMC’s president, and the next CEO of the organization, Gray said he’ll be utilizing those relationships to improve patient care in Tennessee. He notes that Tennessee ranks below most states in many measures of health outcomes, and he’s determined to improve health equity in Appalachia.

“I think the relationships that I've been able to build with the help of our leadership team here will pay dividends as we start to address some of these disparities,” Gray said.

‘My Favorite Mistake,’ is a new, ongoing feature from Chief Healthcare Executive. If you’d like to share some missteps or setbacks and how they led to success, email Ron Southwick, senior editor: [email protected].


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