This interview with Vivian S. Lee, C.E.O. of University of Utah Health Care, was conducted and condensed by Adam Bryant.
Q. Tell me about your early years.
A. I grew up in Norman, Okla. I was mostly very carefree as a child. I was the exact opposite of the overprogrammed child of today. My parents let me do whatever I felt like doing, and they never pushed me. I never really excelled in anything. I did a lot of different things but nothing very well. And I was often getting in trouble.
What flavor of trouble?
My parents tell storiesof me doing things early on like sticking car keys in the electrical outlet at the post office, dropping my dad’s watch in the toilet and trying to shave one day.
And then in school — I’m embarrassed to admit it now — I used to get in trouble and have to go to the principal’s office. I was just doing goofy things. I remember in seventh grade, my best friend decided to take our Oklahoma history book and pretend to read it upside down in class. I could not stop laughing, and the teacher finally sent me to the principal’s office.
Tell me about your parents.
My parents are both university professors. My mother is a statistician and epidemiologist who became the dean of the University of Oklahoma College of Public Health. My father is an electrical engineer and a serial inventor.
We used to come up with all these ideas for crazy inventions. When I retire, one thing I’m going to work on is reinventing the umbrella. You walk down the street on a rainy day and the trash bins are filled with broken umbrellas.
How have your parents influenced your leadership style?
They are immigrants. Very successful, but when they came to this country, they didn’t really know anybody, they had no guidance, and there were language barriers. So I have a much deeper appreciation and empathy for the wide range of backgrounds that people may be coming from.
My parents didn’t understand a lot about American culture early on, including the politics of the academic world. You think you can learn English, but there are all the subtleties and implications of how people choose their words, and they struggled with that early on.
From an early age, I had some insights as to what they were doing right and maybe what they weren’t doing right. They would sometimes talk over dinner about an encounter they had at the office. That actually gave me early insights into the dynamics between people and how important those dynamics are for managing and leading people: understanding what they want and getting that alignment between their interests and the organization’s.
What were some early management lessons for you?
One of the things I learned was that I had my own style and it was O.K. for me to use my own style. As a leader, I was not the norm, and I was criticized early on.
My style is very consultative. Everybody needs to have a chance to express their views, which is why it’s very important to have very diverse perspectives around the table. I like to internalize those different views, synthesize them, and then, flavored by my own perspectives, come up with a decision.
Early on, after I was running a meeting, a senior person pulled me aside and said, in a very mentoring kind of moment, “Vivian, you need to be a leader. You can’t be asking people what they think. You need to be telling them.”
And at that point, I thought to myself, “I don’t think so.” It was a very difficult moment because he was saying that he doubted my ability to lead. Clearly his mind-set was that I had to lead a certain way or I was not a leader. That’s when I knew that what he thought about me was irrelevant. I knew I was right. I need to get to the right decisions in the way that I know best. I think that telling people what to do is really a flawed approach.
How has your leadership style evolved?
I’m a lot more comfortable with a team of people who are very different. Intellectually, I always knew it was a good idea, but it was just not as comfortable. Over time, I have developed a broader appreciation for just how much that diversity brings to the table.
I’ve always been a pretty good listener, but I’m even better now than I used to be, partly because the self-consciousness and worrying how people might judge me as the C.E.O. have really died down, and that enables me to listen better.
How do you hire?
I put a lot of weight on references and track record. In the interview, I’m looking for the differentiator between good and excellent. That’s difficult to really judge in the interview, but I try.
I’m very interested in a person’s internal drive. They should have a real track record of not just excellence, but exceeding expectations, and so I tend to ask about their greatest challenge, and the project or success that made them most proud.
I’ll also ask what their greatest disappointment or failure has been. I really like to see the ability to learn from mistakes, and humility to recognize their own mistakes instead of blaming other people.
What is your best career and life advice for new college grads?
Just live in the moment. Pour your heart into whatever it is you’re doing and get the most out of that experience. I think people are often so worried about the next step, and the next step after that, that they’re not focused on where they are now.
Whatever your environment is, know that you can really extract a lot of value out of it. The people who are most successful draw on all their life experiences, and those experiences inform everything they do.