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Allina Health's Retiring CEO Addresses Succession

Analysis  |  By Melanie Blackman  
   October 21, 2021

Penny Wheeler, MD, shares the organization's succession planning and her decades-long career journey with the health system.

In September, Allina Health announced that Penny Wheeler, MD, who has served as CEO of the health system since 2015, will retire from her position at the end of 2021.

Wheeler will remain on the board while Lisa Shannon, who currently serves as president and COO of the Minneapolis-based health system, will succeed her.

A self-proclaimed "accidental CEO," Wheeler has served in several roles at Allina for decades, including working as a physician, and leading as president of the Abbott Northwestern Medical Staff, serving as CMO of the health system, and becoming the first physician and first woman to lead the organization.

In a recent interview with HealthLeaders, Wheeler explained that her decision to retire was a combination of stage of life for her and Lisa Shannon's readiness to step up in the role.

"When you have somebody internally who's ready, you don't want to stand in their way or lose that person," she said. "Those all influenced it: stage of life for me, and the readiness of Lisa Shannon, who I felt very confident in moving forward and coming into this role."

Wheeler also shares the organization's succession planning and talks about her accomplishments during her decades-long career journey with the health system.

This transcript has been edited for clarity and brevity.

HealthLeaders: What was the organization's succession plan and how will you work with Lisa Shannon during this leadership transition?

Penny Wheeler: I recruited Lisa as a chief operating officer for our organization. It's hard to lead and run things at the same time, so her role was to help us run things and help us integrate things, and she did that exceptionally well.

In the background, our board was going through a process somebody called "a master class in succession planning." Every board meeting, HR, and comp committee meeting, we were bringing up anticipated needs, character traits, who internally might be a fit, and development plans for that person.

Lisa was running things and integrating at the same time we were looking at the succession pieces, and she was fitting the bill for all of those things. About a year and a half ago, she got a broader title of president because she addressed strategy, and because I wanted to get her in the running for CEO. It's been very methodical process and we have always been able to be direct with each other.

We're going to make sure that I finish my work, and she will get to her work. Part of that transition is about introducing her to a lot of external relationships that I have and things like that.

The fortunate thing is that I know what the role delineation should be between CEO and board. One of my favorite quotes about board service is, "you've got to get your arms around things without getting your fingers inextricably in them." I know enough to keep it at a governance level and not get into managerial decisions. I think that's a testimony to our relationship that I will continue in that role and that she is open to it.

I can tell you, too, the last thing people here need, after all that they have done and been through, is disruption in leadership. We're committed to a smooth leadership transition.

HL: What is the organization's COO succession plan?

Wheeler: Lisa is doing a little bit what I did. I flattened the organization to understand it well before I then decided what we needed in that role. She's going to take a look at that and over the next six months value it whether there's a replacement role or a different structure that's going to come into play there.

She's elevated a lot of our clinical talent. Without an MD sitting in this chair as CEO, she's done a methodical job of hiring a great chief medical officer, Hsieng Su, MD, and she has elevated many of the clinical positions around her. I'd say her top priority was elevating some of the clinical leadership and voices she needs in the organization, and then she is going to spend some time evaluating whether the COO role needs to be replaced or there needs to be something different.

HL: What are your priorities and what are you focusing on accomplishing before the end of the year?

Wheeler: I have to preface this with that I'm proud of the quality of care that these incredible 29,000 people give at Allina. We were named as one of the top fifteen health systems in the country by IBM Watson Health.

We are delivering high quality and have good performance, we have been moving in a direction where the most vulnerable, be they people have who have been traditionally left out because of race and ethnicity, or disability, or mental health issues, has been a focus of our organization. I'm proud of what we've done there and proud that we've moved toward getting rewards for outcomes.

Some of our biggest contracts now are rewarding us for how well we do things and how affordable, rather than how many.  We have a huge contract with BlueCross BlueShield, we formed our own Allina Health Aetna plan, and we have payer partners that are transforming us to value.

When you get more contracts that reward you for outcomes, you better be good about how you serve the population instead of just reacting to them when they're sick. So, how do you keep them well? I've got quite a bit of experience as the previous chief clinical officer, so I'm helping with the population health initiatives as part of my priorities.

Another priority is on philanthropy. We are moving from site-based philanthropy to system-wide philanthropy because you can't solve a community-wide mental health crisis by doing things hyper-locally. You need both local and system initiatives, so I'm working on that.

I'm focusing on external relations and introducing Lisa to those external relationships.

Also, we're integrating some of our service lines, and there's some specific ones that I'm working on for our clinical service lines, primarily helping with cardiology.

HL: You've spent decades working at Allina Health, including serving as a physician and multiple leadership roles. What are some accomplishments you're proud of reaching during your tenure?

Wheeler: I'm proud of how we've dealt with the people who traditionally have been left behind. We've got a lot more to do. George Floyd was murdered eight blocks away from our headquarters. We knew there was work to do and we've deepened those efforts in several ways. We've looked at how can we be a better employer and encourage people, how can we be a better provider of care and eliminate health disparities and systemic racism. We got 32 other healthcare organizations to sign on to a diversity, equity, and inclusion pledge.

I'm proud of the people who work here. What they do for other human beings—despite the odds, the pandemic, the civil unrest, and even a shooting in our clinic that made us lose one of our care team members—is phenomenal.

I'm proud of how we've advanced care for the whole person. At Allina, we think healthcare is not just the absence of illness, but how you are doing socially, emotionally, and what connections to the community you have. I'm proud that we've dealt with things like health-related social needs and connected people to community-based resources when they're struggling with food insecurity, or transportation needs, or violence in their home. We've screened over half a million people for those needs.

Everything we do hangs off our desire to be about whole-person care and the decisions are made with that as our centerpiece.

HL: You were the first physician and woman to lead Allina Health. What has been your overall experience working in healthcare and leading the health system over the past seven years?

Wheeler: When I first came in as chief clinical officer 15 years ago, and I sat around the executive leadership team table, and I thought, "What did I do?" I left patients that I loved and the relationships that I've fostered and loved for 20 years, and now they were talking about things like enterprise risk management. It's changed since, but I was the only clinician in the executive leadership team, and I know and have learned from my patients what they value and need, and I know what it's like to try to scramble and take care of people as a physician. So, I hope I brought that in.

Ultimately, it's a privilege of a lifetime making a difference in people's lives, and it would have run hollow if I had other work that didn't matter so deeply and so purposefully as healthcare. I've been here for a long time; born in one of our hospitals, practiced for 20 years, on the leadership team for 15 years, and spent the last seven as CEO.

Related: Allina Health CEO to Retire, COO to Get Promoted

Related: Women in Healthcare Leadership Spotlight: Dr. Penny Wheeler

“The last thing people here need, after all that they have done and been through, is disruption in leadership. We're committed to a smooth leadership transition.”

Melanie Blackman is the strategy editor at HealthLeaders, an HCPro brand.

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