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Gundersen CEO, Momentum in Place, Hands Over the Reins

 |  By Philip Betbeze  
   August 07, 2015

"There are CEOs who stay on too long, either for the money, or the prestige, or whatever… That's not good for staff, patients, or the community," says Jeff Thompson, MD, who is vacating the top slot at Gundersen Health after 14 years, and defining a new role for himself.

Jeff Thompson, MD, president and CEO of Gundersen Health System, is always in motion, so it came as no surprise that he mentioned the term "momentum" at least 20 times during our conversation a few weeks ago, after he had announced that he would step down as CEO, but before his successor was named.

Thompson is in good health, fit, and only 62, so many were surprised when he announced his impending exit as the leader of one of the nation's more progressive health systems. So progressive, in fact, that former CMS administrator Don Berwick, MD, in closing remarks at the Institute for Healthcare Improvement's annual conference in late 2014, suggested six items healthcare leaders should accomplish in 2015. One of them was to contact Gundersen, which is based in La Crosse, WI.

Jeff Thompson, MD

Why He's Leaving
Thompson's decision to leave hinged on his desire that his successor not lose momentum in a rapidly changing environment for both the business side of the organization and clinical practice.

"There are CEOs who stay on too long, either for the money, or the prestige, or whatever," he says. "If they do stay on too long, the organization starts to lose momentum. That's not good for staff, patients, or the community. I thought I would not allow that to happen."

He's careful to avoid the term "retirement." Gundersen and its predecessors are the only places Thompson has ever worked as a physician and he'd like to continue to work with staff development and external opportunities in addition to a limited practice schedule. He's board-certified in critical care, neonatal and perinatal medicine, and pediatrics.

"My request is that the next CEO will let me stay with the organization, at arm's length from the executive suite—and allow [him] to steer [his] own ship."

Last week, the organization named Scott Rathgaber, MD, a gastroenterologist and fellow longtime Gundersen employee, to replace Thompson.

Thompson, who says he's "not tired of the job at all," says he decided last year to make the change while things were going well, "not when we're in an organizational crisis, or a health crisis for me."

He didn't set a hard timeline, which gave the organization's board time to fully vet all internal candidates before expanding to a national search. The search committee, three Gundersen physicians and three community board members, did not include Thompson.

But Rathgaber can thank Thompson for the creation of a CEO training program set up to identify top leaders so that the next leader of Gundersen wouldn't have to go through a protracted and divisive selection process, as Thompson did 14 years ago. And the committee can thank him because no outside search was necessary.


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Philip Betbeze is the senior leadership editor at HealthLeaders.

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