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2010-04-20

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For Ora Pescovitz, a mission to heal

Ariel Bond/Daily
Executive Vice President for Medical Affairs Ora Pescovitz sits for a photo in her office earlier this month. Buy this photo

By Kyle Swanson, Daily News Editor
Published April 19, 2010

Today, the Daily is previewing a new continuing series entitled "Executive Conversations," a set of features based on extended sit-down interviews with some of the University's administrators. These conversations will give readers an inside look at the personalities and lives of those in the University's highest offices, who make decisions that impact the lives of everyone on campus.

Tucked away on the seventh floor of the Medical Science I Building, the University’s Executive Vice President for Medical Affairs Ora Pescovitz has truly made her office a reflection of who she is.

There aren’t any degrees or certificates on her walls and most of the awards she has won sit silently in a file cabinet in a nearby closet. However, there is one award that receives much more attention. It is an award so meaningful that Pescovitz keeps it directly behind her computer, just an arm’s reach away.

However, the award itself isn’t anything spectacular. With a broken base, it can’t even stand up properly. And so it sits on the windowsill, going unnoticed by most, despite its large inscription.

Given to her when she received a named department chair in 1998, the award is made completely of glass with one simple message on the large vertical panel: “Tikkun Olam.”

The Jewish principle basically means to repair or mend the world, Pescovitz explains as she holds up the broken base and inscription. And it’s a principle that Pescovitz says “is applicable to everything we do.”

“I think people have to go about their work with a sense of purpose and I want people to have that feeling that we’re here to make a contribution,” Pescovitz explains.

“In some way, you have to feel that your job is to help make the world a better place,” Pescovitz adds. “It doesn’t have to be the same way that I think you have to do it, but you have to feel that. Finding that is important.”

And Ora Pescovitz has certainly found that.

Shaking Things Up: An Ambitious Goal

Responsible for approximately 20,000 employees and a $1.9 billion annual operating budget, it’s no understatement that Pescovitz is one of the most powerful people at the University and has nearly unrestricted authority over the University of Michigan Health System.

In the chain of command, Pescovitz ranks at the same level as the University’s Provost Teresa Sullivan and the University’s Chief Financial Officer Timothy Slottow — all three of whom report directly to University President Mary Sue Coleman.

And though she’s been in her post for less than a year, having joined the University last May, Pescovitz has big plans to make the University’s Health System the best in the nation.

Raising the bar at a health system already recognized as one of the top 15 in the nation is obviously a tall order. Despite the daunting nature of this challenge, its something that Pescovitz says she’s determined to do.

“I’m too young and too energetic — not that young to you — to come to a place like this in a job like this to be a caretaker,” Pescovitz explained. “It’s a great place and I came because it was a great place, but I didn’t come to keep it static.”

Through a series of strategic planning meetings with many of her direct reports, Pescovitz has refined her vision.

“I am the kind of person who always seeks to raise the bar and I always like to look for the next challenge for the institution, so I have set a challenge for the health system,” Pescovitz said.

Specifically, Pescovitz is determined to make the University Health System the best in the nation in four categories — health, health care reform, biomedical innovation and the educational quality provided by the Medical School and the School of Nursing.

But such far-reaching cultural changes to an organization with 20,000 employees can’t be made overnight or by one person, which is why Pescovitz said she’s spreading her message to all of the people in the Health System community.

“They’re galvanized around a common goal,” Pescovitz said.

And in order for the goal to be reached, employees at all levels from custodians to doctors will have to buy into the plan and will need to understand what they can do to move the organization forward.

“It doesn’t matter what they’re job is, but if they see their purpose…they understand why they’re here,” Pescovitz said.

It’s also a message that Pescovitz indicated was being received well by many working within the Health System. Pescovitz recalled a conversation she had with a housekeeper at the C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital earlier last year.

“(The housekeeper) said ‘I’m here to make the children better.’ I said, ‘How are you here to make the children better?,’ ” Pescovitz said, retelling the story. “(The housekeeper replied) ‘I’m here to make them healthy.’ She was cleaning the floors, but she understood that her purpose was to make the children healthy and by keeping the floors clean, her purpose was to make the children healthy.”

And ensuring employees understand their impact on the organization is something that Pescovitz said she believes will help to drive each person to better results and help to move the organization further toward the top of the rankings.

“If you can give them that sense of purpose and they understand their purpose and they understand where they fit in the organization and they feel that sense of purpose, well that’s my job as a leader,” Pescovitz said. “You don’t tell them what they have to do everyday. If they see the purpose of the organization, they know what they have to do if they understand where they fit within the organization.”

A Passion for Patients

Finding her own place within the organization is something that Pescovitz has had to adjust to. When she made the move to the University last year, she left behind one of her most valued constituencies — her patients.

But despite the fact that Pescovitz is no longer able to take time out to see patients, she keeps reminders of past patients sprinkled throughout her office to help her keep things in perspective.

While pointing out pictures of her family near her desk, Pescovitz pauses and picks up a book sitting on a nearby coffee table.

“This book was given to me by two sisters,” Pescovitz says. “They were wonderful patients.”

Pescovitz pauses, looking at a greeting card tucked inside the front cover. She reads silently before turning and reading part of the message out loud.

“ ‘We are forever grateful,’ ” Pescovitz says reading from the card.

Her hand clenches to her chest as tears well up in her eyes and her breath becomes heavier.

“You’re going to make me cry,” Pescovitz says as she puts down the book and reaches for a box of Kleenex nearby.

“I gave up seeing patients when I came here,” Pescovitz explains, saying it was one of the most difficult parts of her transition to the University.

A Different Type of Leader

Though Pescovitz is a pediatric endocrinologist by trade, talking with her isn’t anything like having a conversation with a highly specialized doctor or researcher.

Forget the technical jargon that many doctors may use to explain the complicated procedures they’re conducting or the mumbo jumbo a researcher may use to describe their methodology. When Pescovitz talks with someone, she seems to resemble a motivational speaker more than a pediatric endocrinologist or hospital executive.

Pescovitz’s style of speech is fitting for someone who views her role at UMHS as someone who can rally employees to work toward common goals and as someone who is responsible for acting in a servant-leadership capacity.

It’s a quality that translates into what Pescovitz calls her four D’s of e-mail — deal with, delegate, delay or delete. But no matter what the decision is, when Pescovitz receives an e-mail, she guarantees a response — one within 24 hours nonetheless — to anyone who e-mails her.

“I feel that no matter who contacts me, no matter who it is, they deserve a response,” Pescovitz said. “So whether it is a regent or it is a student or whether it is a housekeeper, I respond the same way to everyone.”

It’s a belief that Pescovitz says comes from her view on service to people and her opinion that the Health System and University “should provide a service that exceeds expectations.”

“That’s a form of service excellence and it is part of our mission. It’s part of how we differentiate ourselves from our competitors,” Pescovitz explained.

However, the belief that everyone deserves a timely response has earned her “a serious reputation for the BlackBerry” and caused Pescovitz to describe herself as a “rapid-fire responder.”

“It goes off all the time,” Pescovitz said during the interview as her BlackBerry vibrated with each e-mail arriving in her inbox.

And her prompt, frequent and often odd-hour responses are something that she says have turned more than a few co-workers’ heads.

“I have a personal style that differs from my predecessor and everyone around here is very aware of that,” Pescovitz said with a laugh. “It’s caused a little stress in here. It’s definitely a change — shaken people up a little bit.”

“I’m known to send messages in the middle of the night, I have a reputation for that,” Pescovitz explained.

And responses in the middle of the night aren’t at all uncommon with Pescovitz’s intense schedule.

Another thing that separates Pescovitz from most executives is her belief in how employees should be managed — not by high-level supervisors, but by their peers and by themselves.

“They have expertise that I don’t have,” Pescovitz explained. “Contracting – I don’t know anything about contracting, but the guy in contracting reports to me."

Pescovitz went on to explain the only employees she feels qualified to evaluate is one of her peers within her specialty.

“The only person that could report to me where I could evaluate what they do is another pediatric endocrinologist,” she said. “But there are 20,000 people here who at some level report to me. How can I evaluate them? I can’t.”

Her belief that someone within the field needs to evaluate an employee to truly understand their work has led Pescovitz to implement a different system — one in which she reviews the results and not necessarily the actual work.

“I have to be respectful of the fact that they know stuff that I don’t know. So I’m not really able to assess their work, except I can assess the product at the end of the day,” Pescovitz said. “I have to assume we’ve hired people who are really great at what they do, but I can see when they get off track and they do other stuff.”

Meetings, Meetings and More Meetings

Up at 4 a.m. each morning, Pescovitz is the epitome of a morning person. She starts each day with a big breakfast and a vigorous workout routine, arriving to her office by 6:30 a.m.

“I’m usually in here no later than 6:30 in the morning,” Pescovitz said in an interview in her office.

But for Pescovitz, being the first to arrive in her seventh-floor suite — walking in the door so early that she usually turns on the lights — is more of a necessity than a choice.

“I don’t want (everyone) to come in at 6:30,” Pescovitz said. “I’m happy they’re not here, because that is the only time that I have to do the little bit of stuff that I have to do by myself.”

And once normal business hours roll around, Pescovitz barely has any time to do any of her own work — like responding to e-mails or reading reports — because she’s in meetings for most of the day, everyday.

“Once 8 o’clock starts, and sometimes my meetings actually start at 7:00, I do not have another break the rest of the day,” Pescovitz said. “It’s packed for the rest of the day, including most days through dinner meetings.”

They may be long workdays, but Pescovitz says she loves her work enough to compensate for the hectic schedule.

“I have long days, because I enjoy my work. That is the truth and I would tell you, and this is an important message for students, that you must find work that you love,” Pescovitz said. “If you find work that you’re passionate about, then you will want to work long hours. My vocation is my avocation. For that, I feel really fortunate.”

Finding Time for Family

Despite her intense work schedule, Pescovitz says she is proud that she is able to strike a balance between her work life and her personal life.

“We have three children,” she said, pointing to a set of pictures on the windowsill next to her desk. “I do want to make sure students know this, because (family) is an important thing.”

With an enormous grin and energy beaming from her eyes — a common expression she exhibits when talking about either her family or her work — Pescovitz describes what each of her children are doing.

And while her children are grown up now, Pescovitz said she still keeps in close contact with them.

But despite the fact that she’s far away from her children and her husband, who hasn’t made the move to Michigan yet, Pescovitz said she’s comfortable being in Ann Arbor alone — at least for the time being.

“My husband is still in Indianapolis. One of the reasons I’m not that sorry that he’s still there is because I’m still learning my job,” Pescovitz explained in her interview last fall. “I would love him to come here and then I will cut back a little bit, because it would be nice to be married; tomorrow is our 30th wedding anniversary.”

In addition to spending her free time, albeit somewhat limited, with her family, Pescovitz also has some personal hobbies — including a passion for playing the piano.

In fact, before deciding to go to medical school, Pescovitz considered becoming a concert pianist.

“I didn’t think I was good enough. I thought it would be too hard,” Pescovitz said. “I thought being a pianist was way harder than becoming a physician, which it is.”

And though she ultimately became a pediatric endocrinologist instead, Pescovitz still has a passion for the piano. Her favorite piece, she said, is Chopin’s “Ballade No. 1 in G Minor” — though she claims she can’t play it very well.

In addition to her love of piano, Pescovitz also has a love of art. It’s a passion she shares with her husband and it’s one she is able to combine with her job, by incorporating some of her favorite pieces into her office.

Though her office consists of primarily windows on two walls and several doors and bookshelves on the other two walls, Pescovitz finds a way to integrate her art collection into her office by using what little wall space she has for her art and by spreading her personal collection throughout the hallways closest to her office.

It’s a collection that Pescovitz classifies simply as “eclectic” — with everything from landscapes to contemporary pieces.

On a tour of the artwork, Pescovitz pauses in front of a painting hanging in a short, private corridor between her office and her conference room. She turns and begins to explain why the piece — The Death of Narcissus — is hanging in a hallway that people rarely walks through.

“It’s not in the right place. We have an art consultant who said I shouldn’t have this too publicly displayed because it’s a naked body,” Pescovitz says. “But the truth is there are naked art sculptures around here. You know, we are a liberal place.”

But the painting hangs discreetly in the private passageway because it doesn’t serve a public purpose. Pescovitz says she uses the painting as a source of strength, especially when dealing with challenging faculty members.

“I bought this so I could be reminded of what happens to Narcissus, and we have some faculty for whom this is really applicable,” Pescovitz says with a laugh. “Every once in a while we have a faculty member who’s kind of a little too full of himself or herself and when I need strength to deal with them, I can remember what happened to Narcissus in the end.”


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