Warner L. Thomas will join Sutter Health as its next president and CEO by early December 2022. He is the first CEO to be hired from outside the organization in nearly 40 years. He has more than 30 years’ experience in healthcare and a proven track record of driving innovation and operational results, building high-performing and inclusive teams, and developing strong relationships with local communities and leaders.
Thomas is a recognized healthcare leader, who for the last 10 years served as president and CEO at Ochsner Health, Louisiana’s largest, not-for profit, academic healthcare system and private employer. The organization is nationally recognized for its clinical leadership and includes 40 owned, managed and affiliated hospitals and specialty hospitals, and more than 300 health centers and urgent care centers. Additionally, Ochsner has been ranked as the No. 1 hospital in Louisiana by U.S. News & World Report for over a decade. The organization is also consistently ranked as the top children’s hospital in Louisiana by U.S. News & World Report and is nationally ranked for its pediatric specialty care.
Although he doesn’t officially take the helm at Sutter for a few months, our Vitals editors sat down with Thomas to learn more about him personally and professionally.
Vitals: What excites you about joining Sutter Health?
Thomas: I’m excited to have the opportunity to work with the outstanding teams at Sutter Health. I’ve admired the organization for many years, and I’m honored to have the opportunity to work with such an exceptional group of talent, from the leadership team to clinicians and physicians to staff. Sutter has an outstanding physician network, and I believe there’s an opportunity to engage our physicians even more to continue to strengthen Sutter’s delivery of care, as well as expand and grow its services.
I’m very much a history buff. I respect Sutter’s rich heritage and role it has long played in Northern California. Sutter has deep roots serving diverse communities, and it’s a privilege to be able to lead an organization with a 150-year legacy.
At the end of the day, we are here to make our communities healthier and to help individuals lead better lives. It is challenging work, but I wouldn’t have worked in healthcare for over 30 years if this wasn’t what I loved doing. I love making a difference, and I will always look for ways to improve the organization and expand its positive impact.
Vitals: You’ve been recognized as a digital innovator. Tell us more.
Thomas: It’s not a secret that Sutter’s digital capabilities and its ability to collaborate with organizations in meaningful ways is one of the aspects that drew me to this role. Sutter has a unique opportunity to create partnerships that advance the future of healthcare through the sophisticated health tech ecosystem of Northern California.
Digital innovation has always been a significant area of focus for me. During my time at Ochsner, we expanded the organization’s digital capabilities, from building a digital platform that allows patients to keep track of their medical information to a comprehensive telemedicine platform. I also created the team that launched innovationOchsner – a think tank and health tech incubator focused on chronic disease research that collaborates with companies like Apple to Microsoft to improve patient care.
Like Sutter, I believe in the digitally connected patient. A patient’s need for care doesn’t stop when they leave the hospital or doctor’s office. We need to increase access to support that is personalized, coordinated, easy-to-use and incorporates learnings from other consumer-focused industries to strengthen what we offer. When I look at the network of organizations on our doorstep in Northern California, the collaborative possibilities are endless.
Vitals: How would you describe your leadership style?
Thomas: I get energy from being around people – I’m very much a team-oriented leader. Building high-performing teams that include a diversity of viewpoints and perspectives is paramount to me. Every single person makes a difference to an organization, especially in our industry. Physicians play a unique role because of their one-on-one relationship with patients. Their expertise and leadership are essential to creating a successful future.
For that reason, I believe that including clinical and physician teams in the strategy and decision-making process creates a stronger organization. I’ll be conducting a learning and listening tour when I start, and I’m looking forward to using feedback from the teams across Sutter to continue building the strategy and long-term direction together.
Another thing you should know about me is that I like to lead with a bit of humor. My daughter says that I’m the only one who thinks I’m funny (so I hope the folks at Sutter are a kinder audience than she is). Some healthy levity and bonding with teams can help build bridges and create a more productive environment.
Vitals: You mentioned being drawn to Sutter Health’s commitment to the community. How will you build on that?
Thomas: Community needs and patient lives guide every decision I make. This has always been my mantra, and it will continue to be my focus at Sutter. The priority of our community work needs to focus on preventing disease and making our communities healthier. I look forward to building on the momentum at Sutter in key areas such health equity, medical research, digital health and innovation.
These were also focus areas for me when I was at Ochsner. On the health equity front, partnerships like our work with Xavier University – a leading educator in Louisiana and the third-ranked HBCU in the nation – helped expand access to care, provide additional funding to local health facilities and advance medical education.
Sutter exists as a not-for-profit organization to improve the health and wellness of the communities we serve. A critical part of our future success is the role we play as a catalyst in bringing organizations together to build wellness initiatives. Looking across all the counties in Northern California that Sutter serves, there is a rich diversity of communities. I’m looking forward to getting to know the unique qualities and composition of each of them, so we can build an engagement strategy that addresses these diverse needs.
Vitals: You’ve helped lead Ochsner Health through an extraordinary set of challenges from natural disasters to a pandemic. What lessons have you learned that you’ll bring to Sutter Health?
Thomas: Managing a crisis is a test of leadership at all levels. The past few years have been extraordinary for everyone in the healthcare sector and beyond, and I deeply admired the role Sutter played serving the community during this time. At Ochsner, we weathered challenges from COVID-19 to hurricane seasons. I’m proud of how the team navigated the pandemic, caring for more than 40%of Louisiana’s COVID-19 patients and delivering more testing and vaccinations than any other health system in the state.
An unfortunate reality is that we’re making this announcement during wildfire season in California and hurricane season in Louisiana. Natural disasters bring their own set of unique challenges, and you quickly learn the importance of leadership, teamwork and the ability to make good decisions. Ochsner was one of the few hospitals in New Orleans to remain open during Hurricane Katrina, and it was a team effort to keep things running and ensure patients could still receive high-quality care, while supporting the organization’s frontline workers. My team prepared for eight hurricanes from 2020-2021, including the devastating impact of Hurricane Ida last year. In the face of these challenges, it’s always important to look back, learn and evolve.
I trace resilience back to strong leadership programs. When the chips are down, you bet on your people, period. I believe at the core you’ve got to develop and prepare your people to be effective at all times. Whether it’s a natural disaster or dealing with the ever-evolving healthcare landscape, it’s about making sure teams have built the skills and confidence, so they are able to navigate in the best possible way during challenging times. Setting clear direction and fostering mutual trust are essential.
Vitals: What do you do when you’re not leading a healthcare organization?
Thomas: Great question. I consider myself a lifelong learner and curious person at heart. I believe I can learn something from anyone. And especially in the early days, I’ll be learning from the teams across Sutter Health.
When I’m not at work, you’ll likely find me reading – I’m an avid reader and am always looking for recommendations. I enjoy books of all types, from fiction to self-development books on how to be a better leader. My favorites are Stillness is the Key by Ryan Holiday, Leading with Gratitude: Eight Leadership Practices for Extraordinary Business Results by Adrian Gostick and Chester Elton, The Traveler’s Gift by Andy Andrews, and Deep Purpose by Ranjay Gulati. I’ve learned some incredibly valuable skills from these books that I’ve carried with me across different parts of my life, like the importance of journaling – it slows down the mind and allows you to ask yourself tough questions. I’ve also learned the importance of having a routine and a system for tackling new challenges.
Health and wellbeing are a critical aspect of maintaining that daily routine and are important to me. I am disciplined when it comes to exercise. You’ll find me cycling or swimming almost every day. I grew up in a small town in Vermont and being out in nature has always been a part of me. I can’t wait to explore the trails, lakes, rivers and parks in Northern California.
Above all, I cherish my family. Moving to the West Coast will give me a chance to be closer to my daughter, who lives in Seattle where she is working on her master’s degree in social work and hopes to pursue a career in youth mental health. I also remain very connected with my family and the community back in Vermont, as well as my family and the community that I have built in New Orleans. At the end of the day, the reason healthcare systems exist is to help families and our communities, and I can’t wait to join Sutter very soon, to do exactly that.
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