Robert Garrett serves as CEO of Hackensack Meridian Health, an 18-hospital health system based in Edison, N.J.
Mr. Garrett became president and CEO of the organization in 2009. He then became co-CEO in 2016 following the merger between Hackensack (N.J.) University Health Network and Neptune, N.J.-based Meridian Health. In January 2019, he became the CEO after co-CEO John Lloyd retired.
Mr. Garrett told Becker’s Hospital Review that he is committed to advancing health equity and is particularly proud of his team’s work during the pandemic, as well as the opening of the Hackensack Meridian School of Medicine. He discussed his tenure as CEO, the advice that has stayed with him as a healthcare leader and more in his responses to Becker’s seven Corner Office questions.
Editor’s note: Responses were lightly edited for clarity.
Question: What’s one thing that really piqued your interest in healthcare?
Robert Garrett: I was actually a political science major in college but not sure of a career path. I was fortunate enough to complete an internship with a family friend and wonderful hospital administrator, Sister Mary Jean Brady at Mercy Hospital in New York. I rounded with her and I was hooked! She connected with people in some of the most consequential moments of their lives, offering compassion, support and even advice when needed.
To this day, connecting with our front-line team is still my favorite part of the job. In the last few weeks, I have had the pleasure of spending some time with team members who work the overnight shift in one of our hospitals and I also met some terrific team members who work in the emergency department and the medical day stay of another hospital. I am privileged to work with such seasoned and dedicated professionals.
Q: What do you enjoy most about New Jersey?
RG: I love New Jersey on so many fronts: the beaches, the mountains, beautiful rural areas, its great cities and most of all, the people. We are one of the most diverse states in the nation, and the variety of food and culture is a great strength. Our golf courses and ski areas have provided great fun for our family. I love the pace of the state because it energizes me. I am a huge New York Giants fan, love dining out with family and friends at the shore, and consider myself a serious Springsteen fan.
Q: If you could eliminate one of the healthcare industry’s greatest problems overnight, which would it be?
RG: I would like to end the sad reality that in the U.S. your ZIP code too often determines the state of your health. We all know the terrible stats: Black Americans have a life expectancy that is on average three and a half times shorter than white Americans; Black women are 40 percent more likely to die of breast cancer; and Black newborns are three times as likely to die as white newborns. The good news is that health equity is on the front burner in the industry and will require comprehensive and robust engagement from all stakeholders, public and private. Advancing health equity is one of our major strategic priorities, and we have signed the Global Health Equity Network Zero Health Gaps Pledge. You can’t transform healthcare without improving outcomes for all communities.
Q: What is your greatest talent or skill outside of the C-suite?
RG: I would say I have a serious thirst for new experiences — whether it’s seeing a new play on Broadway, attending a concert headlined by a musician I haven’t heard or visiting a place that I haven’t experienced before. It’s important to take yourself out of the healthcare landscape and leadership space to cultivate other parts of life that provide some levity, balance and perspective.
Q: How do you revitalize yourself?
RG: Spending time with my family just keeps getting richer. My wife and I have two adult sons, a daughter-in-law and a granddaughter who is just over a year old. I heard that being a grandparent is life-changing and I have found this to be an understatement. We also have terrific friends we enjoy dining and traveling with, several of whom are also dear colleagues. I was told by a mentor that being the CEO is not a job, it’s a way of life. And sharing so much of my life with friends who are also colleagues is a real bonus.
Q: What’s one piece of advice you remember most clearly?
RG: It’s actually a great quote I came across several years ago and it has really stayed with me: “Leaders who don’t listen will eventually be surrounded by people who have nothing to say.” It’s a quote by Andy Stanley. Our teams are encouraged to speak up. In fact, I joke with some of our most outspoken leaders and say, “Here comes the Jersey straight talk.”
Q: What do you consider your greatest achievement at Hackensack Meridian so far?
RG: I have to bend the rules and give you two answers. I was so proud to lead our remarkable teams throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. They treated more than 80,000 patients and administered 800,000 vaccines. When the history books are written they will be remembered as the true American heroes that they are.
I would also say that opening the Hackensack Meridian School of Medicine, a dream I launched more than a decade ago, is deeply gratifying. The school, the first new private medical school to open in New Jersey in over 60 years, offers a three-year path to residency, focuses on teaching the social determinants of health and will help diversify the physician workforce. Seeing our graduates in residencies in Hackensack Meridian hospitals — well, it’s hard to describe how great that feels.