Paul King: The Ultimate Hope

Written by Emily Mangini | Photographed by Tri Nguyen

During his sophomore year as President and CEO of Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital Stanford, we check in with Paul King on leadership and perseverance.

“I promise I won’t screw this up for you.” That was the pledge Paul King, President and CEO of Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital Stanford (LPCHS), made to his predecessor, the (now) late Chris Dawes. It also perfectly captures the undercurrent of humility and self-deprecation that flows naturally, but not cloyingly, from King. Because in spite of his impressive pedigree—he serves on a number of pediatric boards, and prior to LPCHS was the Executive Director of the women’s and children’s hospital at the University of Michigan, and before that the Vice President of Children’s Hospital Los Angeles and President of its Pediatric Group—King is refreshingly, and genuinely, unimpressed with himself. Case in point: when presented in early 2019 with the opportunity to join LPCHS as CEO, a “plum assignment,” as King puts it, one catch gave him pause. “I thought, ‘Do I really want to be the guy that follows Chris Dawes?’”

Indeed, following in the footsteps of a beloved CEO with a 30-year tenure is no small feat. King, however, came to the hospital poised to do it seamlessly. In addition to his aforementioned experience, King possesses two qualities acutely suited for such a monumental transition. First, he has a genuine and deep-seated passion for children’s health. Second is his strategic, rocklike leadership style, which focuses more on serving his team than on his own glory or ego.

“It’s such a special mission,” King says of children’s health. As he said in a recent interview with Becker’s Hospital Review, “How do you not get excited and motivated to change and improve the lives of children?” To King, the root of that improvement lies in collaboration, something he sees as particularly unique to the pediatric space. “Children’s health is an open-book test,” he says. “If we don’t have the answer, someone else here will. And if no one here does, then someone will in Seattle or Texas. … We share. We’ve seen significant improvement in [pediatric medicine] because of that sharing.”

That openness to sharing and collaboration is a hallmark of King’s leadership style. Using phrases like “servant leader” and “professional crap-cutter” to describe his approach, King sees his primary role as making the jobs of his leaders easier. To do so, King strives to create a “culture of candor,” saying, “If someone on my team needs help, I can pick up the phone and help make things happen. But I can’t fix what I don’t know. I need transparency. I need vulnerability.”

Since assuming the role in early 2019, King has also helped foster a closer working relationship with Stanford’s Medical School and Stanford Hospital. A partnership that King sees as one of the beauties of the academic hospital setting, it opens up the doors for the three institutions to work together on solving mutual pain points and obstacles. “I’m proud that we are more aligned than ever before,” he says.

If year one was marked by candor, collaboration, and strengthening partnerships, year two is, unsurprisingly, marked by the global pandemic. It seems a bit unfair that just as King capped off his inaugural year leading one of the nation’s highest acuity children’s hospitals, he is then handed a historic and unprecedented global crisis. But King doesn’t see it that way. This is where his unflappable leadership shines. “For children, the pandemic has not had as much of an impact as far as hospitalizations go. We have ample capacity,” King says simply but not insensitively. That’s not to say that LPCHS is immune to COVID-19. The personal and financial implications of this historic moment are real, no matter how many open beds a facility has.

“First and foremost, we have to keep our caregivers safe, so when they go home, their families are safe,” he says. While LPCHS didn’t experience the severe shortage of personal protective equipment that so many other hospitals did, King recognizes that “things could change any day.”

Protecting his employees also played into his financial recovery strategy. As with many health care systems in the state, the biggest hit to the hospital came during the spring shelter-in-place orders, when nonessential procedures came to a halt. This caused a drastic and devastating reduction in revenue-generating services.

To weather the financial storm, King set his sights on a singular goal: avoid layoffs. “Once we’re on the other side of this, we’re going to need them,” King explains of staff. To accomplish this goal the Temporary Work Adjustment Program was created. The program gave employees the choice to take paid time off or temporarily reduce their pay by 20 percent. “Of course,” King said wryly, “there were reports that just said, ‘Stanford is cutting pay by 20 percent,’ but that wasn’t the case.” Despite any public misrepresentations, King is proud of the program: “We were able to weather the height of the pandemic and not lay anyone off.”

Even in the face of the pandemic, King and the hospital continue to look ahead. That forward focus is set on an exciting medical advancement called precision medicine. Precision medicine is, as King explains it, “The use of stem cells, genome, and all those wonderful things a layman shouldn’t be talking about to make tailored medication for you.” In short, it’s another example of what King sees as the beauty of the collaboration that takes place at an academic hospital like Stanford.

King doesn’t strike as one to complain, but even the most collected of leaders needs to recharge. When King needs a “jolt of mission,” he goes and sits in the hospital lobby. “The lobby of a children’s hospital, it just feels different from other hospitals. You see our families, and there is fear, desperation, and hope. It’s that hope that gets me.”

And, so, while it is highly unusual to lead a hospital through a global crisis in one’s sophomore year, it is safe to say that—equipped with his candor, strategic vision, and a hearty sense of humility—King is keeping his promise to Dawes.  λ

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