Interview with Robert T. Clarke, former CEO of Memorial Health System


Robert Clarke, a highly accomplished and recognized healthcare executive, shares his thoughts on career success, including how to choose a career path, keys to success, the role of mentors and insights on relationships and networking.

How did you decide to get into a career in healthcare?

I was majoring in biology and then enrolled in some elective courses in business in my senior year of college. I enjoyed those courses very much. I saw a posting on a bulletin board in the science building one day about hospital administration. I completed my B.S. in Biology and then entered graduate school in healthcare administration.

Why did you choose that path?

Healthcare administration afforded the opportunity to get involved in a business area where my science background would also still be helpful.

What would you tell someone just starting out about how to find the right career path?

Pick an area of personal interest for which there is high market demand. Higher education is too expensive to waste and end up not being marketable. Talk to a leader in the field. Ask them what they like and don’t like about their work. Talk to a person who has completed the educational requirements at the college/university you are considering. Ask them if they were satisfied with the program.

What are the key things that you would attribute to your career success?

First, getting related work experience in high school. I became an orderly in a hospital. A urologist asked me to teach his kids tennis, because I was a state doubles champion. In return he took me on rounds with him, where I was able to learn a bit about medicine. This helped me to home-in on my career area of interest. It helped me decide not to go into medicine! Then, selecting the right college and graduate school is critically important. If program accreditation is important in the field you’ve selected, make certain the program you’ve chosen is accredited. I connected with a mentor at my first work place. The graduate program I completed had ongoing business relationships with certain leaders in the field and encouraged us to complete our required thesis at those sites. This gave us some actual experience while completing the program. Demonstrating initiative and working hard is important as well. That better assures full time employment when you’ve finished your course requirements. Finally, being at the right place at the right time is important. Size things up in terms of the company and its leaders. If you perceive a dead end, move on. For example, when I was at Community Hospital in Indianapolis, I was considering leaving. Then all of a sudden the President of the hospital died. The new President came in and ended up being a great friend and mentor of mine. He promoted me to VP and later EVP. So I was in the right place at the right time. An act of God kept me in same location and got me promoted. I think it’s a combination of being proactive and being in the right place at the right time.

Did you have any mentors?

Yes, Allen Hicks “took me under his wing” and provided me with exposure to leaders in the field and my first primary career opportunity. The people I met because of Allen, didn’t just anticipate the future. They made the future what it needed to be. They thought outside the box. I learned from Allen that the only limit to what you accomplish is your own imagination.

If so, or if you have served as one for someone else, what does a good mentor do for someone?

They lead by example. They take a personal interest in your success. They give you opportunities for continuing education and exposure to environments “where the action is,” They introduce you to industry leaders. How do you find a mentor? Many colleges/universities have business partners with whom they’ve worked before. Find out who the leaders are in your field of endeavor. Try to get placed in their organizations. Ask them, face to face, if they will mentor you. If not, move on. I would rather have a mentor within my organization. You learn a lot watching them in action.

What are your thoughts on relationship building and networking?

Relationships lead to opportunities. Get to know the people with whom your job puts you in contact on a personal level. You learn a lot from others. Early in my career I was a resident at Community Hospital in Indianapolis. They brought in a consultant named Earl Frederick. I was assigned to him as a gopher to get him what he needed. He explained everything he did. He was the nicest, kindest person. Almost 30 years later I was nominated for the Board of Health Care Service Corporation (operator of five Blue Cross Blue Shield plans and the largest customer-owned health insurance company). Earl was chairman of the board, and remembered and recommended me. I wasn’t really in touch with him over all those years. You never know how relationships will help you.

How important is it? How do you do it?

It is a major key to success. You can join professional organizations (ACHE – American College of Healthcare Executives), service clubs, the Chamber of Commerce, and local charity boards as you “give back” to your community.

What was the biggest challenge you faced in your career and what did you learn from it?

Gaining the confidence of superiors, peers, subordinates, business partners was a challenge. When you come directly out of school with no prior experience, you really know very little. Others around you have a lot more experience; even your subordinates. Realize that and learn from them. They’ll respect you a lot more if “they know that you know what you don’t know.” I’ve seen people who think they know it all. When you are 31 years old and you are promoted to VP and you have people on your team who have been working in the field since you were born, it can be a challenge. The reason I was able to work things out is that I realized my job was to ask them how things work and should work. How can I clear the path to get things done to help you? Their attitude was different when I treated them with respect.

If you had to do your career over, would you have done anything differently? How?

No, I wouldn’t do anything differently. I enjoyed every day and every year I worked at two very fine organizations. I had opportunities to go to work for larger organizations for more compensation, but having joy in your job and a sense of accomplishment are much more rewarding experiences.

What other advice would you give to someone just starting their career?

Never forget that you actually know very little when you complete your formal education. Have sincere respect for everyone around you; not just superiors and peers, but also subordinates. They can all be your mentors. Don’t be afraid to admit what you don’t know and ask for ideas from others. Participative decision making always works best. It leads to a sense of buy-in. Don’t be afraid to “get your hands dirty.” Get out and work in the environments of others. I used to go out once a month and work with housekeeper or floor nurse. You learn a lot about your operation being involved in the front line. It helps you understand what the priorities should be. Understand what they deal with. Look for ways to achieve mutual goals with them. Finally, when in charge, take charge. Don’t just be an observer describing what is happening to you. Make things happen if that is your job.

How about someone well into their career?

If you’re no longer excited about what you’re doing, get qualified to do something else. Having joy in one’s work is the most important. If you ever perceive that your career objective isn’t accomplishable in your current situation, find a way to get out and into something with greater opportunity. Choose your work environment. Don’t just expect things to get better on their own. Make them better.

About Robert T. Clarke

Mr. Clarke is the retired President of Memorial Health System in Springfield, Illinois, which he led for 24 years. He also serves as Board member for Health Care Services Corporation (Blue Cross/Blue Shield of Illinois, Texas, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Montana) and for the Scottsdale Institute. Earlier in his career he was Executive Vice President of Community Hospital of Indianapolis. He is a Life Fellow in the American College of Healthcare Executives. Mr. Clarke has many notable accomplishments over his 35+ year career as a highly successful and nationally recognized healthcare executive.

He has been very active in serving as a Board member and leader for a variety of community and business organizations. These include the Illinois Hospital Association, Illinois Chamber of Commerce, Rotary International, Springfield Urban League, Greater Springfield Chamber of Commerce and many others.

Mr. Clarke is widely published and has spoken at numerous industry events on a variety of healthcare, leadership and strategy topics. He has a B.S. in biology from Geneva College and an MHA from the University of Michigan.