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Isely Pauses Retirement to Lead HRH

July 21, 2009
By Joseph Boushee, Star Staff Writer As printed in Miles City Star, July 20, 2009

John Isely was about three years into retirement — golfing, traveling and riding a new motorcycle — when he got a call from an old friend and former co-worker. Jim Paquette wanted to know if Isely, a retired hospital administrator, would come back to work. At least, for a little while. John Isely

"I was enjoying retirement immensely," Isely said in an interview recently. "I even went out and bought a Harley Davidson motorcycle." Paquette and Isely worked together when Isely was an assistant administrator at St. Vincent Healthcare in Billings from 1980 to 1985. Paquette is now president and CEO of St. Vincent and the head of Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth Health System Montana Region, with which Holy Rosary Healthcare is affiliated.

The local hospital was dealing with a vacancy at its top post — CEO, and Paquette needed someone who could bridge the administrative gap between the absence of a CEO and the hiring of a replacement. So he called Isely. "Retirement has been wonderful for me but it was hard to say no to this organization because of what Catholic healthcare has meant to me over my lifetime," Isely said. "Healthcare has been my life, so to speak." Isely has spent 33 years in hospitals, many of which as an administrator. He's been here since June 1, and anticipates his interim role will keep him in Miles City for another four to six months.

"I plan to help as long as there's a need and people think that I can meet that need," Isely said. In his time here, Isely said he's noticed tremendous community support, involvement and interest in Holy Rosary Healthcare. "I am very impressed with the caliber of people here," he said, adding, "You have technology in this community that most places of this size do not have."

For 21 years Isely was President and CEO at St. Mary Medical Center in Walla Walla, Wash. He studied hospital administration in St. Louis, earning a master's degree in 1973. Isely, who is married with four grown children and the owner of two standard poodles, was born in Hallock, Minn and raised north of there. His father was a member of the governing board of Hallock's small hospital. It was his father's involvement there that sparked his interest in healthcare. "He's the one that sort of stimulated my interest in healthcare, specifically healthcare administration," Isely recalled. "He encouraged me to take some courses in hospital administration at the undergraduate level, and I did."

Isely considers caring for patients, "people who have to rely on the care and service of others," a great privilege. "In a way,” he said, "it's really a privilege to help and serve others whose needs are greater than your own. I don't think there can be any greater challenge than that." He said he takes great pleasure from seeing people having their quality of life restored, or closer to it, when they leave the hospital.

"It's a wonderful thing to observe," Isely said. "The people you work with in healthcare are truly caring and compassionate people. Otherwise, they would not be in this business. It's such a pleasure to work with healthcare professionals. I just love to work with people who care, like me."

Isely said he was influenced by his father and the Sisters of Charity, who started Holy Rosary with the mission of providing excellent care to all, regardless of their faith or ability to pay. Isely added that he sees those core values and that mission continuing today, something that the founding Sisters would be proud of. "Absolutely. Without a doubt," he said. "What I admire the very most is the strong, consistent commitment to mission. It doesn't waver and I like working for someone and with someone that I can trust." "I'll tell you. It's not a tough job. The people are really focused on patient care." He added, "Dignity — the value of a person — that, to me, is extremely important."

When describing the role of a CEO, Isely tends to look beyond the technical description and delve more into the philosophy of the position.On paper, he said, a CEO plans and organizes staff and directs and assesses the activities of the organization. To Isely, this leadership role is more than that. "Those are management functions," he said. "but they do not really speak to the essence of management. The real responsibilities are to keep the focus on the mission, providing excellent patient care. This organization has a focus on what's important, and that's all about taking care of people."

Isely feels it's important to empower the employees by giving them the resources they need to accomplish their jobs. "People are the most important resource," he said. "My job is to help let them do that by taking away the things that make their job harder — to remove the barriers, not to tell them what to do. They already know that better than I.

"I think my role, truly, is to help the organization create a vision for itself. What do we want want to look like a year from now, five years from now, ten years from now? Also, to help identify the goals and objectives that need to be accomplished in order to achieve that vision. "My job isn't to tell people how to get from where we are to where we want to go. No. The better ideas on how to do that come from the people who are most affected by the change."

Important to creating a vision for the organization and making it run smoothly is involving its employees in the processes, he said. "I have seen, in my years, that in carrying out this mission what's also important is the way in which it's done. Everybody's ideas are important. The people who do the work do know. And we need to listen to them," he added, and to "provide support to the people who make it work. "If you want control, you've got to give it up. If you give it up to people you work for, it will come back in spades."

But that doesn't mean he neglects his responsibilities. He says it's important to hold people accountable, but with an emphasis on making it easier for them to do their jobs by engaging them to offer input in what is important to them. "It's important how we hold people accountable," he said. He reiterated that his job as a CEO is to "remove the barriers and impediments that get in the way of people doing their jobs."

Isely has outlined a few goals for the organization. Besides prioritizing the organization's needs, providing guidance and keeping the hospital moving forward in its mission, he said it is important to "continue to build on the strengths that are already in place here thanks to a lot of people, and to help them overcome some of the challenges they have. We don't want lose sight of the things that got us to this point. "There's a lot more going on here that is right and good than is wrong or bad."

Another goal is to ensure that Holy Rosary Healthcare is a transparent organization, to both the staff and the public. "I think another major focus is to make sure that we become a transparent organization as we deal with change," Isely said. "We really have to become much better at communicating to the public, patients and employees the pressure's we're under. If we hold back information, how can we expect people to understand why we behave the way we're behaving?"

As ongoing debate over healthcare reform circulates Congress, Isely offered his own opinion on prospective reform. "Some form of reform is probably needed," he said. "We have many people that are uninsured or underinsured, and it's important to have a system that affords access for all and that maintains quality and excellence at an affordable price. It appears to me the energy and the commitment is there to sort that out."

Isely outlined the key to its success at Holy Rosary Healthcare. "The real key to success is the product that we deliver, and that's excellence. Performance excellence — that's what it's all about. We want to be the very best that we can. In fact, we want to be the best hospital in Montana."