‘Nothing But Opportunity Ahead of Us’

By: Brandon Szuminsky

On the day she was announced as president and CEO, Leslie Davis laid out her vision for UPMC

Before the early morning announcement that she would be stepping into the role of UPMC president and chief executive officer on Aug. 1, before the multiple video calls with UPMC leaders, before the back-to-back-to-back media interviews, before the introductory and congratulatory calls from local and state leaders — basically, before she left her house — yesterday was a pretty normal day for Leslie Davis.

After all, before she made the trek downtown to UPMC’s Pittsburgh headquarters, “everything at home was exactly the same as it always is,” she said. That point was made clear by Milo.

Turns out, the Tabby cat was not particularly concerned with the breaking news that would soon reach the 92,000 staff inboxes across the health system. Before Davis left home for the biggest day of her career, Milo had more pressing needs.

“He really wanted my attention so I would fill up his bowl before I left,” she said, shaking her head in the bemused way that only the antics of pets and small children can engender. “Some things will never change.”

Of course, the rest of her day was very much about change, as she prepares to lead UPMC into “the next chapter” following retiring President and CEO Jeffrey Romoff’s 30-year tenure at the helm.

Writing the Next Chapter

Though the change came as a surprise to most employees Wednesday morning, good governance, Davis noted, is enacting a succession plan when things are going well, and Romoff, along with the Board of Directors, felt now was the ideal time for the transition.

“UPMC is a highly successful organization and has a great trajectory, so this is a perfect time to make a transition at CEO,” Davis said. “Jeffrey has been very effective at growing and leading UPMC to what it is today. We’re in a great position because of the work we all do and decades of leadership that Jeff provided.”

While taking the reins of an international organization as complex as UPMC might seem an intimidating challenge to most, Davis is earnest and focused. With her 17 years’ experience at UPMC in a health care career spanning three decades, she’s ready to “hit the ground running.”

“There’s nothing but opportunity ahead of us,” she said.

Supporting Our People

In meetings with UPMC leaders and media outlets Wednesday morning, she highlighted some of her high-level priorities for the system.

“We’ll continue to double down on all things patient care and patient experience — whether that patient is in our hospitals, ambulatory sites, virtually, or at home — that’s the heart and soul of what UPMC is,” she said. “We will continue to focus on our science and our technology to create new tomorrows — that’s in the DNA of UPMC — spreading those innovations across the Commonwealth [of Pennsylvania], domestically and around the globe.”

Considering those priorities and others — like continuing to grow UPMC’s insurance division and leveraging its position as an integrated delivery and finance system – Davis continues to chart a bold path for UPMC. She is clear in how she can accomplish those goals.

“I have a great team around me; I am surrounded by talented people,” she said. “I am not doing this alone.”

One of those key priorities, she stressed Wednesday, was the goal of improving the employee experience at UPMC, calling this “the year of the UPMC employee” as staff have “worked tirelessly during the pandemic.” That commitment is driving new retention and recruitment efforts for patient care areas within the Health Services Division.

“There’s never been a more difficult time to be a health care worker. Our employees, like all health care workers across the country, are exhausted,” she said. “This has to be the time that we create an experience for our employees where they would only want to work at UPMC — I’m sure we can do that. We need the culture we create within our organization to be one that makes people want to stay with us and never work anywhere else.”

Setting the Tone for the Future

Despite the significant scope of her new role, Davis stressed that her leadership style will remain the same. She has always been employee-facing, she said, and plans to continue that across UPMC. Importantly, though, that focus is “not just about me,” she said. She will set the tone for leaders across UPMC to be visible, accountable and committed to rounding with their own teams.

With her promotion, Davis does claim one unique place in UPMC history: She will be the first female CEO and one of very few female CEOs of large U.S.-based health systems.

Having had great mentors throughout her career, she said she relishes the thought of being considered a role model and giving back to the next generation of leaders. She regularly meets with groups of young women, providing mentorship and career advice. She’s connected with similarly focused groups across UPMC to share her experiences, lending her voice to those working to create a day “when we don’t even need to think about it anymore.”

“That’s the legacy that [all women in leadership positions] leave,” she said.

Despite spending a whirlwind Wednesday looking toward the future, her day came to an end with some gentle reminders of what remains blessedly static.

Among a constant stream of congratulatory messages and well wishes, she occasionally paused to enjoy her family’s playful quips and posts. She still had the same drive home as always, and she listened to the same Bruce Springsteen station she always has.

Once home, she was greeted by her husband, Abe, and of course, Milo, the demanding cat.

“Same old, same old,” Davis said with a laugh.