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Surgeon Peter Pisters returns to Canada as CEO of UHN

Peter Pisters
Peter Pisters

“It is a privilege to be in the Department of Surgery. That is where my roots and my academic identity lie, and my success is related to the senior surgeons who taught and mentored me. I feel it is now time to give back to Surgery - to work with Jim Rutka and to give opportunities to other surgeons.

I did my surgical training at New York University, an archetype US general surgery program, with a quintessential city hospital - Bellevue Hospital, the NYU Medical Center, and the Manhattan VA. I then travelled uptown to Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center where Murray Brennan was my mentor. I was Murray’s fellow and eventually his Chief Fellow. I was also in his laboratory. Murray created extraordinary opportunities for people. He had a great quest for data, and he taught classical patient care - how to be a physician in a way that was matchless. He offered me a great opportunity to stay on faculty at Sloan-Kettering, but suggested that I might first go and look at other jobs. When I looked at a position at MD in Houston, and found the opportunity to be excellent, Murray said ‘No one has ever turned me down for an entry level faculty position, but as a mentor, I think you should take the MD Anderson job’.

“There, I did pancreatic, gastric, and sarcoma surgery; indeed Murray’s same areas of concentration and study. In the spring of 2014, when the opportunity to come to Toronto arose, I called him for advice and guidance. You can’t assess the impact of mentors, unless you have experienced a long-term mentoring relationship. When at MD Anderson, I mentored many fellows and faculty in a well-structured institutional mentoring program that we developed in Surgery. I now mentor my executive team and high potential contributors in leadership and administration, rather than in surgery. Interestingly, surgeons are underrepresented in healthcare management. They have superb qualifications - we are taught how to make decisions with incomplete information under critical time constraints. We work in teams from residency on throughout our careers, we calibrate our decisions, cataloging the unknown, and we make definitive decisions with a requirement to follow-up on the consequences.

“My second mentor was Bob Bell. I first met him at Western Ontario when he was a staff surgeon and I was a medical student in his clinic. Bob became a leader on the sarcoma team at Princess Margaret. I met him thereafter at meetings when I was leading the MD Anderson sarcoma group. We both eventually moved into administration. When I was thinking about going back to school for a Master’s degree, I called Bob for advice. He supported my plan to go to Harvard for formal training in management. When I read about his becoming a Deputy Minister of Health in the Globe and Mail, I emailed Bob to congratulate him. He replied 30 minutes later and said: “Thanks Peter, are you interested in the job?’ That was the beginning of my transition back to Canada. It’s also a story that I tell in our leadership training courses as a clear example of the value of maintaining your network.

“I learned many lessons at Harvard, among them, the importance of networks, your personal board of advisors that includes realists, confidants, cheerleaders and optimists. When I went to Boston, I was senior leader, serving as a Vice President at MD Anderson managing regional operations and working on business development for regional and national expansion. However, I did believe that I had sufficient grounding in the essential elements of business including advanced accounting, corporate finance, competitive strategy, leadership theory, governance, health policy and law, and the business of technology. So, I commuted to Boston for 2 years. Massachusetts was leading a transition to value -based care and thus it was a great time to be amidst thought leaders in health policy and to observe the rapid evolution of transformational change towards population health precipitated by the Affordable Care Act of 2010.

Here in Toronto, I have focused my first year as President on an intensive, immersive, and iterative learning process that has enabled me to begin to appreciate the breadth and depth of the organization. This has culminated in a process of organizational renewal that we see as a process of healthy transition. We have established an extraordinary collaboration focused on patient safety with the Hospital for Sick Children, Sinai Health System, and Women’s College Hospital. This will bring about transformation to high reliability organizations. On the academic side, I am privileged to be able to continue to teach as a lecturer at the Rotman School of Management and its Rotman UHN Leadership Program.

“My wife Katherine and I have always been engaged with our communities. We try to give back in various ways. We have always been involved with youth athletics. I have coached all 3 of our kids in a variety of sports teams as they were growing up. Katherine is a medical oncologist at MD Anderson and is one of a volunteer group of full time MD Anderson faculty who volunteer 2 days per week in the oncology clinics in the inner city hospital treating indigent patients.

When I was offered this position, our youngest child Meghan was in the 10th grade, and so Katherine has stayed with her in Houston as she finishes high school. I have been the commuting parent until Meghan graduates in May. Then, Katherine will move to Canada and we will be repatriated Canadian empty nesters in Toronto! In 2011, we bought a cottage on Lake Kawagama, outside Dorset and so it seems that the use case for the cottage has changed dramatically. We are now like so many Torontonians - heading up the 400 on Friday evenings, stopping at Weber’s for burgers!

Our son Kevin is at Rice University studying environmental biology.19 year old Erin is aMathematics major at Washington University in St. Louis. 17 year old Meghan is a senior this year, a varsity volleyball player, and runs her own photography business. The kids are all proud Canadians – it’s so great to see the Canadian flags in their dorm rooms!

Q: What are you reading?

A: “I read the Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, and the Globe every day. I always have a book on the go. Recent great books that I have recommended to my team include Amy Edmondson’s book Teaming and Pat Lencioni’s book The Advantage. One great book that helps us to think about the future in healthcare is Clay Christensen’s book The Innovator’s Prescription. Travis Bradberry’s Emotional Intelligence is a rewarding read in that emotional intelligence and coachability are the 2 factors that I look for when hiring.”

Q: What about clinical work?

A: “I am licensing now, so that one day I will hopefully be able to see patients and use the system, not to do big cases as I used to do, but to stay close to my roots and be an authentic member of the clinical community. The Board of Directors may not see this as the CEO’s best use of time, but I am convinced of its value. I will always remain connected with care on the front lines. Indeed, on my first day of work at UHN, I brought breakfast to the ER staff at 6:30 AM and met with them for an hour to begin my learning. Each week, I am out on front lines meeting our employees and learning from our UHN teams. This is part of my commitment to be always listening to members of our community as a servant leader.


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