For a newly appointed CEO responsible for managing a nationally acclaimed hospital, James “Jay” Robinson III seems surprisingly laid-back.
The tone of his voice is relaxed and conversational as he discusses his new leadership role at Methodist South Hospital and the path that led him there. This calm and congenial demeanor, cultivated during his 20-year career, is one of Robinson’s keys to effective management.
“I always try to maintain an even keel because so many people watch and take cues from me as a leader,” he said. “I believe in patience. I try to take things in stride.”
Robinson earned his undergraduate degree from the University of Georgia in Athens and his Doctor of Psychology degree from the Virginia Consortium for Professional Psychology in Norfolk, Va.
In 1992, he joined the Veterans Administration system as a clinical psychologist, later earning leadership positions in Virginia, North Carolina, Georgia and, most recently, the Memphis Veterans Administration Medical Center, where he served as CEO.
He has been a fan of Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare since his youngest child was born in Methodist Le Bonheur Germantown two years ago.
“I was impressed with them right away as a customer – I learned about the culture and met (president and CEO) Gary Shorb, who is well-respected as a health care leader. Now I’m really humbled to join this system.”
Robinson replaces Michael Ugwueke, now senior vice president of Methodist North and South hospitals, who successfully conquered such challenges as financial stress, a floundering reputation and a severely lagging emergency room.
“Dr. Ugwueke made a lot of great changes,” Robinson said. “I want to continue that progress, including an assertive strategy for community outreach. We really want the community to recognize Methodist South as a leading health care provider.”
This year, U.S. News & World Report named Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare – whose four Memphis metro hospitals are licensed as one – as Best Hospital in Memphis (2012-2013) for the second consecutive year. Methodist’s hospitals also have earned various national rankings from the publication.
Meanwhile, Robinson also has his sights set on high rankings from patients.
“With changes in health care ahead of us, I truly believe that once the chasm of health care quality narrows, the biggest differentiator among health care providers will be in patient care,” he said. “We want to be national leaders in how we’re viewed in terms of patient service. We should always have a heightened focus on patient satisfaction. We should always be asking ‘Are we treating the patient like a process or a person?’”
There is passion in Robinson’s voice as he emphasizes this point, and from a professional standpoint he attributes some of this perspective to his experience working with homeless veterans in the Veterans Administration system.
“I was out of my comfort zone at first, but it really has become a passion of mine,” he said. “It’s a cause that makes you want to dedicate yourself to it, because it’s a group that really deserves that effort.
“You hear ‘homeless’ and you think of someone who’s unkempt. Now, when I look at homeless veterans, I see people who at one point wore a uniform and were ready to sacrifice themselves for us.”
From a personal standpoint, he points to his late mother as his greatest teacher and inspiration.
“She was someone who could put a mirror in front of your face and get you to look at it,” he said. “She epitomized courage and modeled how you treat people, with respect. One of the earliest lessons she taught me was: ‘You treat the janitor the same way you treat the principal.’ I reflect on it daily.”
This respect is the foundation on which he builds his management philosophy, he says.
“I try to go into most situations not feeling as if I have the final answer,” he said. “I like input and feedback from others, and I prefer people who challenge and push me.”
Former colleague of 12 years Jimmy McGlawn, associate medical center director at the Memphis VAMC, can attest to that preference, as he said much of his own respect for Robinson is due to the fact that he could successfully bump heads with him.
“Even when we worked together in different states, before we ever met in person, we began to joust about issues, very rarely agreeing, but always ending up with an effective solution,” said McGlawn, who describes Robinson as innovative, passionate, responsive and a pro at team-building. “We played to each other’s strengths for the benefit of the organization.”
The team building apparently also comes in handy at home, as Robinson has four children ranging in age from 2 to 16. Among hobbies that include golf and triathlons, he’s also an avid reader, and the list of books he’s currently reading covers nonfiction subjects from psychology to Civil War spies. However, this list has an ending that might once again surprise someone with preconceptions of a no-nonsense hospital administrator.
“I just finished the first two books in ‘The Hunger Games’ trilogy,” he said. “I had to do it so I could hold a conversation with my kids. It was all they talked about for a while.”