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An ambitious and determined leader, Hartford HealthCare President and Chief Executive Officer Jeff Flaks is committed to his organization, his employees, and his community. MetroHartford Alliance Content Manager Nan Price spoke with Jeff about leading a healthcare organization through the pandemic, embracing lessons learned, and new opportunities gained.

NAN PRICE: As a CEO, what is it like to lead a large organization through a global catastrophe?

JEFFREY FLAKS: In 2022 Hartford HealthCare’s first organization, the Institute of Living, will be celebrating its 200th anniversary. As we approach this milestone, I recognize that our organization has been here through world wars, a civil war, economic upheaval, public health crises, and social unrest. We’re going to be here after this pandemic—and we’re going to emerge stronger.

Throughout the pandemic, many of us have yearned for aspects of our lives to go back to normal. We constantly ask ourselves: When are we going to return to normal? But in healthcare we don’t ever want to go back to normal. Today, we’re better than we were before—and we need to be significantly better into the future.

From a leadership standpoint, this crisis provided us with an opportunity to do whatever was possible. It was a time to lean in and use all our capabilities and capacity to support the community in its time of greatest need.

NAN: Any major lessons learned?

JEFF: The learnings were immeasurable. There were enormous lessons about infection control procedures, patient access, using virtual health differently, and connecting with patients and families in innovative ways. Most importantly, we learned more about our role in improving health equity, ensuring that no person or community is left behind, and how to align with community partners to meet the needs of our community members who are most vulnerable. The lessons are critical and our challenge and our commitment is to ensure that, as we emerge from the pandemic, we don’t lose our forward momentum.

NAN: With the nature of healthcare, your organization wasn’t necessarily in a position to transition to remote work.

JEFF: We were very pleased and enormously proud that we maintained our workforce in entirety, especially during those early days of the pandemic when there was so much uncertainty and concern. Our colleagues are healthcare heroes who display extraordinary courage and bravery.

We worked very hard to support our workforce and redeploy people to where they could help best during the pandemic. It was another contribution Hartford HealthCare could make to help strengthen and stabilize the broader community during this time.

Again, this is about becoming better than normal. We learned a tremendous amount from the pandemic about ways to support our colleagues more effectively and manage things differently. A lot of those lessons we’ll carry forward to help us be an even better place to work.

NAN: Did you have any opportunities to celebrate or recognize your workforce?

JEFF: We’ve recognized and rewarded our workforce constantly during this pandemic. On several different occasions, we were in a position to provide some special financial recognition in support of the amazing work our team did throughout this pandemic.

Hartford HealthCare invested millions of dollars to create a colleague support fund that provided financial assistance during hardship. So, when people had significant others who were out of work or when they had run into various unforeseeable difficulties, they could draw money out of out of the colleague support fund to help them through these challenging times.

To further support people throughout the crisis, we also built a 24/7 colleague resource center. So, whether someone needed groceries in their home or they needed emotional support, we built a therapeutic behavioral health hotline, which we call a “warm line,” so that at any moment someone could call and speak to a behavioral health professional who could guide them to the right level of care. That’s one of those things I look at and think: Why did we only do this during the pandemic? We should always do that. So, now we are. It’s one of many examples of us becoming better.

NAN: Speaking of becoming better, tell us about your plans to bring offices to Hartford.

 JEFF: We have new offices coming to downtown Hartford that will bring 700 to 800 jobs to the city. I couldn’t be more excited about it. We’re effectively building an urban core campus in our capitol city at 100 Pearl Street. This is another example of recognizing that healthcare is an economic engine and healthcare plays a significant role in the health, wellness, wellbeing, and economic vitality of our state and our region.

And, at a time where more and more companies are pulling out of our downtown communities, Hartford HealthCare is very purposely leaning in. We’re going to put a significant number of feet on the street and we’re doing this in a very strategic manner. We’re moving our offices that do business and commerce downtown so they bring firms into the city that will eat at our restaurants, park in our garages, and stay in our hotels. Ultimately, we hope they take office space proximate to us so we can ensure that our cities continue to reinvent themselves and thrive.

This move is a vote of confidence in the city of Hartford and it’s an indication of our awareness about the importance of what an organization like ours with our large employment base means to the ultimate success of our state.

NAN: You’ve also been involved in some exciting initiatives.

JEFF: Yes! As the CEO, I have a strong belief in paying it forward. Hartford HealthCare also sees that education is a social determinant of health, which is why we invest in education. In collaboration with ReadyCT and the Connecticut Business & Industry Association (CBIA) we built the Hartford HealthCare Allied Health pathway at Hartford Public High School.

This is such an exciting development. Through the program, sophomores will participate in a special curriculum we’re co-designing with the public school system. We’re providing support to the faculty and we’re providing experiential learning including several different paid internships and support for the students to graduate with three different certifications.

These students will be immediately eligible for a two- or four-year program—whether it’s in nursing, a radiology or laboratory technician role, or another allied health profession. Or they can come work directly for Hartford HealthCare and then they can be eligible for our tuition reimbursement benefits, have a mentor assigned to them, and continue to advance while they’re working.

The program will take students who have a passion for helping others and an ambition to work in healthcare and fast track their ability to get credentials, experience, and mentorship and enable them to emerge out of high school on an upward trajectory. We hope to expand this program throughout the state.

NAN: Lastly, can you tell us about the work Hartford HealthCare is doing to support diversity?

JEFF: We held our first-ever Hartford HealthCare Supplier Diversity Summit at the end of July. Two years ago, we launched an initiative on enhancing our supplier diversity and, in just the last year, we’ve already improved our diversity spending by $37 million. At this point, we’re spending $66 million with more than 250 diverse business partners. In the past 12 months, that trajectory is going to exceed that number. This is part of Hartford HealthCare’s commitment to equity. We recognize the strength and economic prowess of Hartford HealthCare and how it can make our communities healthier and help ensure that no person and no community is really left behind.

At the end of July, we also proudly opened the Hartford HealthCare amphitheater in Bridgeport in partnership with Live Nation. This partnership will create 500 more jobs in Bridgeport. It will help make Bridgeport more of a cultural center of activity and an importer of people into Bridgeport to help the overall economic prosperity of that region.

Each of these efforts is focused on advancing Connecticut. Under my leadership, one of my chief ambitions is to continue to work hard to help move Connecticut forward, advance opportunities for as many people and touch as many individuals as we possibly can.

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