Good leadership doesn’t really need to be too complicated, according to Dr. Joe Robertson, MBA ’97. The key, he said, is to simply look around, see what needs to be done, and then go do it.
This approach—a potent blend of vision and pragmatism—has served Robertson well during his career at Oregon Health and Sciences University (OHSU), where he has served as president since 2006. He also currently serves as chair of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco’s Portland branch.
A graduate of the University of Oregon’s Portland-based Oregon Executive MBA (OEMBA) program, Robertson spoke with program alumni and their guests at an Oregon Executive MBA Alumni Speakership evening this November.
Robertson kicked off his talk by outlining his core principles of leadership, illustrating these with stories from some of OHSU’s best-known accomplishments of the past decade.
Persistence, flexibility, and keeping the ultimate goal in sight enabled Robertson and the organization to navigate the multiyear process that led to the construction of OHSU’s Collaborative Life Sciences building. Resilience in the face of initial negative press enabled OHSU to push forward with the construction of the Portland Aerial Tram, which has now become a beloved urban icon. And most recently, boldness and creativity enabled OHSU to raise $500 million in response to the Knight Cancer Challenge.
Robertson also explained how he has learned to negotiate the balance between his work and home life by simply reframing the question.
“There is no difference—I have one life. Acquiescing to the fact that there is just one life rather than two split lives has been very comforting,” he said.
According to Robertson, his experiences nearly 20 years ago at OEMBA continue to shape his management approach. The structure of his management teams—multidisciplinary and ideally no more than six members—is based on the OEMBA study team.
“The study team is one of the things I carry with me from OEMBA,” he said.
During the second half of the evening, Robertson answered audience questions on a wide range of topics, including how he enables his teams to embrace change in the health care field and what he does as a Federal Reserve board member.
Early on in the question and answer session, a surprise visit from UO President Michael Schill gave OEMBA alumni a first-hand view of Robertson’s agile way of handling the unexpected. The OHSU leader greeted Schill with enthusiasm, made a quick joke, and then seamlessly returned to answering an alumnus’s question about the role technical expertise plays in leadership.
“You need to be able to project the threat of being able to dive in, but also realize that your job is to work for consensus, persuasion, and movement over time,” he said.