Iowa: A Foundation for Strong Leadership

By Ben Frotscher
Sean O'Grady, chief operating officer for NorthShore University Health System in Evanston, Illinois, say the value of teamwork he learned within the University of Iowa College of Public Health's Master of Health Administration program has helped him lead during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Sean O'Grady Sean O'Grady

For Sean O'Grady (93MA), this past year has been one of the most challenging and rewarding years of his nearly 30-year career in health administration. Despite the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, O'Grady's collaborative actions as chief operating officer for NorthShore University Health System in Evanston, Illinois, were rooted in keeping patients and team members safe.

We talked to O'Grady recently about the health care administration field and how his time at Iowa prepared him to lead amidst a global pandemic.

What drew you to the Master of Health Administration program at Iowa?

O'Grady: When I was in college, my mother took a job working for the vice president of strategy and planning at a hospital on Long Island. Her experience opened my eyes to the possibility of combining my interest in medicine and service with my business interests. Several health care leaders were very generous with their time—both in New York and in Peoria, Illinois, where I was an undergraduate at Bradley University—and allowed me to shadow them to understand more about their careers. I was accepted at several Big Ten hospital and health administration programs. I chose Iowa because the warmth and beauty of the campus, the program, and Iowa City. And Iowa provided me with a graduate assistantship that also made it the most affordable for me since I was paying my own way throughout graduate school.

Do you have a favorite memory from your time at Iowa?

O'Grady: There are so many, but my time working as graduate assistant for Sam Levey (59MA, 61PhD) was probably the richest experience. Sam was a character. He taught me so much about leadership and about myself. He had such a huge impact on my career and my life. I was privileged to work with Sam on primary research about the history of the University of Iowa Hospital & Clinics for the book he published. The opportunity to review original documents in the Iowa Archives as a part of this work was incredibly moving. And I would be remiss if I didn't mention the many fun Thursday evenings at Mickey's and football Saturdays. There is no place better than Iowa City during a home football weekend!

How did your Iowa education prepare you for your professional life, as well as prepare you for working amid a global pandemic?

O'Grady: The Iowa MHA program is all about working in teams to achieve shared objectives.   Everything I do as a chief operating officer is about leveraging the value of individuals and groups to achieve our organizational mission and vision. Teamwork was particularly essential as we responded to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Iowa program instilled a deep sense of humility and collaboration as the foundation for my leadership style. It also taught me how to quickly analyze a situation and make an informed decision with confidence. My Iowa training was invaluable as I co-led our organizational COVID response.

What has been the greatest challenge you and your organization have faced during the COVID-19 pandemic?

O'Grady: The greatest challenge was balancing the devastating economic impact on our organizational financials and the well-being of our selfless and heroic team members.  

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed everyone's lives. What is a lesson you have learned during the past year?

O'Grady: This past year has reinforced that strong systems, processes, and people get stronger when pressure increases. It has also taught us that we can effectively make big changes on a dime when the circumstances require rapid agility. We must take those skills forward into our post COVID world. Health care has a reputation of being stuck and slow to make change.   COVID taught us that a sense of shared purpose can bring down barriers and allow us to rapidly adapt and realize dramatic improvement.

What would you want a student considering a future career in health care administration to know about the field today and where it is headed in the future?

O'Grady: I don't think much has changed since I made the decision to be an Iowa master's student in 1991. Sure, there is a lot more technology, but the fundamentals of effective health care leadership have remained consistent. Students considering a career in health administration should ensure that servant leadership resonates with their values system and that they have a deep commitment to making health care more accessible and better for the people we are privileged to serve. They also need to be comfortable allowing others to stand in the spotlight. Our success as health care leaders comes through in the success and development of others. It's not about me or us. It is all about allowing others to achieve their maximum impact and potential for the benefit of those we are privileged to serve.

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