Paul Levy, Man on a Missive

By Paul Flannery | Boston Magazine |

It was an unfortunate choice of neckwear. Sure, it was Opening Day, but ties festooned with miniature Red Sox logos are best worn by high school algebra teachers, not by CEOs of major hospitals whose leadership has just been hailed by PBS and MSNBC.

And yet, the tie said something about Beth Israel Deaconess chief Paul Levy.
Namely, that he was unafraid of the eye-rolling such earnestness inevitably invites. And that made the tie fitting for the occasion, since, in between bites of a sausage and pepper sub (he really gets into Opening Day), Levy was fielding questions about his blog, Running a Hospital, which most certainly drew eye-rolls, and worse, when he launched it—and which three years later has helped Levy look very good, indeed.

This spring Levy has been one of Boston’s most talked-about corporate bosses, thanks to an extraordinary set of town hall meetings he held in March, during which he rallied the employees of his recession-pinched hospital to save the jobs of their lowest-paid colleagues. But that breakthrough would have been impossible without the groundwork laid by his blogging. Through discipline, openness to criticism and feedback, and, yes, a certain amount of golly-gee enthusiasm, Levy has taken the most self-indulgent medium of 21st-century communication and turned it into a business tool as sharp as any scalpel. (Which he will cheerfully admit he has no idea how to use: Before taking over Beth Israel in 2002, Levy had spent most of his professional life in the public sphere, which explains his thick skin, and in academia, where he fostered his inquisitive nature.) More than that, Levy, in fact, might well be the first CEO to go beyond marketing-motivated bloviating and employ a blog for a more essential bottom-line purpose. It’s a neat trick, but one not as easy as it looks. It’s taken years of practice to pull it off. It might also have taken being Paul Levy.

Levy does most of his blogging at his home in Newton in the morning, before his regular 5 a.m. bike ride. There are fewer distractions that way, although on and off during the workday he will jump in to read and respond to comments. The time he spends on his blog is minimal, 15 to 20 minutes per session, but he cops to being a ruthless self-editor. "Find the sentence you like best and take it out," Levy says of his writing philosophy. "It’s probably superfluous."

A proponent of transparency long before Team Obama made it a buzz word, Levy first got interested in blogging as part of his full-disclosure push as a manager. Before he put up his first post, he spoke to some staffers about the idea, but most didn’t even know enough to be skeptical: As Levy would note in his inaugural entry in August 2006, there was at the time only one Fortune 500 chief with a blog. Plus, Levy had built up a reservoir of goodwill that, as Beth Israel board member (and Boston Capital CEO) Jack Manning says, "frankly engenders enormous confidence for virtually anything Paul wants to do."

There wasn’t much to reward that confidence in the months after Levy launched Running a Hospital. Not because the blog was getting him into trouble with controversial content, but because it just wasn’t very good. There was a goo-goo sappiness to it, punctuated by a few ill-considered :) symbols (yup, he used emoticons). Worse, it was too safe—a word not often associated with Levy, who had built his reputation by tackling the cleanup of Boston Harbor as executive director of the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority, and who had signed on as Beth Israel’s CEO as the hospital was struggling to pull back from the brink of insolvency.

So, in an early example of soliciting "the wisdom of the crowd," as he’s fond of calling it (and something he would use to great effect when the hospital went through its very public layoff process this year), Levy asked friends for input, which he, of course, posted in the comments section. "I think you’d get a lot more feedback if you wrote about kayaking," wrote one. "My gut instinct is that most people do not want to read about others’ work experiences in their free time."

But Levy wasn’t some office drone complaining about TPS reports or lamenting the quality of his iced latte. And as he got comfortable airing some of his hospital’s dirty laundry—and mixing things up with competitors and critics—the blog became a must-bookmark in Boston’s business and media circles. "I think he’s a rabble-rouser by nature," says Harvard Pilgrim Health Care CEO Charlie Baker, who also serves on Beth Israel’s board of trustees. "He’s not afraid to cut a different path, there’s no question about that."

While Levy never did get into riffing on aquatic adventure sports, he did start including posts on his personal pursuits, like coaching youth soccer, and the occasional nature observation, such as a 2008 ode to spring ("Yay!"). These kinds of posts, too, serve a strategic purpose: They balance out the more high-minded offerings and establish the casual, conversational tone of a guy who’s just telling it like it is. Using that same no-corporate-BS voice, Levy has argued against the Service Employees International Union’s efforts to organize at Beth Israel, implored other medical institutions to follow his lead in posting infection-rate data, and waged a kind of public counteroffensive against Partners HealthCare, Beth Israel’s gigantic and not-always-friendly Longwood neighbor. (Levy often starts by praising Partners’ business plan, then in the next sentence muses about whether, say, its quest for market share and its sweetheart deal with Blue Cross Blue Shield are in the consumer’s best interests. An iron fist in a velvet laptop, as it were.)

"It’s not from a lack of diplomacy—it’s only that he wants to do the right thing," Manning says. "He doesn’t sugarcoat and he doesn’t try to PR it. That’s just not who he is."

There’s a fancy academic explanation for why what Levy is doing works, a theory that they teach in business school. Before arriving at Beth Israel, Levy taught negotiation at MIT; during that time, he got to know James Sebenius, a professor at Harvard Business School whom he dubs "the world’s best teacher." Sebenius preaches what he calls the "three-dimensional approach" to negotiation. That is, establish the rules of the game, and the possible outcomes, before you sit down at the table.

As Levy tackled Beth Israel’s recent cost-cutting, he used Running a Hospital to do just that. First he blogged about the hospital’s finances, in clear and painful detail, and what they would mean in terms of layoffs and also what management, himself included, would have to sacrifice. Then he solicited ideas on how to save money and jobs, right down to figuring out how many hospital staffers really needed subsidized BlackBerries. As a final touch, Levy put out a call to help "protect the lowest wage-earners"—a plea that would bring down the house at those March town hall meetings. Of course, he could stand up in front of his employees and ask everyone to share the pain because he knew his missives on Running a Hospital had them leaning in that direction.

With the success of his blog, Levy has seen his audience, and influence, grow. Marty Bonick, the CEO of Jewish Hospital in Louisville, Kentucky, first read about Running a Hospital in an airline magazine. He e-mailed Levy to tell him, "You’re like the mentor I’ve never met," and in January launched his own blog (about which he admits, "It felt like plagiarism when we started doing it, because this is exactly what [Levy] did"). When his hospital, too, faced a budget crunch, Bonick followed Levy’s playbook, using his blog to circulate financial numbers, call town hall meetings, and gather staffers’ input on cost-cutting measures. "I don’t have the years of building up the base that Paul has," Bonick says, "but everything is moving along as he saw it."

To be sure, there will be more issues facing Levy and Beth Israel. With the economy still straining the hospital’s finances, further layoffs are possible. Partners continues to gobble market share, and Congress has the Employee Free Choice Act legislation, which could aid the cause of those looking to organize Beth Israel’s workers, penciled onto its summer agenda. And then there is this city’s habit of turning on its most successful, as Levy well knows. "First they throw the flowers," he says, "then they throw the pot." Of course, should that happen, he’ll only need to log on to get out his response.

Source URL: http://www.bostonmagazine.com/2009/05/paul-levy-man-on-a-missive/