“You Can Get Mad, Pout, or Do Something About It”


Last month the Center for Wealth and Legacy’s Leadership Insight Forum series hosted another superb guest. CEO and President of Scripps Health, Chris Van Gorder joined us at the Corporate Alliance San Diego Headquarters in the University Town Center area to discuss his life and give insights to success. From his humble beginnings to a very accomplished leader, Chris was very open to his background, how he came to be in his current position, the importance of humble leadership and service to others.

Importance of Strong Beginnings

Chris allowed the audience to learn about his parents who had dropped out of school during the Great Depression and had very little money. “Dad was from Canada. Mom was from Scotland. They loved the US. They instilled in my brother and I that we have to serve the country … to give back for all we have been given.”   His dad delivered milk to door-to-door and his mother worked at a bookstore where Chris first worked when he was 13 years old with his twin brother. No matter that their family lacked significant finances, they had a very strong sense of service. As World War II broke out, his father went to serve in the Military Police which also led Chris to that field after working for Arby’s and attending college (which Chris worked through school to put himself through). He worked as a police cadet full time during the summer and 20 hours a week during college. Finally, he decided to apply to the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Academy and went into law enforcement. It would be from one single incident that his entire life would change.

Challenges That Force Us To Excel

“A few years into my law enforcement career I was answering a domestic dispute call. A woman had locked herself in her car with her child. When we answered the call and confronted her she took off in the car. In the course of giving chase, the woman chose to drive her car straight at me. She hit my car at 60 mph. It threw my car back, and even though wearing a seat belt, it threw me into the ceiling of my patrol car. She was unhurt, as was the child, but the impact broke my neck among other injuries. Badly injured, it took over an hour to get me out of the car. While I couldn’t know it at the time, this caused a major change of direction in my life… it was the end of my career in law enforcement. I could barely walk and was diagnosed with anxiety and a psychiatrist was concerned about depression and possible suicide (PTSD).”

At a pivotal moment in his life Chris recognized that he could continue to suffer through depression or do something about it, “I was depressed after losing my career that I loved and was feeling sorry for myself. A doctor gave me a prescription for depression that I promptly tore up, but it got my attention. That day I forced myself to walk for 100 yards. The next day, 200 yards. The next day a little farther. I began to regain mobility a little bit more every day.” After a year in the hospital and physical therapy, he applied for the job as Director of Security at Orthopedic Hospital – the same hospital that had cared for him after the crash. When they were reluctant to do so because of concerns over his health, Chris said to them, “Pay me minimum wage for next 90 days. At the end of that time, if I have not proved myself, then let me go. Let me prove myself.” As head of security at the orthopedic hospital, he watched the administrator there very closely and quickly recognized that he could do that role. Yet while he had job skills, he lacked the professional credentials. The CEO at the time was Bob Sloane and who would become a lifelong mentor of Chris, he brought the realization that he must go back to school. With Bob’s encouragement Chris finished school and received the proper training to aid his useful job skills.

Challenges of Character

Another very interesting story detailed the character of Chris: “I left Anaheim Memorial after about 8 years as a Vice President (VP) and Chief Operations Officer (COO) to become COO at the Little Company of Mary Hospital in Torrance. I often describe the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of that hospital as the best COO I have ever known, but that was my job, the CEO was a micromanager. As he didn’t let me really do my job I eventually left to take the CEO position back at Anaheim Memorial Hospital.” Bob (his mentor who was at a hospital he had previously departed) was struggling as CEO and the Board at the hospital was going to let him go. They approached Chris to assume that role and as much as he desired to be in that position, he did not accept the opportunity as Bob was his mentor, he could not do something like that to his mentor.

Six months later, the Board Chair called Chris back and let him know that Bob (his mentor) had already been terminated. “We would like you to come back.”  Chris stated that “Before I did anything, I called Bob to meet personally first … He was angry with me, and thought that he lost his job because I had been waiting in the wings. After I explained the timetable of events and he understood the whole story, he opened up.”

As it turned out, when the Board Chair called the first time, he was testing Chris. Did Chris have the morals and loyalty to Bob to turn down the job offer? “It was only when I showed that relationships mattered more to me than a job title did they eventually come back when the position really was available. I did take that position … the second time it was offered … and merged that hospital with another hospital at Long Beach. After that, I came to Scripps.”

Remind Your People What is Important

“Companies have to do more than just pay employees a fair wage and benefits. They should provide what workers need to excel at their jobs. Always take care of your people. I tell our front-line team: If you need more resources, come to me. If we don’t take care of our people, we can’t take care of our patients. Making this concept real in the workplace can defuse tension among people and leave employees feeling like they’re part of a family where their voices are heard, their needs are met and their opportunities are plentiful. But how do you create that kind of environment? I can point to number of ways we accomplish this at Scripps.”

The Scripps unique, in-house Employee Assistance Program (EAP) plays a big role. With a team of trained psychologists, the EAP staff is there when employees have personal needs that require attention or when conflict arises.  We call it taking care of the ‘me’ first … providing for our employees and looking out for their needs so intensely that they can be freed up to put others our patients and their colleagues – first. Through our Scripps Leadership Academy alumni, we established what we call the HOPE Fund, which is designed to help employees in financial need employees helping employees. Almost everyone in the organizations donates something and I help in the fund raising campaigns each year.

“I am constantly inspired by the stories of our front-line workers and the patients that they serve.” Scripps has three generations of families working their now.  During a visit to a very bloody emergency room, Chris had a conversation with one of his housekeepers, “If I don’t do my job and get this all cleaned up, the work of saving lives can’t happen. What I do here really matters. It is important work. He gets it … how could you not be inspired by team members like that?”

Tell a Story to Convey Message

When Scripps Health conducts its new employee orientation, they traverse a room to find pictures of people posted on all sides. “We usually have a photo of Claire, a vibrant young girl surrounded by volleyballs. When I ask the new employees what they think happened to her, they respond that she probably sustained a sports injury. They are usually shocked to hear that Claire, at the age of 17, was driving down the freeway when she suffered a massive stroke that completely paralyzed her left side. The ambulance took her to one of our facilities where we happened to have a brand new piece of high-tech imaging equipment. The doctor snaked a catheter up into her brain and was able to break up the clot that had caused the stroke. Just hours later, Claire began to recover feeling on her left side. After a period of rehab, she experienced a full recovery. Six months later she was enrolled in college, having received a volleyball scholarship.”

During one of Scripps Health’s quarterly system-wide management meetings, Claire and her father joined the staff to share their perspectives. Claire got up and told her story just as you would expect a teenager to explain it – in a simple, straightforward way, without a full awareness of her stroke’s seriousness. But when it was her father’s turn to speak, he broke down. The room went silent. Collecting himself, Claire’s father told the group that he had been afraid he would lose his daughter or that she would become an invalid for the rest of her life. “I am so grateful,” he said, “that she happened to show up in your hospital, which had the right technology and the right doctors at the right time.”

At a management meeting, Chris once again started the session with a patient visit and story. The director of the Rehab Center described how this patient, a man in his 30s, had been involved in a bad motorcycle accident and was left paralyzed. He couldn’t walk, and he relied on catheters for some of his critical bodily functions. When first injured, the man received good care elsewhere, but his rehab had left much to be desired. He came to our center and we were able to improve his condition substantially. He still couldn’t walk, but he could now live a better life and even become a father.  The Scripps Rehab Medical Director and Corporate Medical Director introduced this same man to the audience, and he rolled out onto the stage in a wheelchair. He told the audience of 600 people about his accident and his gratitude for the care he had received. And then the fireworks started. “You know what?” the man said, “I’m going to walk again!”

One of the physical therapists came on stage and strapped the man into a groundbreaking new device called an exoskeleton. This device, whose lightweight parts extend over the trunk and legs, allow a person with weakened limbs to stand and even walk. With the exoskeleton helping him, picking up and putting down his legs with each step, this man slowly walked 40 feet across the room. People were up and out of their seats, cheering and clapping. When the emotion simmered down, the man explained how meaningful it was to him that he could get out of his wheelchair and walk. “I never thought this would happen again in my life.”

Humility in Leadership

Chris doesn’t believe in hiding behind the veil of a title. “Yes, I have responsibility, but I am still just an employee like everyone else. At Scripps, we really try to take away the titles. The Head of Human Resources used to work at an Arby’s (similar to Chris). The security people at Scripps like Chris as the CEO (of all the staff groups) because I started as one of them. We are not our title.”

Additionally, Chris wants to be someone that others can approach, intimidation is not the key in leadership. Accessibility is more than an open door policy. Often a new employee will write an email to test me on this like one I got the other day… “I am a new employee in orientation and they say you will respond back right away. Is it true?” Within minutes they got an email back from me, “Yes I do.”

Philanthropy and Giving Back is Important

“Ellen Browning Scripps in her gifts to the community truly taught others to be generous with their time and resources. Mother Mary Michael Cummings (Founder of Scripps Mercy Hospital) probably caught it as part of her religious order.” As Scripps was founded by a $250,000 gift from Ellen Browning Scripps in 1924 the hospital(s) would not exist today if it were not for her philanthropy. Additionally, Scripps would not be able to sustain the mission today if it were not for the generosity of many.

Scripps Health provided $373 million in community benefit in 2014 including approximately $48 million in charity care, $15 million in health research, $22 million in physician and professional education, $2 million in community building activities, $6 million in subsidized health services and $5 million in community health programs. The rest is in reimbursement shortfalls from government payers. 15.5% of our total operating expenses in 2014 were devoted to community benefit services at cost (not charges).

Scripps also encourages volunteering in the community and support of programs like United Way, American Heart Association, Heart Walk, etc. In September 2005, Chris organized and led an 81-member Scripps Medical Response Team to Houston to aid Hurricane Katrina and Rita survivors. Scripps Health was requested by Surgeon General Richard Carmona, marking the first time the federal government called on a private health care system to deploy a medical team to assist the federal government in a national disaster relief effort.

The Scripps Medical Response Team later provided community medical support following the 2007 San Diego County wildfires, and again in January 2010, when Chris had the privilege to lead the Scripps Medical Response Team to Port au Prince, Haiti to aid victims of the devastating earthquake. Today, the Scripps Disaster Preparedness Office provides counsel to local, state and federal disaster efforts.

However amazing what the Scripps Health employees provide the nation, it is also very significant how this global leader dedicates his time. Chris himself donates a very large amount of volunteer time to the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department as a Reserve Assistant Sheriff (being a part of the department for the past 13 years donating between 500 and 1,000 hours of service every year). Even more, he is a licensed emergency medical technician (EMT), an instructor for the American Red Cross, an assistant clinical professor in health administration and member of the Healthcare Advisory Board in the USC School of Policy, Planning, and Development (SPPD), and on the Editorial Board of the Governance Institute.

A very humble and reflective man, Chris finally noted upon how we would like to be remembered in years to come or even each after each work day: “Would Mother Mary Cummings (who established Mercy Hospital), and Ellen B. Scripps (who gave of her wealth to help start Scripps) – would they be happy with what I did today? Am I helping to create a lasting team that will stay strong in serving the community in the same way as they did?”

Taught with strong family values and a sense of service from a young age, to facing multiple challenges, to continuing to inspire and continue his help to mankind, Chris is an exemplary role model for all. We were fortunate to receive a morning’s worth of mentorship from him and his wife, Rosemary 

Quotes to live by:

  • “Your worst day in your life may lead to the best day of your life.”
  • “A culture of advocacy is like a plant – if you don’t feed and water it almost every day, it will die.”
  • “Every patient has a story. These are people, not just patients.”
  • “Whatever you do – do it at the finest level you can. Understand that there are three legs to every career. The first leg is responsibility. The second is authority. The third is accountability. Those are the three legs. Many want the authority but without the responsibility. Few want accountability. It takes all three legs.”
  • “Don’t be afraid to make mistakes … as long as it doesn’t kill someone or bankrupt the company.”
  • “I see my role and management’s role as a teacher. How to turn a question that is asked of me into a teaching moment and help to build trust.”
  • “Be kind to everyone; you never know when you might be coming to them for a job.”
  • “One important piece of advice … don’t take yourself too seriously.”


We hope that you can join us at the next Center for Wealth and Legacy function on September 21st as we host the Inspiration Awards and learn of more courageous and motivating persons in our region.

Thanks to R.J. Kelly for scribing these notes for the Leadership Insights Forum and this article.