From an early age, Corwin N. Harper showed he's not the type to shrink from challenges.
When his parents brought young Harper, their only child, along to master's degree courses in education, he would listen attentively. At age 10, he often would take the same tests as adults and score impressively.
So it's no surprise he willingly abandoned hospitals for a new enterprise when Kaiser Permanente asked him become its medical group administrator in September 1996. Harper, now 32, heads Permanente Medical Group, a Fresno, Calif.-based Kaiser division with an annual budget of $50 million.
Harper says he takes great pride in overseeing a multispecialty physician group that has 110 doctors and covers more than 100,000 Kaiser enrollees. The group also has a satellite clinic chalking up more than 500,000 outpatient visits annually.
"I'm a leader, not a manager," Harper says. "A leader leads people, whereas a manager manages processes. I set the strategic vision and try to find opportunities."
He describes himself as the "right-hand man" to Larry Coble, M.D., physician-in-chief of the operation.
Building a proper organizational structure is the focus of Harper's strategy. He takes an aggressive approach to streamlining, including a close analysis of the organization's supplies, contracts and operations.
"I don't like too much hierarchy in management because it hurts the communication flow," Harper says.
Before joining Kaiser, Harper was responsible for streamlining 11 clinical and professional departments at Mount Sinai Hospital Medical Center of Chicago, where he oversaw more than 500 full-time employees from 1994 to 1996. Within four months in his role as vice president of professional services, he was able to renegotiate Mount Sinai's perfusion services contract, which would save the hospital more than $75,000 annually. He also influenced department heads to renegotiate maintenance contracts and adopt other initiatives, saving more than $250,000 annually.
A pivotal time for Harper was 1986, when he was a senior majoring in pre-medical biology at the Citadel, a military college in South Carolina. He followed a Citadel board member's advice to pursue a career in healthcare administration and joined the Army's Medical Service Corps after receiving his bachelor's degree.
He was promoted to company commander at Dwight David Eisenhower Army Medical Center at Fort Gordon, Ga. He attained the post, the Army's equivalent of chief operating officer, at age 25.
Harper says he didn't feel intimidated by taking on a highly responsible and visible position at such a young age.
"I was ready and felt challenged. I felt that I had the ethical foresight to do the job and lead people," he says. "I don't run away from people and I don't quit."
He went on to complete a 60-credit hour residency in one year at U.S. Army Medical Command in San Antonio in 1993 and received his master's of health administration in an Army-funded program at Baylor University.
Harper met mentor Phillip L. Dorsey when he joined the Army and credits Dorsey with designing a long-range strategy to become a successful healthcare administrator. Dorsey, now retired from the military, advised Harper on which graduate program to enter and also encouraged him to join the American College of Healthcare Executives.
"Corwin is a people person who is not afraid to challenge the status quo while supporting the system that he's working in at the same time," says Dorsey, district administrator at the Department of Children and Family Services in Fort Myers, Fla.
Dorsey recruited Harper for Baylor University and says, "He's a very professional guy who has a built-in desire to succeed based on his own abilities and desires nothing to be given to him."
Harper serves as a captain in the Army Reserve and is active in the ACHE, among other healthcare organizations.
In addition to pursuing his Christian Baptist activities, Harper enjoys spending time with his wife, Terrye Moore-Harper, a registered nurse, and their two children, Morgan, 7, and Meghan, 3.
When he's not busy with his other activities, Harper exercises vigorously. He lifts weights, plays basketball and runs.
He sees a lot of similarity between running and his management style.
"Just like sprinting or intervals, you have to know how to pull back and pace yourself," Harper reflects. "I try to do that in my work."