Warner Thomas made a bedroom out of his office at Ochsner Medical Center in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina hit the area last year.
But there wasn't much time for the health system president and chief operating officer to sleep during his two-month stay. Thomas worked 20-plus hour days, not only meeting with hospital leaders to determine how best to handle the influx of patients, but also chipping in wherever help was needed: He cleaned the cafeteria, transferred patients and stocked supplies. "It was a difficult time, and people were nervous," Thomas says. "I spent a lot of time talking to employees, reassuring people and making sure we (the leaders) understood the situation as best we could."Thomas' instrumental role in motivating employees and ensuring the hospital responded to the needs of the devastated community made him stand out among leaders, but "this crisis merely put a spotlight on the contributions Warner has always made as a part of this organization," says Patrick Quinlan, chief executive officer of Ochsner Health System.
Since he took his position in 1998, Thomas has proven an ability to balance long-term strategic plans with the execution of details at the operational level. "You find a lot of people who can do one or the other, but it's rare to find somebody who can be ambidextrous in that way," says Eric Lister, a physician-consultant at Ki Associates who works with Ochsner.
Thomas, 40, has led the financial turnaround of the health system, established a systemwide customer services program that has improved customer service scores as well as physician and staff morale, and directed expansion into new markets to meet the shifting demographics of the post-Katrina region. At the same time, Thomas' personable nature has allowed him to connect with many of the system's 7,000 employees in his effort to ensure they are in the best position to demonstrate their strengths.
"He holds people to task for performance but also looks at what people need to develop their own opportunities," Lister says.
Thomas attributes his success to working with a great team and connecting with people at all levels of the system. "Every day I try to reach and engage, whether it's with someone in management or another employee, so I can keep in touch with what's happening," he says.
Thomas began working in healthcare administration after spending 13 years at Ernst & Young as an auditor and consultant to healthcare clients on the East Coast. He says he was intrigued by the complexities of the industry.
He left his consulting job in 1990 to work as director of finance for one of his clients, 180-bed Southern New Hampshire Regional Medical Center. He eventually became president and CEO of Southern New Hampshire Health System in Nashua before beginning his tenure at Ochsner.