Trevor Fetter
Trevor Fetter

Chris Clark conducts interviews with leading corporate directors and subject matter experts for Stuart Levine & Associates, a global consulting and leadership development company.  The Planet Governance™ interview series features the views of corporate directors and chief executives on critical issues from ESG and cyber-resiliency to succession planning and board composition.

I was lucky enough to catch up with Trevor Fetter, Lead Independent Director, The Hartford Financial Services Group, to discuss everything from healthcare governance to the inflection points of his illustrious career.

With the ever-growing complexity of the healthcare environment, boards are continually faced with making key decisions on new and important issues & risks. This level of complexity requires healthcare board members to be thoroughly engaged in the governance process…

Trevor, why is healthcare governance now even more critically important?

The governance of healthcare organizations has always been more important and more difficult than other types of companies. The stakes couldn’t be higher than human health and well-being, and the job couldn’t be more difficult because of those high stakes and the resulting level of regulatory and societal scrutiny. I’ve been told that there are more regulations for running a nuclear power plant than for a hospital…but I don’t believe it.

Another way to demonstrate the importance of governance in healthcare is to look at some recent high-profile situations in the news that have gone wrong, from a highly-valued startup getting shut down after freely prescribing ADHD drugs following brief telehealth consultations, to some of the largest pharma and distribution companies facing massive litigation and reputational damage over their roles in fueling the opioid epidemic. With all the pressures that managements face today, the board is more important than ever in seeing the big picture and the risks that come with pursuing growth and profit. Beyond those recent examples, the Theranos story seems to have no end of remakes and sequels. We even use a case study on it in a class on leadership and corporate accountability I teach to MBA students at Harvard Business School. It resonates with students because so many of them aspire to create world-changing companies.

Boards and the senior management of organizations are most successful when firmly rooted in mission-driven core values. An effective board and senior management team is especially critical in today’s challenging environment, particularly in the realms of leadership development and strategy…

 Corporate purpose can be a tremendous advantage for healthcare companies who use it well. What could be a greater purpose than helping people live healthier and happier lives? With the right framing, it can draw great people to your organization, help align them around your strategy, and build a strong culture. On the other hand, defining a healthcare company’s purpose around financial metrics or shareholder value, for example, is certain to have the opposite effect. Framing purpose and ensuring the company walks the talk are areas where the board has an important oversight role to play.

Who was the single most positive influence in your career? 

No question: my father. He set an example of leading with values and never compromising his principles. Your leadership DNA can be imprinted from any number of sources, and I was fortunate to get mine from him. At age 88, he’s also still going to his office every day, and he recently extended his lease. That’s the spirit!

What one strategic move are you most proud? 

Fifteen years ago at Tenet, we made a major move into ambulatory centers and back-office services for healthcare providers. The idea was to drive higher growth, higher margins, and better capital efficiency than what was possible in our core hospital business. At the time, the conventional wisdom said these could be distractions or even cannibalize our core business. These freshly-created businesses, now each number one in their respective fields, turned out to be growth and margin engines for the company, and despite pressure from activists to “unlock” value by breaking up the company, it’s still together and the management has doubled-down on that strategy. 

Trevor, it has been a treat. Thank you.

Trevor Fetter joined the faculty of Harvard Business School in 2019 after a long career in healthcare, including as Chairman and CEO of Tenet, one of the nation’s leading healthcare providers. Today, in addition to teaching in the MBA program at HBS, he serves as lead director for The Hartford Financial Services Group, as board chair of two private healthcare services companies, and as an independent director of two leading health-tech companies. 

Christopher Y. Clark recently joined Stuart Levine & Associates as a senior consultant after a long career at the National Association of Corporate Directors. He has over 30 years of entrepreneurial and corporate business experience. His expertise ranges across a broad variety of disciplines including corporate governance, strategic communications and digital content creation.