Top of the Ladder

After leading the effort to build the new Stamford Hospital, Greenwich resident kathleen Silard, who began her career as a registered nurse, becomes the first woman to take the helm at Stamford Health. Here, the CEO shares how she plans to meet the challenges posed by the state of modern healthcare

While Kathleen Silard was leading the team that was tasked to get the new $450-million Stamford Hospital off the ground, her to-do list included crisscrossing the country to visit other newly constructed hospitals. The trips, which Silard took with a team of doctors, nurses and former patients in tow, were intended to pinpoint what worked and—just as critically—what did not work in these new modern facilities.

“It was a gutsy move for us to build a new hospital, so getting it right was important,” says Silard, who last fall was named the president and CEO of Stamford Health, the nonprofit health system that includes Stamford Hospital and Stamford Health Medical Group.

Silard began her career forty years ago as a registered nurse in the pediatric and neonatal intensive care unit at New York City’s Albert Einstein Hospital. So it stands to reason that on her rounds of these other hospitals, she viewed their layouts through the lens of a clinician who cares about her colleagues and patients.

Consider the patient rooms in a shiny new hospital somewhere in the western part of the U.S. that Silard prefers not to identify. She grimaces while describing what-were-they-thinking room designs that included supply cabinets tucked in remote corners far from patients’ bedsides. “So every time a nurse needs something, they’ve got to leave the patient,” she says, pointing to the farthest corner of her office on Stamford Hospital’s West Side campus to make her point. “I mean you shouldn’t do that to the nurse, but you should never do that to the patient.”

Patients and their well-being come up a lot when speaking with Silard. As the first registered nurse and woman to lead Stamford Hospital as its chief executive, getting things right for anyone confined to a hospital bed seems to be a calling. “The way I look at it, no one wants to be in the hospital because that usually means they’re very sick,” she says. “So, a big part of my job is to make sure that the experience of being in the hospital is as good as it can possibly be for that patient.”

While it’s noteworthy that the longtime Greenwich resident is the first woman to lead the 123-year-old hospital, it’s Silard’s nursing credentials—even though it’s been decades since she wore nurses’ scrubs—that friends and colleagues mention most when describing the long list of skills and talents that landed her in the C-suite of the city’s largest employer.

“The nurse has never left Kathy,” says Liz Concordia, her friend and president and CEO of University of Colorado Health, a network of hospitals based in the Rocky Mountain state. “Kathy has never taken her focus off what’s best for the patient. She’s never looked at healthcare as just a business, but as a mission and a passion. And that’s a big part of what’s behind where she is today.”

Silard was the unanimous choice of Stamford Health’s twelve-member board to replace Brian Grissler, who retired in October 2018 after serving as its president and CEO since 2001.

“I think what we saw in Kathy is someone who commands great respect, who’s decisive, transparent and above all, a true team player,” says Dr. Mark DeWaele, a New Canaan dentist who serves as chairman of Stamford Health’s board of directors. “It’s rare to find all the qualities she possesses in a single individual. The fact that she’s a clinician who can also talk the talk with a wide variety of people in the hospital and understands the dynamics of patient care only made her a stronger candidate.”

Silard joined Stamford Hospital in 2003 as its COO after a long career in healthcare administration that began at Albert Einstein. It was there that a nursing mentor who was pursuing a degree in healthcare administration encouraged her to consider responsibilities beyond the patient floor.

At the time, thinking beyond a traditional nursing role was a stretch. “I’m from an era when women’s most obvious career paths were still teaching or nursing,” says Silard, who grew up in City Island, New York, and was raised by a family of teachers. “But I think from the second grade I thought nursing was how I would go. I liked science. It made sense.”

The demands of caring for children and infants in a busy, urban hospital like Albert Einstein was a challenge she embraced. “My first patients were really sick little kids,” she recalls. “They had serious illnesses, and a lot of them had just had some heavy-duty surgeries, things like kidney transplants. They were going through a lot, yet the thing about them that was so inspiring was how incredibly resilient they were.”

As much as she loved her patients, Silard became intrigued by the work that went on behind the scenes to make it possible to care for them. “To me, the hospital was like this great big puzzle, and I was interested in seeing how it all worked. I asked a lot of questions. And the more I learned, the more I wanted to know.”

After getting an advanced degree in healthcare administration at Iona College, Silard pursued roles that took her away from direct patient care. She left pediatric nursing to become executive director of clinical operations at Albert Einstein, then went on to become executive director of Montefiore Medical Group, a large medical practice that today employs more than 100 doctors in the Bronx and Westchester County. “I learned a lot about medical practice management, but I missed the patients I saw daily in the hospital, and all the activity,” she says. So she returned to hospital administration at St. Joseph’s Medical Center in Paterson, New Jersey, as its COO and executive vice president.

Joining the hospital as a COO sixteen years ago was a welcome homecoming for Silard, who had settled in Greenwich with Eddie, her businessman husband of thirty-seven years and a fellow City Islander. Silard was juggling her executive duties with the role of hockey mom to her three (now adult) sons while commuting more than an hour each way to New Jersey. “The truth is, I was missing things,” says Silard. “My boys were in school. They had their sports and activities and I wanted to be more involved in their lives. I also wanted to be more involved in the community where I lived. That’s a hard thing to do when you’re spending so much time in the car just to get back and forth to work.”

Concordia, who worked with Silard at St. Joseph’s and considers her a mentor, says her former colleague was a role model for working executive parents. “She’s very bright, diligent and incredibly efficient. She gets to the point. Meetings begin and end on time ,and she has a clear vision of what she wants to get accomplished. One of the many reasons I admired her was it was always clear that her family and children were very important to her and she never apologized for that. Yet she always took the time to be an advocate and mentor to her colleagues.”

Silard’s tenure at Stamford Hospital eventually became a sort of on-the-job tryout for CEO when she was tasked with leading the efforts to build the new hospital, which opened in 2016. Its modern amenities include a Level Two trauma center, a dedicated pediatric emergency department, a helipad, thirteen football-field-sized floors and 180 private patient rooms.

“While [building the new facility] was an enormous team effort, Kathy was the lynchpin,” says Dr. DeWaele. “She brought it all in on time and under budget. It’s part of the tremendous legacy of work she’s done to get where she is.”

As she settled in to chat about her vision for Stamford Health not long after her promotion was announced in October, Silard reflected on the unique opportunity she had to help build the hospital she now leads. “So much has changed in the [healthcare] marketplace since we made that bold decision to build,” she says. “I feel very lucky that we were able to give this community this modern, state-of-the art hospital; but, honestly, you probably won’t see something like this happen again in Fairfield County, or our state, for a long, long time.”

That’s because Silard has assumed the hospital’s helm at a time when the business of providing healthcare has probably never been more competitive, complicated or ripe for disruption. “There are so many challenges for any nonprofit hospital,” she says. Among them are skyrocketing costs of healthcare, which make it daunting even for those who are insured to pay for medical services and burdensome high deductibles. Then there are the recent changes in the structure of Medicare reimbursements, which Silard predicts could negatively impact the hospital’s balance sheet. Another cost burden: the state’s high hospital taxes, which Stamford Health has intensely lobbied against. “The bottom line is that we must grow and adapt to deal with all those things,” she says.

Before she assumed her new role, the hospital’s board gave Silard some serious homework: drafting a strategic plan for its future. “Even though it was something I had never done before, it was an experience I ultimately welcomed because it gave me the chance to dig deep and really think about the future,” she says.

Some of Silard’s objectives (see sidebar on page 104) grew out of that planning. They include maintaining Stamford’s status as the lone independent not-for-profit hospital in Fairfield County. (Rivals Greenwich, Norwalk and Bridgeport hospitals and St. Vincent’s Medical Center are part of various larger healthcare networks.) “I think one way to do this is to continue to focus on strategic partnerships,” says Silard.

Case in point are the affiliations Stamford Health has formed in the past several years with the Hospital for Special Surgery and the Dana-Farber Brigham and Women’s Cancer Care Collaborative, as well as a teaching partnership with the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons. “We want to be the most trusted healthcare partner in the market,” she says. “And I think we can do that by staying independent, while forging strong alliances with respected leaders in their fields.”

There’s still a lot to do. Though her schedule is dominated by lots of meetings, she ventures out in the hospital whenever possible to take the pulse of what’s going on around her. Her frequent “rounds” are prompted by a desire to stay in touch and promote teamwork. Dr. DeWaele observes: “A lot of CEOs can be insular and tend to prefer staying in the corner office. She’s the opposite.”

Silard explains: “At my core, I’m a people person and I like to connect. And the people who are taking care of our patients are pretty important. If there’s something wrong or there’s a shortage of something, I want to hear about it. Of course, I want to hear the good stuff, too. I’ll never say we’re perfect, but we should strive to get things right, or as close to right as possible.”

One thing she’s been hearing on these listening tours has surprised her. It’s the verbal thumbs-up she’s been getting from staff, often female nurses and doctors, who want to celebrate her historic promotion. “At first it shocked me,” says Silard, who makes it clear the CEO role wasn’t something she sought to break through any real or imagined glass ceiling at Stamford Health. “It wasn’t in my [thinking] at all, so it surprised me how much it seemed to matter to other people. So when they tell me they are happy or proud, I do appreciate it. But I hope that what I’ve achieved just inspires the many talented women—and also the men—I work with to think outside the box about their own careers.”

Silard pauses to add one anecdote: She did receive one congratulatory phone call from Marna Borgstrom, the CEO and president of Yale New Haven Health Services and Yale New Haven Hospital, the first woman to lead a Connecticut hospital and healthcare system. What did she say? Silard grins. “She said, ‘I’m so glad there are two of us now.’”


GOALS & OBJECTIVES

LOOKING AHEAD

Kathleen Silard sets her sights on the future of Stamford Hospital with a strategic plan that supports patients and staff

1 REMAIN INDEPENDENT WHILE FORGING STRATEGIC PARTNERSHIPS
While Silard is focused on keeping Stamford Health independent, she says going it alone requires forging strong alliances. “I want us to remain independent, but [to] do that by being the most trusted healthcare partner we can be for our patients,” she says. “We already have a dominant market share, but I think the way you keep that is by promoting value and trust that you are providing the best possible healthcare.”

2 DRAW TOP MEDICAL TALENT
The chance to work in the new Stamford Hospital has become its own kind of signing bonus for top physician recruits, says Silard. “You have exceptional doctors—truly the best of the best—who are excited about working in this state-of-the-art facility.” The new CEO adds that the benefit of living in the greater Stamford area has helped recruitment efforts, too. “We have so much to offer and certainly, that’s been a real selling point when talking to [medical talent] about the benefits of coming here.”

3 ENGAGE IN THE COMMUNITY
Silard is eager to expand her role in supporting local philanthropies. She is a member of the leadership council and a former board member of the Greenwich YWCA. She serves on the boards of the Business Council of Fairfield County and Stamford’s Cradle to Career and is involved with the Stamford Museum & Nature Center. She’s deeply engaged with Vita Health and Wellness, which supports initiatives to help residents of Stamford’s West Side to live the healthiest lives possible.

4 RESPECT PATIENTS AS CONSUMERS
Silard knows that Stamford Hospital isn’t a patient’s only local healthcare choice, so she wants to foster a culture that champions consumer experience and ease of access. “We’ll be focused more on technology and how we can better use it to make life better for our patients,” she says.

5 STRENGTHEN THE DOCTOR-HOSPITAL RELATIONSHIP
With more than 700 affiliated physicians and 140 members in the hospital’s own medical group, Silard wants to forge bonds with its dedicated docs. “They are critical to all the services we provide, and listening to them and finding new ways to support them is really important to me,” she says.

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