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May 24, 2016

How James Downing went from 'bad cop' to St. Jude's CEO

Daily Briefing

James Downing worked at St. Jude's Children's Research Hospital for three decades before being tapped as CEO. But despite all his experience, he didn't exactly feel up to the role.

"I'm a nerd. I'm a scientist. I'm not comfortable inspiring and motivating people," he says. "I like sitting in the back of the bus, leading from the back and being a scientist."

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So when he became president and CEO in 2014, he knew that "the first challenge was me."

"I needed to get up. I needed to lead this organization and be the face. And I needed to communicate and inspire and motivate," Downing says.

As a scientific director at St. Jude's, "I was the bad cop," he admits. "I was the analytical, aggressive scientist that took no prisoners ... I wanted the absolute best science." Leading the organization, however, required a more diplomatic, inspiring approach.

Strategic vision

Downing began by writing down his vision for the hospital's future "and ended up with a nine-page document, single-spaced, covering the next 10 years," Meek writes.

The strategic plan encompassed both Downing's vision for therapy and treatment at St. Jude's and plans to improve hospital culture and instill a sense of purpose and pride among the staff. To see that vision through, Downing has pushed for more transparency about decision-making, started quarterly reviews to keep staff invested in the organization, and put in place a leadership team unafraid "to speak up and disagree with me," he says.

The hospital has also found creative ways to provide perks for employees even with its not-for-profit status. For instance, St. Jude's invited business vendors onto its campus to give workers access to dry cleaning, farmer's markets, and other services without St. Jude paying the bill.

Downing has also worked to make the hospital a little more like home for its young patients, including throwing proms for teenagers and having a hospital-wide Halloween party every year.

Downing says St. Jude's has made "remarkable progress" fulfilling its clinical mission, too, but that there is much work left to be done. While there's a high cure rate for childhood cancers, he notes that one in five St. Jude's patients will die. "We cannot rest," he says, "until every child with cancer can be cured" (Meek, Memphis Daily News, 5/23).

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