Executive Spotlight: Amelia 'Lia' Spiliotes, CEO of Community Health Programs
PITTSFIELD — Amelia "Lia" Spiliotes knows what it's like to come in from the outside, on a temporary basis, to help restructure an entity that is struggling.
As a senior adviser and partner at Cambridge Management Group, Spiliotes did it twice, performing that task at two Federally Qualified Health Centers, first in Fitchburg, then at Community Health Programs in Great Barrington.
Spiliotes was successful in both places. But, she liked the Berkshires so much that she applied for the permanent CEO position at CHP when it came up a year after her arrival. She was hired by the board in 2016.
"I fell in love and I stayed," Spiliotes said. "That's the easiest way to put it."
We spoke with Spiliotes recently about the pros and cons of running a company on a temporary and permanent basis, how she became involved in the business side of health care, and how the Smith College graduate became friends with fellow alumna Julia Child.
Q: Is it more difficult being a temporary CEO or a permanent one?
A: I think, equally, they have their challenges. As an interim CEO, people have this perspective that you're not going to be there for a long time. So, it can be challenging to get people to come along with the different things you want to do for the organization. ... They'll wait you out.
Q: It must be different when they know you're not going anywhere ...
A: Once you're the permanent CEO comes the challenge that you want to make changes in the organization. People at that point know they need to come along, and they can still be challenging. ... It's always hard to change from the way things were. I'm very sensitive to that fact.
Many of the people in the organizations and practices that we acquired have been working in their jobs for 30 or 35 years. So, you have to build them a bridge to give them a reason to come along with you for something that is larger than them.
Q: How do build that bridge?
A: You literally do that one by one. It means being out there listening to people. It means sitting with people wherever and whenever you can. It means circulating in the organization, and it means having a team that works with you that is doing the same thing. It's difficult when you get into the day-to-day things that have to be done.
Q: Which restructuring was harder, Fitchburg or Great Barrington?
A: I would say they were about the same. I think there were financial issues that needed to be addressed for both of them, and I think there were cultural issues. In Fitchburg, we added some new locations, but not as many as we did here at CHP. ... They were both poised for growth and needed some help kind of finding the path forward.
Q: How do you get an organization back on track as an interim CEO?
A: I think first and foremost it's looking at the culture of the organization. You want people to feel that they are part of one organization and that they feel the organization is doing everything it can to achieve its vision and mission. ... Then, you look at the financials of the organization today, compared to where you said you were going to be and what you have your sights on getting to. ... The next layer down is what programs and services do you have in place to achieve those projections; then, there's a whole host of operational pieces. ... It's multi-layered. It's sort of like peeling back the layers of the onion.
Q: [You] majored in biology, psychology and chemistry at Smith. How did you get from there to health care?
A: I wanted to go to medical school. That was my goal.
A physician who was a general practitioner had taken a shine to my family (Spiliotes grew up on Long Island, N.Y). He was my inspiration. I was going to become a doctor. ... I moved to Boston after Smith and got involved in research at Harvard Medical School. That was going to be my steppingstone into the world of medicine, [but] what I realized after spending several years doing bench work was that I was really more interested in the business of science than in science itself.
Instead of going back to graduate school for sciences, I went to MIT for business school (she holds a master of science degree in management from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology).
Q: What made the business side of science so appealing?
A: I figured that that's where I could drive things, that the money would drive the ability to do things. Having a business degree, involving myself in the management of science and ultimately health care gave me the greatest opportunity to effect change and some movement. ... My early focus was in the manufacturing side of the business, working with pharmaceutical companies and medical device manufacturers.
Q: I would assume having a business background helps you when you're trying to turn around a health care organization?
A: It does. And it helps to have been on the other side, to have worked in the hospital, to have worked in laboratories, because you have a sense of what's going on at the front line. So, it's not that you're just sitting at a desk and telling people what to do without having a firsthand sense of that.
Q: CHP in Great Barrington grew 233 percent between 2012 and 2017, according to the company's figures [regarding patient volume]. In 2017, it served an estimated 23 percent of Berkshire County's entire population. Where do you see CHP going in the next five years?
A: I think that we're going to look at opportunities to expand our primary care base, look at opportunities to expand our family services. We expanded from South County to the center of the county. I'd love to move those services to North County.
Q: How did you meet Julia Child?
A: I met her when I was at [Smith]. When I moved to Boston after college, I participated in the Cambridge Smith Club. I acquired some cutlery from her show and invited her to dinner at my home, and she agreed. I cooked a traditional Greek meal, and from there we became friends.
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