When Steve Lieber saw a job posting 17 years ago for president and CEO of HIMSS, he was intrigued. He saw an organization that had the potential to usher healthcare out of the dark ages and become an industry leader. His instinct was right; HIMSS has grown exponentially, not just in size, but in scope, taking on a major advocacy role. In this interview, Lieber talks about what it’s been like to guide HIMSS through a period of such dramatic change, how HIMSS found its policy voice, and his most cherished memories as CEO.
Gamble: Late last year, you announced your retirement as CEO of HIMSS after 17 years. I’m sure that was not an easy decision.
Lieber: No, it really wasn’t, Kate. I’ve had absolutely delightful time in this role. It’s a position where I have the opportunity to help guide and influence direction that countries take in the way they use technology. I feel like I’ve contributed something to the way in which the world operates when it comes to healthcare and technology, and letting go of that isn’t easy, but it’s time for me. It’s time for the organization. And so it seemed like this is the right point in time to start that transition.
Gamble: I don’t have to tell you how much HIMSS has evolved since 2000. What has it been like to lead the organization through a time of such dramatic growth?
Lieber: It really has been very dramatic. In a sense, I’ve worked for several different organizations without ever leaving this organization. When I came to HIMSS, we had 30 employees. Most of the organization’s activity was around the US annual conference, which was the only annual conference we had at that time. Today, we have nearly 400 employees, and we’re operating in 40 countries around the world. So it really has been a very dramatic change in terms of our scope and our impact. Not just in terms of membership numbers, but in terms of staffing, structure, and operations.
And it has helped me grow. I’m a different executive today than I was 17 years ago as a result of going through all of that change and growth.
Gamble: What was that catalyst in driving that growth from a trade association to an organization that plays such a key role in influencing healthcare?
Lieber: There was a very conscious strategic change in our thinking. When I arrived, the annual conference and exhibition was the primary scope of the organization; the other things we did were very modest. We decided early in my tenure that we needed to focus on outcomes and on what we were trying to accomplish as it related to health systems and the national system of healthcare delivery.
Before that, the focus had been more around providing education to help individuals do their jobs better. HIMSS still has a very strong individual member focus, but we’re doing it for the purpose of better health through information technology. And so that strategic decision to focus on what technology can do, instead of focusing on just equipping people with better education, was really the catalyst. That was what changed the organization and gave us an opportunity to expand our focus and develop different programs and services.
In some regard it was liberating, because it showed us we can dream bigger and anticipate different types of outcomes and accomplishments. From that change of vision, we planned it out in terms of how we were organized and how we pursued our initiatives, with that fundamental strategic change to focus on outcomes.
Gamble: Another area I find interesting is the increasing role HIMSS has played in affecting or influencing policy. When did that ramp up — was it around the time of HITECH?
Lieber: Actually, it preceded HITECH by a few years. It’s a story that very much reflects the change the entire organization underwent. When I came in, there was a feeling that trying to influence policy, regulation, and legislation wasn’t a place in which HIMSS was comfortable playing. So we worked through that. We talked about it. And through the contributions of several people beyond myself, we really brought about a change in the board’s thinking that HIMSS should be an active voice in the legislative and regulatory process. That really started in about 2002 or 2003 in terms of actively hiring staff, creating the Washington office, and really putting our heart and soul into this value we could bring to the American health system.
By the time President Obama was elected the first time and ARRA was enacted in 2009, we had a full-blown policy and advocacy program, and therefore were able to play some small part in helping to drive the nation’s policies in that direction.
Gamble: When you look back at the time you’ve spent with HIMSS, are there any moments that particularly stand out in your memory?
Lieber: From a personal standpoint, the opportunities that I had to sit with President Clinton, Secretary Clinton, and President Bush were certainly rewarding experiences. In preparing for these events, we would always have about 30 to 45 minute backstage to visit with them, and that was such a great experience.
From a broader perspective, I would point to how the US government has embraced HIMSS and the HIMSS conference as a place where there is a huge opportunity to connect with this audience. And so, for about 10 years now, we have had a very active planning process with agencies and with the federal government to help them plan their encounters at the HIMSS conference. And it’s not a one-time thing; as HIMSS has grown and gained recognition as an impartial, neutral voice, it has resulted in a very nice relationship between us and the government. We both recognize where we come from and what we’re trying to accomplish, and I think there is a very positive respect there.
Gamble: When you started with HIMSS, did you realize how much growth potential was there? What was your thought process going into the position?
Lieber: The complete answer is no; nobody could have anticipated what actually played out. I’ve been in healthcare management and healthcare associations for my whole career, and I had a background in policy. When this job opened up in the fall of 1999, I was working at the American Hospital Association, and I was intrigued by a position that involved healthcare and technology. At this point, the dot-com boom was still going; I had no idea that the day I took the job, the bubble would burst and the bottom would fall out of the technology market for about five years. But I looked at it and thought, this is a healthcare organization that has real opportunity and potential for the future. I saw something. I didn’t know what exactly or how much, but I knew that technology was going to be a major factor in how healthcare would change in the coming years.
When you go into a new job, you don’t know if you’re going to be there three years, five years, or 10 years. But I saw opportunity there. I saw an organization that, if done right, had the potential of being in the right place to receive a lot of the attention and resources that were going to be put on technology. I also recognized then how far behind healthcare was in its adoption of technology, which just further highlighted to me the potential and the opportunity that was possible. And now, 17 years later, it’s as far beyond anything I could have imagined in terms of what would happen in that period of time.
I thought it was going to be a smart move for me to go after this job. Fortunately I got it, and it turned out to be a very good move. HIMSS has delivered to me as much or more than I’ve delivered to them in terms of the professional growth and opportunities that this role has given me.
Gamble: I think it’s pretty clear you made the right call. Thanks so much for your time. It’s been really enjoyable hearing about the organization and all it is doing to remain a leader in the industry.
Lieber: Thank you, Kate. I appreciate the opportunity. There are many of us at HIMSS who have contributed to this effort, and it’s been a labor of love. That’s why a lot of us have been around for so long — some have been around longer than I have. It’s a dedicated group of people that get a lot out of what we do.
Gamble: Thank you, and best of luck with everything.