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Leading A Shared Endeavor

James Varnum is about to retire after close to three decades as the president of Mary Hitchcock Memorial Hospital. His departure marks a shift but not a change in an enduring institutional culture.

By Jennifer Durgin

It was nearly noon on a hot, humid summer day. The security officer in the booth at the entrance to Parking Lot A had had just about enough. Guarding the 211 parking spaces reserved for DHMC's sickest patients wasn't easy. His job was to make sure that the patients and their families who deserved the spaces got them, which meant turning away visitors, sales reps, and employees late for work. Four-letter words, outbursts, and dirty looks went with the job. Standing under the blazing sun in his dark uniform that day, he wasn't sure if he could take any more.

Suddenly he heard a shuffle of feet behind him. Maybe the especially difficult morning had made him a little paranoid, because as he turned around his first thought was "More trouble." Instead, his eyes met the tall, lanky figure of James Varnum, president of Mary Hitchcock Memorial Hospital (MHMH), offering him a cup of coffee.

"Well, I damn near died," says Thomas Ford, remembering that day a few years ago. "He had just come down out of his office on his own. He had a few minutes, and he came down to spend some time with me." The two had never met before, but for the next half hour Varnum stood alongside Ford with no agenda other than to learn about an employee and his role in the massive enterprise of Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center (DHMC). "He took the time to get to know me," adds Ford. "I won't forget that. I won't."

Visiting Tom Ford that sweltering summer day was likely a spur-of-the-moment decision for Varnum. When he has a free block of time, he'll often use it to get out of his office and make informal rounds.

He's famous for just showing up in departments to talk with employees and observe what's going on. "Some CEOs, if you see them coming, you might go hide," says Sherry Calkins, community health improvement and benefits coordinator and a DHMC employee of 22 years. "Not so with Jim, because he wants to know how you are and how your family is. And he wants to know how everything is going."

And when things aren't going well, when employees have questions or complaints, he's quick to act. "He sometimes would call me about little things, [like] a bathroom being dirty," says Harry Kendrick, who's been the director of housekeeping at DHMC for 27 years. But Kendrick doesn't find such calls—or e-mails or even visits from Varnum—intimidating or demoralizing. Varnum points things out, Kendrick

Tom Ford had never met Varnum before, but for the next half hour Varnum stood alongside the security officer with no agenda other than to learn about an employee and his role in the massive Dartmouth-Hitchcock enterprise. "He took the time to get to know me," says Ford.

explains, "not in a demanding way—more in an enlightening, trying-to-let-you-know- there's-a-problem way."

Varnum is well known for his formal rounds, too. Once or twice a year, he spends time in each department during all shifts, day and night. He began this practice "to really get to know people more than just through eye contact," he says. "You get a degree of comfort in exchanging ideas, [so] they feel freer to say what's on their mind."

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Jennifer Durgin is Dartmouth Medicine's senior writer. In the course of her research for this article, she talked to almost all of the employees whose badges are pictured on the pages of this article, as well as several more whose badges are not pictured.

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