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Parting Thoughts: Steve Rose saw Nanticoke hospital through serious lows and big highs

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SEAFORD ““ Nanticoke Health Services President and CEO Steve Rose remembers running into Sen. Thurman Adams in a Bridgeville feed store back in 2008 when his hospital was on the verge of bankruptcy.

“We had terrible employee-satisfaction scores, terrible patient-satisfaction scores,” he said. “We had closed floors, cut services and needed to fill beds and make payroll.”

He told Adams he needed more than $4.3 million before the end of the week to keep things running.

Adams picked up the phone and called then-Delaware Secretary of Economic Development Alan Levin. After a brief conversation, Adams turned to Rose and asked when he needed it by.

“Friday,” Rose said, recalling that 600 people were at risk of losing their jobs.

And today, on the verge of an “affiliation” with Salisbury-based Peninsula Regional Health System, Rose recalls the check being ready for pickup on Friday.

“I told him if he could help me in the beginning, I’d do the rest,” Rose said. 

And he did, although he quickly gives credit for a turnaround over the past decade that has left Nanticoke ranked among IBM Watson’s Top 100 hospitals to his entire team.

“I feel such a sense of ownership,” he said from the car with wife Rosie as they headed out for a week-long vacation. “I use the word family a lot, and I’m so proud of what we achieved.”

But the journey is coming to an end. Rose will retire at the end of January, a few months short of turning 69 and right after the Nanticoke-Peninsula agreement closes. Nanticoke was recognized recently by Becker’s Hospital Review as one of its 100 Great Community Hospitals and Rose himself was recognized by Becker’s from 2014 through 2019 as one of the Top 50 Rural CEOs to Know. During his tenure, the Nanticoke Physician Network has grown from five physicians to more than 50 providers.

“I had no idea what I was going to do when I graduated from high school in 1969, and very few boys were thinking of a career in nursing back then,” he said. “But everything just kind of fell together and I’ve had lots of leadership opportunities. “

Rose graduated from Penn State on an Army ROTC scholarship with a bachelor’s degree in nursing and was commissioned as a first lieutenant before spending three years on active duty at West Point’s U.S. Military Hospital before returning to Penn State to earn his master’s degree in nursing.

“I’ve been working for a long time and it’s been fabulous,” he said. If we hadn’t merged, I’d probably have retired over the next year or two. But the timing now is perfect.”

Rose sat down with DBT Editor Peter Osborne to reflect on his 50-year career.

At what point in your life did you realize you had the power of change or the power to do something meaningful?
I finished the course work for my master’s at the age of 28 and was hired by a hospital in Philadelphia to be the chief nurse. They really took a chance on me. The hospital wanted someone who could change the nursing culture. And we did. I stayed nearly 10 years but realized I was a good change agent. I’ve since made a career of it.

How do you want to be remembered?
That I was genuine and approachable.

What were your strengths as a leader/entrepreneur?
Your weaknesses? My strength was building relationships that build trust. My weakness was being over-confident, a bit cocky perhaps.

What’s more important in leadership: Make their strengths stronger or eliminate their weaknesses?
Accentuate the positive! Build on your strengths. We all have weaknesses, so know what yours are and surround yourself with a team that has your back. 

What’s the greatest compliment you ever received?
A few years back I was surprised to receive two huge pieces of foam board signed by all the employees and a clock that one of the staff made. That clock is in my office and I’ll take it home with me.

What’s the best piece of advice you ever received?
Be brief, be bright, be gone.

What lessons did you learn from your biggest success and your biggest failure?
I learned that to lead and to make changes you must get out of the office and talk to the employees. Ask them what you can do for them to make their jobs better. Gain their trust. 

What advice would you give your younger self?
Don’t underestimate your abilities, you have more capacity then you think. Just be prepared to admit when you’re wrong and learn from it.

What was the “pebble in your shoe” (the everyday distraction that took you off course)?

What’s the question you wish more people would ask themselves?
I wish more people would think before they speak.

What was the key to your success? Always keep a sense of humor.

When you feel overwhelmed, get distracted, or lose your focus, what do you do?
When the job really gets to me, when I question my abilities or worth, I get out of the office and visit patients as a reminder of why we do this.

If you could walk in someone’s shoes (living or dead) for 24 hours, who would it be?
My Dad. The older I get, the more I’ve come to appreciate the life lessons he taught me. I’d like to tell him that.

What’s the biggest challenge facing Delaware businesses?
Delaware has many challenges. Yes, we have to attract more businesses, create jobs. But being small, Delaware is nimble, and we must take advantage of that, particularly in health care where there is so much potential for the health systems to work together to improve access to care and achieve a healthier Delaware.

What’s next for you?
Traveling with my wife Rosie and spending more time with our 10 grandchildren.

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