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Serial Entrepreneur and Champion Wrestler John Bardis on Changing the World Through Servant Leadership Serial Entrepreneur and Champion Wrestler John Bardis on Changing the World Through Servant Leadership
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October 08, 2020

Serial Entrepreneur and Champion Wrestler John Bardis on Changing the World Through Servant Leadership

Q&A with John A. Bardis, chairman and CEO of ShareMD

We’ve had the privilege of conversing with many extraordinary leaders, and John Bardis is no exception.

He is a serial entrepreneur of several multibillion-dollar healthcare enterprises, former assistant secretary for administration for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and founder of the nation’s leading nonprofit dedicated to veteran employment, Hire Heroes USA. Also on the impressive list of accolades: wrestling champion; board member, former coach, and team leader of Team USA Wrestling; and inducted Outstanding American in the National Wrestling Hall of Fame.

Bardis currently serves as chairman and CEO of ShareMD, where he continues his life’s mission of improving public health in America. More broadly, though, his story is one of pursuing your calling, building mental toughness, and helping others. In Bardis’ own inspiring words, “Before I die, I want to do everything I can to help as many people as I can.”

To untangle these themes and delve into the future of healthcare in America, Acertitude’s Nate DaPore, managing director and healthcare and life sciences practice lead, convened with Bardis.

When asked about his extraordinary success, Bardis will graciously tell you it stems from the opportunities and advantages he was given in life. While his gratitude for the hand life dealt him is apparent, his humility shadows the impressive amount of hard work and intentionality that went into every professional and personal decision he made.

Practicing servant leadership

DaPore: No matter what you do, you achieve extraordinary levels of success. What drives you as a leader and how can others emulate?

Bardis: To me, true leadership is being 100% dedicated to serving others, not 90% or 80%. Service must be at the core of everything you do. I liken leaders to sheepdogs. Like our furry livestock guardians, you must be self-sacrificial, willing to risk your life to protect one lamb. You may have to face a pack of wolves and face injury, but the lamb is protected. This type of servant leader understands his or her role in making others’ lives better.

As a leader, you also need personal humility to realize that you’re probably wrong about a lot of things. I firmly believe that the best things that have happened to me have come as a result of being wrong. Though you may be directionally correct, you have to remain open to learning. Strive to understand where you are supposed to be, as opposed to where you want to be. From there, be quick to admit when you are wrong and willing to adjust quickly based on new information.

My experience as a wrestler helped me learn the value of facing suffering in our lives, which we can deal with in two ways. We can fear suffering and reject it, or we can embrace it and receive lessons from it. Openly accepting and embracing suffering offers an opportunity for leaders to spread a culture of self-sacrifice and humility throughout their companies. When leaders reflect those characteristics in their actions, the rest of the company usually takes notice and embodies them. Those who don’t often leave.

Brilliant leaders truly love all people. They accept everybody for who they are, have a way of seeing what is special about them, and then push them in ways that let their inner light shine. People are naturally insecure, constantly waiting for the other shoe to drop. What I have found is that if they realize that their leaders and co-workers genuinely love and care about them, they stop playing defense and start playing offense. People can do extraordinary things when their insecurities melt away and they feel empowered to proceed through life confidently.

Looking ahead in the pandemic

DaPore: Strong leadership is critical amid the global coronavirus pandemic. What advice do you have for executives starting on the long road to reopening and recovery?

Bardis: COVID-19 has forced leaders across all sectors to hit the reset button, reflect on their core business models, and potentially make big shifts. Without question, the future of work will change — and these changes will likely not be temporary since it could take as long as four years to create a vaccine and inoculate a global population. Business leaders should prepare their companies to operate in this “new normal” for years to come. 

In the healthcare industry, public health crises change some of our reasons for what we do. At ShareMD, we remain intently focused on executing against our business model — but, first and foremost, we are focused on doing what’s right for others. We have the power to save lives and make a major impact during this pandemic. This can be a motivating time to lead a business; we all have an opportunity to move toward something better, to improve our companies and the lives of our consumers. In my experience, this is the time to build reliable trust — to show stakeholders that they can rely on you and trust you to do what is right. 

It’s no secret that the coronavirus has changed how we work. One of the lessons I’ve learned is that we don’t need to be in the office at all times. Pre-pandemic, I felt like I had to be physically present at work in order to be good at my job and make a difference. I traveled regularly for work — I think I’ve flown nearly 14 million miles. I, like many others, have realized companies can be even more productive in their communications when they work remotely and use digital channels. 

When new information and changes come to light seemingly daily, I’ve found the power of habit makes it easier to adapt. Every morning, I pray, exercise, and make the bed before starting work. It’s amazing how those simple tasks can set the whole day up for success. I see it as taking control of what I can amid uncertainties.

Redefining the patient experience

DaPore: In light of the pandemic and changes the healthcare sector faces, where do you see the industry heading in the future?

Bardis: Like many industries today, the American healthcare industry continues to grow and evolve rapidly. It is currently a $4 trillion segment of the U.S. economy and is expected to reach $6 trillion by 2028. During that time, we will see millions of new transfer payment beneficiaries, Medicare and Medicaid beneficiaries, and uninsured. This shift will cause tremendous pricing pressure with public health coverage growth into the private sector over the foreseeable future.

To sustain this growth, healthcare must become consumerized and transparent. Today’s consumers are savvy — they expect the same experience engaging with doctors and visiting hospitals as they do purchasing products and interacting with brands like Amazon. We in the healthcare industry must urgently prioritize the patient experience, finding ways to engage with patients in exciting, efficient ways and bring them into the system at lower costs.

As an example, too many times, I see patients on hold with front-desk administrators for 20 minutes before getting the information they need or seeing a doctor. With telemedicine, we can provide digital nurse concierges that automate the front desk and quickly guide patients to appointments. Leaders in every industry can apply this example to their business. If your customers are experiencing major pain points or if a process is inefficient, what can you do to fix that?

Most hospitals and health systems capture patients based on referrals and rely on old-school digital data properties, which can lead to faster bounce rates (i.e., a visitor staying on a website for a short amount of time) and lost consumers. Cutting-edge technology can help redefine the patient experience and make it more efficient, which is exactly the wave of innovation we are working to spark at ShareMD. 

By combining data sciences with psychographic mapping, we help hospitals understand the intricacies of each patient. This is a huge advantage, empowering patients to access relevant, targeted information and services; automating messages from providers; and so on.

The newest, fastest, and most updated technology is commonplace across countless industries — but has yet to be deployed to its fullest potential in healthcare. It is time for a large-scale change if we want to provide patients with the most value.

Paying your opportunities forward

DaPore: You are an expert and leader in the healthcare industry — and have been throughout your career. Take us through the defining moments of your professional life that led to where you are now.

Bardis: Wrestling saved me as a kid, teaching me perseverance, mental toughness, and the power of paying it forward, which are critical in business. Perseverance allows us to take risks and keep going — even when things seem bleak — to work toward a solution.

Wrestling is what got me into college. I was lucky enough to receive a full scholarship to the University of Wisconsin, which is rare since there are only 77 men’s Division 1 wrestling programs in the country and only 500 scholarships available with 300,000 high schoolers vying for them in a given year. Wrestling has embellished my life with amazing experiences, like finishing third in the U.S. Olympic Trials in 1976 and spending 14 years as a board member for Team USA Wrestling. I know how fortunate I was to have these opportunities, and I try to pay it forward and help others achieve their dreams by acting as a mentor.

After wrestling throughout college, I began my professional career. At that time, American healthcare growth was taking off. My first job out of college was at American Hospital Supply Corporation (which later merged with Baxter). I was lucky because employees were encouraged to take risks and were rewarded when those risks paid off. At the young age of 23, after only a few years of earning my stripes, I was promoted and entrusted with the opportunity to become regional manager of one of the company’s largest divisions. By 29, I was running a $500 million business.

From there, I became president of Kinetic Concepts, which was ultimately sold to Apax Partners for $5 billion, and CEO of TheraTx, which we took from $10 million to $150 million in revenue in only a year and a half. By 1995, it was identified as the second fastest-growing public company in America. My desire to be of service drove me throughout these opportunities.

In 2017, I received another extraordinary opportunity to work on the American people’s behalf as assistant secretary for administration for HHS. This time was spent doing everything possible to enhance the patient experience and promote price transparency, which we successfully turned into an executive order in November 2019. Then, when the role of CEO opened at ShareMD, I hoped we could make a difference by continuing to improve the patient experience and empower physicians.

Through these experiences, I’ve learned that leadership is about serving others. The practice of paying it forward allows us to help people find opportunities like the ones I have had. And it is a great way to reset the rules around what’s important in business.

I’ve been granted amazing opportunities — which I feel immensely grateful for — and many things come across my desk that require choices to be made around helping others. As leaders, I feel it’s our responsibility to make those choices even though it can seem easier to brush them aside and focus on the bottom line. If we want to truly make a difference in the world and in our businesses, service is the place to start.

Defining brilliance with Bardis
Purpose is… helping people.
Leadership is… being willing to do the things that you believe in.
Brilliant leaders are… people who are privileged to be able to do work that is consistent with their calling, with service at its core.
Success is… a measurement that makes me know I’m on the right path. If I’m involved in a situation, did I make life better for the people involved?
I perform at my best when… I’m excited and happy, and most importantly, respected.