Born in Limerick, Ireland, Michael J. Dowling joined North Shore Health System in 1995 as chief operating officer, then helped oversee the historic merger of North Shore and Long Island Jewish Medical Center. He was promoted to chief executive in 2002. During his tenure as CEO, the healthcare system has opened medical and nursing schools in conjunction with Hofstra University; launched the state’s first provider-owned insurance plan; and expanded into Greater New York, becoming Long Island’s largest employer. Dowling rebranded the system as Northwell Health with a Super Bowl ad in 2016. Northwell ranks among the nation’s largest healthcare systems. This interview has been edited and condensed.
Warren Strugatch: Our first influencers are our parents. Tell me about yours.
Michael Dowling: My father, John — known as Jack — was a laborer. He was a hard-nosed, hard-driving guy. When you shook his hand, you didn’t need a contract. My mother, Margaret, [instilled] a love of education in me and encouraged me to read. I read all the Zane Grey novels about the Old West in America.
WS: Did reading them inspire you to come to America?
MD: I came to America for education and to earn money. I was the oldest of five and our parents couldn’t support us materially. My father was crippled by arthritis at 40, so I went to work at 15. I worked part of the year in a factory in England, then back to Ireland for school. When I go back today, I see BMWs and Jags in driveways. Back then we had carts and donkeys. Our family was poor: no heat, running water, bathrooms or electricity. We lived in a thatched house with mud floors. We ran to school and ran back, six miles each way. That’s how we stayed fit. I also played a lot of sports, including hurling, which is the Irish national sport. You’ve got to be a little crazy to play it.
WS: It sounds very Frank McCourt (author of Angela’s Ashes).
MD: Frank McCourt grew up 12 minutes from me. I started reading his book and asked myself why the hell was I reading it.I lived that life.
WS: You graduated from Fordham, taught there for a while, then became an assistant dean. You seemed headed for a career in academia.
MD: I got a call from Gov. [Mario] Cuomo’s office. They hired me as deputy director of the Department of Social Services. He later appointed me head of Human Services. We worked side by side for 10 years and came to know each other extremely well. After he left office we stayed close.
WS: What did you take from that experience?
MD: Mario Cuomo was inspirational and unbelievably bright. I think he got me because of the immigrant thing. When you were around him you had to be on top of your game. He took a chance on me, forcing me to do things for which I had no background. I was thrown in and did them, successfully.
WS: How else was he influential?
MD: I’m a big believer in expanding your mind and thinking outside your box. You don’t want to be stuck in tradition. Complacency is dangerous. At Northwell today, most people who run hospitals have never run hospitals before. If you walk in here with a CV and say, ‘I’ve run a hospital for 20 years,’ I won’t hire you for that. You’ll just run a hospital from 20 years ago. Maybe I’ll hire you for something else.
WS: Almost everyone wants health care reform, yet there’s no consensus about how to improve the system. Is single payer the answer?
MD: Big systems like us around the country will do the bulk of healthcare reform. I’m skeptical about the ability of government to do this. If government takes over, you’ll have a real crisis on your hands.
WS: What’s the most important thing you do as CEO?
MD: Hiring and training people is extremely important. We hire 145 people a week on
average and I meet our new hires every Monday morning. We talk and get to know each other a little. Human talent creates the organization’s personality and culture. How you hire them, how you train them, how you do succession planning, all that’s how I spend my time. What else is more important?