“We can’t view what we do as what we did yesterday.”

At Advocate Health Care, legal adapts to an evolving industry with a mind-set for growth

As Eric Tower’s oldest daughter gets ready to go to school, he asks her what she’s going to do that day. “Try my hardest,” she says. And after school, he asks about the mistakes she’s made. Sometimes, he even shares mistakes of his own. “If you sit down and think about your day but can’t come up with 20 things that you might have done a little differently, maybe you’re not thinking hard enough,” says Tower.

Tower doesn’t blame his daughter if she doesn’t get a perfect score on a test, and he’s even okay with her getting a bad grade, as long as she learns from her mistakes and strives to do better. He takes a similar approach to his professional life, utilizing a growth mind-set as he oversees transactions and legal matters for Advocate Health Care’s ambulatory division.

Tower has helped transform the Downers Grove, Illinois-based health system into a more patient-centric organization that is focused on keeping patients healthy, rather than racking up hospital bills.

He shares the advice and insights he acquired while building the legal department’s infrastructure to serve changing needs.

“A fixed mind-set will sink your business—fast.”

Many health-care systems prefer the old way of doing things—they’re stuck in a fixed mind-set. While they may be making money at the moment, Tower expects many of them will find they’re no longer viable within a few years. That’s why he’s adopted the growth mentality set, based on the book Mindset by psychologist Carol Dweck.

The idea is that qualities like intelligence and talent don’t automatically equate to success. Instead, Dweck teaches that people must continuously learn and work to develop their abilities. “As a department, we can’t view what we do as what we did yesterday,” Tower says. “We have to accept that, especially in health services, the world is changing. The demand is changing.”

Patients are becoming more aware of what they’re spending, Tower adds, and they’re demanding convenience. The traditional hub-and-spoke model of acute-care hospitals is starting to be replaced with systems focused on population wellness and keeping patients healthy in a variety of settings.

“Take initiative in-house.”

The industry’s evolving strategies translate into new challenges for the legal department. Contracting practices are different; provider payment is evolving; and typical hospital legal issues are less important when care is moved to patients’ homes or other care settings. “You can sit there and say, ‘Well, we don’t do that,’ and you can try to find outside counsel to do it, or you can roll up your sleeves and say, ‘Hey, we’re at the cutting edge, and we’re going to do this ourselves,’” says Tower.

That attitude results in employees who are increasingly invested and enjoy their work, Tower says. “If you’re simply the air traffic controller giving stuff to outside counsel, I don’t see how you get much job satisfaction out of that, to be candid. You have to understand that no one’s perfect, nothing is going to be absolutely pristine, and we’re going to learn with the organization.”

Tower says he has no problem if members of his transaction group come to him and say they don’t have everything on point yet, but that they’re trying something new. He knows that at some point the team members will have questions, but he resists completing the task for them. They’d never learn that way, and he’d never get anything done for himself.

It’s a matter of having a little bit of patience and making people take the extra step, he says. “The rule is: don’t come to Eric unless you’ve done your homework,” he says.

“Be more than just box-checkers.”

Tower rejects the notion that legal departments are there to file paperwork or funnel work to outside counsel. He rarely hires outside legal help. Internal legal departments need to understand their client’s business, its strategic direction, and what it’s trying to accomplish.

Tower hosts a monthly team meeting and invites Advocate executives to share where the organization is headed and how the legal department can improve. He says he’s received positive feedback from his team members. “We tend to do a lot of things in our system in-house that other systems might do externally,” he says, “because if you really understand your business, you have a huge advantage on anyone outside the company.”