By the Book Leadership: Austin Business Journal Honors, Profiles Charles Barnett


In its Oct. 11 issue, the Austin Business Journalprofiled Charles Barnett, Ascension Ascension Seton’s executive board chair and former Ascension Seton president and CEO. The business weekly honored Charles last week with its Legacy Award in announcing its 2013 Best CEO Awards. In its story, the ABJ noted his ability to read between the lines has boosted his career in health care and inspired others. It also greatly contributed to plans now under way to build a new University of Texas at Austin medical school and a new Seton-funded teaching hospital.


Photo by Nick Simonite, Austin Business Journal

By Mick Normington, Austin Business Journal Contributing Writer

With a new medical school and teaching hospital in Austin becoming a reality, local business and civic leaders point out that it is a result of two decades of strategic work by Charles Barnett, the longtime CEO of the Ascension Seton nonprofit hospital chain.

“We would not be in the position we are with launching this new medical school without Charles Barnett,” said Steven Leslie, provost at the University of Texas at Austin. “Charles is always a leader in bringing the parties to the table and helping them build consensus.”

Barnett is this year’s winner of the Legacy Award, partially for the success of helping launch the University of Texas-Austin Dell Medical School – Ascension Seton is partnering with UT on the project to build the campus teaching hospital – as well as his work in advancing the medical field in Central Texas.

“He came up in his career through hospital operations and he’s good at operations, but he’s great at strategy, especially strategy with a heart for mission,” said Pat Hayes, former president of Austin-based St. Edward’s University who later worked with Barnett at Ascension Seton. “He has an unusual ability to not just see the next step but see the step after.”

Barnett has been making an impression on Central Texas leaders since he came to Austin and Ascension Seton in 1993.
Today, the 66-year-old Barnett still looks and moves like an athlete with his slim 6-foot-3-inch frame. His office is filled with family photos and memorabilia; his desk surrounded by shelves of books on business, science and history.

Barnett hadn’t intended to work in health care – he was focused on becoming a history professor – until his life-changing epiphany.

In 1972, Barnett was close to completing his master’s degree in history at the University of Cincinnati when he awoke one night with chest pains. He went to a nearby emergency room and the doctors determined he had a collapsed lung.

After eight days in the hospital, the then-25-year-old graduate student got a bill that was more than 10 times his monthly salary. When the hospital called his mother to ask about payment, an embarrassed and ashamed Barnett offered to work off his debt at the hospital.

The hospital had a training program for operating room technicians, which Barnett took on to pay down his debt. But Barnett discovered that hospitals were places where science, business and humanity intersected.

He eventually earned a second master’s degree, this time in health care administration from Ohio-based Xavier University – and landed a job as a junior administrator at a hospital chain in Detroit.

“Nobody wanted data processing at that time, so I got it. And that’s how I learned about IT,” Barnett said. He also began managing some other departments not considered glamorous, such as pharmacy and admitting, all of which gave him a cross-sectional understanding of hospital operations.

Barnett worked his way up in hospital administration and eventually became COO of the Inova Health System and Fairfax Hospital before being recruited to Ascension Seton in Austin in 1993.

“I think I’m a very good judge of people,” said Barnett, who says he is always looking for people with the intellectual abilities and aligned values to work on his team. “Does a person have the capabilities and the capacity for the job? Can they connect the dots? Can they see patterns? Do they have a value set that is consistent with the mission of this organization – and will they come to work every day and act out that value set? Do they have integrity? That’s what I look for.”

Understand context

Barnett is noted for asking a lot of questions as well as referencing literature. As head of Ascension Seton, he once ran a book club and made his staff read three key books.

One book was about the Battle of Agincourt, during which a small English army used simple bows and arrows to defeat a larger and heavily armored French force, which he said demonstrates the power of unadorned ideas.

Another was “The Lost City of Z” by David Grann, which details the adventures of explorers traveling the Amazon River in the early 1900s. “I wanted our team to understand the journey of exploration,” Barnett said.

The third book was “The Copernican Revolution,” which highlights Nicolaus Copernicus, a German mathematician and astronomer in the 1500s who expressed the idea that the sun was actually the center of the universe. Kuhn’s book drew connections between that science and how those new ideas were understood by society.

“It’s a mental model change,” said Barnett, who equates the idea of a sun-centered universe with a patient-centered health care system.

Barnett is drawn to books about people who push forward new ideas, said former colleague Hayes.

“There’s a secret at Ascension Seton that if you can find out what book he’s reading you’ll be a half step ahead of him, at least for a little while,” Hayes said. “He’s always challenging people to think larger and to push out more.”

Barnett said he often asks staff members to describe the problem in their own terms, which helps him understand their context and begin to understand the scope of the issue.

“It helps you understand if the problem makes sense,” Barnett said. “I want to know as much as I can about the landscape and the timeframe…. To manage, you’ve got to have a clear sense of what’s going on.”