As president and CEO of the largest health system in the state, Greenville Health System, Michael Riordan recalls his journey from a kid in Newark, N.J., to trained teacher, Marine and healthcare administrator.
The fifth of six children, Riordan was the baby for six years until he became a “confused middle child” when his sister was born. Raised by a single mother, he attended Catholic school and was passionate about sports – “anything with a ball.”
Riordan wanted to be a teacher and a coach. He played football at Columbia University where he also attended the teacher’s college. He also served three years as an infantry officer in the Marine Corps.
“After I got out of the Marine Corps, I wanted to see if I could fulfill a fantasy of mine, and that was to be a coach,” he says. “I sent letters to every division 1A coach in America.” He got responses from two coaches.
Riordan went for an open spot at Georgia Tech. However, with a background in English and teaching, it took some searching to find a program at the tech-focused school where he could succeed. He finally landed on “something called industrial engineering for health systems.” As part of the program, he had additional course requirements, so he arrived well before football season began.
“I received an internship and got assigned to Crawford Long Hospital in Atlanta,” he says. “When the coach called up at the beginning of football season, I told him, ‘I think I like this health care thing.’”
After graduation, he was offered a job as storeroom supervisor at Crawford Long. It had a familiar feel, he says. “We had uniforms, we had a platoon [our group] and we had a mission.” It wasn’t totally like the military, but very comfortable, he said. “I didn’t hold inspection and they didn’t have to polish their shoes.”
From there, he moved through jobs as director of materials management and purchasing, security, engineering and food service and into a post as an assistant administrator at Crawford Long.
Riordan worked there from 1995 to 2000 and says he enjoyed the integration process of Crawford Long and Emory University hospitals, calling it a “great experience” as chief operating officer.
He moved on to be the chief operating officer at the University of Chicago Hospitals and Health System. He became CEO in 2001, serving until 2006, when he moved to Greenville. In Chicago, Riordan worked with Michelle Obama. “We just knew Barack as Michelle’s husband,” he says.
At first, Riordan says, his wife, Susan, was skeptical about considering South Carolina. After several interview visits, “by the time of my last visit here, I was over at St. Mary’s church lighting a candle.”
After nearly a decade in the Upstate, Riordan says it would be difficult to get her to budge from the area now. “In this community, we’ve developed some of the deepest and closest friendships of any community we’ve lived in. This has really been a great place for us.”
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Each successive position has given him valuable experience, Riordan said. His stint in the military taught him about mining longtime employees for information. “The people who make it run have been there 10, 20, 30 years.” The key is to ask what they think and gather information, he says. “A lot of times a new manager, officer or lieutenant will come in and they’ll follow your directions, then watch you fall on your sword.”
This philosophy has translated to an enjoyment of “staying connected to staff,” including the leaders of the smaller units within the health system, he says. Riordan can often be seen holding a meeting in the Greenville Memorial Hospital cafeteria; presiding over town hall meetings at various locations, which give the staff an overview of how the system is doing; and playing a part in employee orientation.
From the community feel of Crawford Long and the academic tone of Emory to the combined academics and community in need at Chicago, each experience at the varied systems were preparatory for GHS, says Riordan.
Are you an early riser? Do you have time set aside for quiet time or reading?
I’ve got a pretty good practice around a quiet, contemplative time in the morning, because there are kids to get to school, there are dogs to walk. If I want to have any quiet time, I have to get up an hour or 45 minutes earlier. In getting everyone ready, my role is to be the “supportive yell” in the background.
What are you a snob about?
I actually do think Starbucks coffee is better. A great cup of coffee in the morning just makes a difference. [Though Riordan confesses he had nothing to do with GHS serving the brew in its hospital.
Where would we find you on a Saturday?
Depends on what season it is, but a soccer field, basketball, karate – it seems like it’s rarely home, it’s family or sports. I support Furman University and have found the perfect middle ground.
What was your first job?
I would cut, roll and deliver carpet for installation while I was in high school.
Who is an important mentor for you?
Harry Davis, former dean at the University of Chicago business school. I got to know him while I was in Chicago, and he taught me something that really served me well. He said, when leaders get into a new position, they forget about their predecessors and the legacy. In America, we’re so accustomed to differentiate and almost make who we took over for look bad so we can look good. I send a thank-you note to my predecessor, Frank Pinckney, every year. The foundation he laid for me was truly remarkable.
What is your favorite app?
Ever since Jan. 1, it’s been My Fitness Pal.
What is your worst habit?
I don’t like to sit still and I like things to be neat and orderly, so as a result, I torture my kids by making them clean the house on Sundays. I like to cut my waffles and pancakes in squares – that’s probably a borderline personality disorder, but there’s a proper way to eat waffles and pancakes.
How do you motivate others?
By showing up genuinely and by helping to connect to purpose. I want to connect with them on why something is important to me. I try to create safety between myself and other leaders, give them the ability to say what they need to say. They know they can do that without retribution.
What is your favorite spot in the hospital where you like to hang out?
There are times when I disappear for 20 minutes and I go to the chapel three or four times a week. I sit in silence. Sometimes I just sit present with someone who might be sobbing; it reminds me of some of the things that are going on upstairs.
What has been your best business decision?
I bought a strip club when I was at Crawford Long Hospital. It was right on our block and it was like stealth: We had to find a third-party buyer so they wouldn’t jack up the price on us. How a neighborhood or block looks is very important for setting a tone of what’s going on in that area. I think that was a pretty good business decision.
Describe a time when you were sure you were about to fail. Did it happen?
I was convinced I was going to get this job, but towards the end, the recruiter said I wasn’t going to get it. I remember being almost incredulous, but it worked out.
If you could change places with somebody, who would it be and why?
A monk. I know I’ve glamourized it, but I know I could do it for a month.
What was the darkest hour in your career?
I’m in Greenville because I’m not in Chicago, and I’m not in Chicago because when my contract came up, they didn’t renew it due to a structural change. That was a little cloudy. And personally, the other time was when we found out that Ethan had diabetes at 6. It was like trying to breathe underwater; it was just suffocating.
What is something that people don’t know about you?
I love sitting around a bonfire with people. Something magical happens, especially with kids.