Gone are the days of centralized control of information and decision-making within organizations. With information now widely distributed among employees, Kaiser Permanente CEO Bernard J. Tyson says today’s executives face a critical question: “How do I charge up the organization so that we’re maximizing the intellect of all of our people?”

Every CEO has many stakeholder groups whose interests he or she must balance: customers, employees, the board, shareholders, regulators, partners, nongovernmental organizations, and communities the business may impact. But even by CEO standards, Bernard J. Tyson’s stakeholder management responsibilities are extensive. The chairman and CEO of managed care giant Kaiser Permanente Health Care must attend to the interests of nearly 12 million people who count on his company to keep them alive and healthy; thousands of physicians, nurses, medical technicians, administrators, and managers; unions; government agencies; industry watchdogs; pharmaceutical suppliers; emergency-service providers; and, oh yes, the president and Congress of the United States.

Such is the challenge of leading one of America’s largest health care organizations in the year 2017. The remarkably upbeat and optimistic Tyson met with MIT SMR editor in chief Paul Michelman to discuss Tyson’s role as a leader at this unique time and place in history.

An in-person conversation at Kaiser Permanente’s headquarters in Oakland, California, was followed by an exchange over email. What follows is an edited and condensed version of the conversation.

MIT Sloan Management Review: As the CEO of a large health care provider, you are facing a potentially dizzying array of systemic challenges — even before you get to the day-to-day needs of the organization. You’re dealing in life or death. You’re dealing with a broad range of different stakeholders, some of which are notoriously challenging to manage. And you’re leading an organization in an industry impacted by a highly unpredictable set of economic, policy, and technology factors.
I can imagine it’s easy to get lost in these many issues. How do you stay grounded and focused on the needs of the organization?

TYSON: (Laughing) If I took what you said literally, I wouldn’t show up for work.

One of the best of the many pieces of advice I’ve gotten over the years is, “Keep the main thing the main thing.”

So, what’s the main thing for us? We are here to provide care when people need it and to help them maintain their health. Everything we do is through the lens of that mission. The rest is subplot. Yes, there’s going to be a lot of turbulence. The broader conditions change continuously. We don’t control that. But one thing we do control is staying focused on the main thing.