Mary K. Brainerd

A health partner and leader.
Mary K. Brainerd

In the nine years that Mary Brainerd has been CEO and president of Bloomington-based HealthPartners, the country’s largest not-for-profit, consumer-managed health care organization, barely a day has gone by without some aspect of health care dominating the headlines, or the attention of various government entities.

In short, Brainerd is working in a very complex industry. What’s more, HealthPartners is both an insurer, offering numerous different plans to individuals and businesses, and an operator of 70 medical and dental clinics and four hospitals, including Regions in St. Paul. Balancing those two different components isn’t easy. Still, during Brainerd’s leadership as CEO, HealthPartners’ revenues have doubled to roughly $3.6 billion. HealthPartners now claims 12,400 employees (up from 10,000 nine years ago), 1.36 million members (again, double pre-Brainerd), 500,000 patients under the care of 800 HealthPartners doctors (with tens of thousands more in its insurance network) and 60 dentists.

So how has Brainerd driven this growth? In large part, by not driving at all. To Brainerd, leadership requires a collaborative mindset. “Alignment of what you want to accomplish,” as she puts it, is essential to a high-functioning operation. “That means clear direction and agreement—shared ownership of the direction, so it’s our idea, not my idea, that is very important,” Brainerd says. “I also have very little faith in positional authority, the ‘because I said so’ model, because nothing will last if you do it from that perspective.

“Physicians particularly often have the view that, ‘If they just reported to me, I could make it happen,’” Brainerd adds. “And my view is, ‘If it happens only because they report to you, it’s not going to work’. So if you can’t get there through influence, persuasion, and involvement, you haven’t gotten any change that’s going to stick.”

Given those sentiments, it’s not surprising to hear Brainerd say that “I’ve always enjoyed the management part of the job, which not everyone does. I love working with people. It’s my favorite part of what I do. I get energy from it. Whatever impact you think you can have as an individual, you can multiply that by thousands if you can work effectively with others in an organization.”

HealthPartners’ past board chair, Thomas Brinsko, says that “Mary’s ability to lead with integrity and compassion for the health needs of the community has set her apart in the health care industry. Her leadership style has attracted a tremendous staff to successfully lead an organization during a transitional phase in the industry.”

Brainerd has an iconoclastic streak for a CEO in a business frequently criticized for placing financial performance ahead of consumer satisfaction. She tells a story of struggling with pushback from within the HealthPartners culture in her early days in the corner office and being impressed by an internal Medtronic initiative reasserting to its staff that its primary business was not the profitability of medical devices, but rather “saving lives.” What Brainerd translated to HealthPartners was that job number one was not “learning how to run hospitals like businesses, like you always hear people say,” but rather “making a difference for patients.”

Brainerd is emphatic on the need to both ensure affordability in her industry (HealthPartners has several technology initiatives designed to do just that) and dramatically raise public consciousness on the value of prevention, particularly in regards to obesity and type 2 diabetes.

“There’s no question we need to change the way health care is paid for in this country,” she says. “The model that says the more money you get paid for the more procedures you perform isn’t working too well for us. If current trends for obesity and chronic illness continue on the tracks we see today, no matter what else we do, we’re not going to have an affordable health care system.”

Brainerd’s ability to think critically and creatively about her job, her company, and its industry may be rooted in the fact that she earned a BA from the University of Minnesota in philosophy. She didn’t set out to work in the health care field. Seeking a college internship “that offered both credits and money,” Brainerd found a spot with the Minnesota Department of Health, working for the deputy commissioner. The internship offered a remarkable vantage point for observing the convergence of finance, technology, politics, and person-to-person skills required of a huge industry rooted in an often emotional facet of human life.

“I felt that I had a holistic view of health,” is how she remembers her thinking as an MBA student. “I felt the work was worth investing a career in and it felt like a fit for the things I thought were really important.”

During Brainerd’s tenure as HealthPartners’ CEO, the company has won numerous industry awards (as has she). Case in point: For six consecutive years, HealthPartners has been listed in the top 50 health plans in U.S. News’s annual health care rankings.

Brainerd says that she has “no idea” what she’d do were she to retire, other than devote more time to the Itasca Project, the local consortium of CEOs and government leaders that she cofounded to promote the Twin Cities region’s economic vitality. But she’s clearly happy where she is.

“I believe not-for-profit is a good model for health care, because I think it’s important to put consumers first, not shareholders,” Brainerd says. “I’ve served and serve on some for-profit, publicly traded boards, and this, I’m quite certain, is a better fit for me.” Why? “Because I get to say patients and consumers come first.” But aren’t there for-profit executives who also say that? “Yes,” she says with a laugh, “but that isn’t what happens when you look at quarterly earnings. And I know that for sure, too.”