Gustavo Valdespino: Vision and Excellence in Healthcare Leadership Award Honoree

Part One – This is Who We’re Going to Be

A gifted leader shares the story of a community safety net.

Gustavo Valdespino is the 2024 Recipient of Partner’s Vision & Excellence in Healthcare Leadership Award

Gustavo Valdespino said he’s grateful to be the 2024 recipient of Partners in Care Foundation’s Vision & Excellence in Healthcare Leadership Award because it gives him the chance to tell the story of Valley Presbyterian Hospital. 

“I think it’s a unique story about a freestanding, independent hospital serving a poor community and doing it well,” he said. “I’ve been here now 14 years. Between myself, our board, and our executive team, we have really focused on being a high-quality safety-net provider. That’s an achievement in this day and age when healthcare is not easy. 

“The Partners in Care Foundation award is an honor for all of our physicians, board members and staff. On the personal side, it gives me an opportunity to thank people who have propped me up and helped me throughout my career.”

A gifted leader with over 40 years of hospital management experience, Gustavo Valdespino was appointed President and Chief Executive Officer of Valley Presbyterian Hospital in September 2009. Prior to joining Valley Presbyterian Hospital, he served as Senior Vice President of Operations for Tenet Health Corporation’s Southern California region. He also served as President and Chief Executive Officer of St. Vincent Medical Center and as CEO of Big Brothers/Big Sisters of Orange County.

Valdespino has received the “Up and Comer” award from Modern Health Magazine, the National Medical Enterprises “Circle of Excellence” award, the Tenet Healthcare Corporation “Circle of Excellence” award, the “Leading Hispanic Executive” award from Hispanic Business Magazine, the 2021 Trailblazer award from One Generation, the 2017 Hospital CEO of the Year from the Los Angeles Business Journal and the 2022 Leukemia and Lymphoma Gold Coast Man of the Year Award.

Valdespino holds a bachelor’s degree in economics from the University of New York at Stony Brook, a master’s degree in public health from the University of California, Los Angeles, and completed the advanced management program at the Harvard Business School.

When asked to speak about the work he does with Valley Presbyterian Hospital, Valdespino said, “My main focus from the time I got here was to get everyone to accept who we are – a community hospital serving a poor community. It’s our responsibility to figure out how to make that work in a challenging environment financially. We’re vital to the people we treat, never more so than during the pandemic. To me, it doesn’t matter whether somebody has a lot of money or not enough money. Everyone is somebody’s family member and deserves to be treated with utmost dignity and respect. Let’s identify ourselves with that, and let’s be proud of that. That’s been my focus here.” 

Valdespino said it’s impossible to imagine the San Fernando Valley without Valley Presbyterian Hospital. “I think our absence would be dramatic, and I think our competitors and our colleagues would all say the same thing,” he said. “Seventy percent of our patients are covered by Medi-Cal. That’s an extraordinarily high number. We are the consummate safety-net facility, taking care of a poor community.”

“People understand that we are part of this community. We are not part of a bigger macro environment. Nothing wrong with that. Some folks want to be part of something bigger or be part of an academic medical center. We’ve said, this is who we’re going to be. We’re going to take care of as many folks as we can, and I think we’ve done quite well with that through the years.”

Of the accomplishments during his 14 years at Valley Presbyterian Hospital, Valdespino takes pride in his organization’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“The pandemic was the industry and individual hospitals at their best,” he said. “There was a great level of focus, and we got through it. Our guiding principle was to make sure that in addition to taking care of the community, we take care of our employees. We kept them physically safe and financially safe. We made a conscious decision not to lay off or furlough anyone during that time at a significant cost to the facility. During the pandemic, we had an excellent team here that was marching to one drum and fighting that war. We look back with extraordinary pride as to what we accomplished for our patients, our community as a whole, and our employees.” 

One of the greatest changes he’s seen in the healthcare industry is greater transparency. 

“I think that there has been an increase in both hospitals and healthcare workers being held accountable for what goes on within the walls of the hospital,” he said. “There has been a desire for hospitals to be more transparent about everything, from how they bill, to their infection rates, to their financial performance, to their community benefit. I think it has made the industry better.”

“Employees and doctors always had to work together and always had to rise to a variety of challenges. There have been different types of illnesses that come and go, but the need to be transparent, that need to know infinitely more about what’s happening in your hospital, has been probably the greatest change that I’ve experienced.”

The healthcare industry is facing a new post-pandemic challenge, he said. 

“Like much of society, we’ve seen folks unsettled. We’ve seen wages go up, and we’ve seen the use of temporary employees increase. We’ve seen a spike in both burnout and turnover. Trying to manage that has been difficult. During the pandemic, we learned how to manage fear. It was really interesting when the team realized that what we were managing was fear and that isn’t something you get taught in school. But once we got our minds around that, we figured out how to move forward. Now we’re managing employee burnout, folks being unsettled, increased wage demands, higher turnover, folks moving from the area. These tactical day-to-day issues get in the way of bigger strategic options that we want to consider.” 

Valdespino said his childhood hero was Thurman Munson, a catcher and captain for the New York Yankees. “He was a leader, but he was also just a grinder and not flashy, so I always enjoyed watching him.” 

He’s been fortunate since then to have a series of mentors, including Ken Farhang, a Board Chair when Valdespino was CEO of Los Alamitos Medical Center. “He became a wonderful personal mentor, even more than a business mentor,” said Valdespino. “I’ve looked for mentors my whole career. I’ve actually asked folks to mentor me. A big part of my success has been who I surround myself with that can complement me and is willing to say, ‘you’re wrong’ or ‘how about going in a different direction?’ The team that I’ve worked with at Valley Presbyterian Hospital complements my skills, particularly my Chief Operating Officer, Lori Cardle. We’ve worked together 12 years, and she’s taught me a lot. It’s important to surround yourself with folks like that.”

Another mentor that he holds in esteem is current Valley Presbyterian Hospital Board Chair Gregory Kay, M.D. “Dr. Kay has been instrumental in reminding us that our mission is to provide quality care to our community, and that our employees are a huge part of that community. He has been an exceptional partner and mentor as we have faced our challenges at VPH.”

When asked about the best advice he’s ever been given, Valdespino shared a few examples. 

“One of my mentors once said to me, ‘Gus, you have a really great gut and if you could ever combine it with some data, you might actually get somewhere.’ So, I always made sure I surround myself with good data people.”

“And then one that I heard years ago at a meeting, which was ‘solve no problem before its time.’ People look at me kind of funny when I say that, but sometimes there is a problem and the problem’s going to exist for a while, and as a leader, you just have to accept that. Know when to fix it and know when to live with it.” 

Valdespino said his greatest strength as a leader is that he relates well with people in a genuine way. 

“I care first and foremost about people and our employees,” he said. “I’ve always felt as they go, we go. I’m willing to let people get to know me and with that, you get some slack when you’re making tough decisions. People get to know you a little bit better as a person and see you for who you are and not just quote unquote the CEO of the facility. It’s a delicate balancing act, but that’s contributed to my success more than anything else.” 

“Everybody’s a human being. That’s just job one. Treat them that way and you’ll do much better.”

Presentation of Valdespino’s Vision & Excellence in Healthcare Leadership Award will take place at Partners in Care Foundation’s 24th Annual Tribute Dinner on Wednesday, June 12, 2024. To learn more about this event, register to attend, and to sign up as a sponsor, please visit Partners’ 2024 Annual Vision, Excellence and Leadership Dinner.

Partners in Care Foundation is a nonprofit organization based in San Fernando, California. Its mission addresses the social determinants of health by aligning social care and healthcare.

Part 2 – A Fortuitous Career Change

Pivoting from a focus on medicine to the business side of healthcare.

A magazine article helped set Gustavo Valdespino on a career path that led to him being named the 2024 recipient of Partners in Care Foundation’s Vision & Excellence in Healthcare Leadership Award.

“I grew up wanting to be a doctor. Not that I can tell you there was any one specific thing or moment in my life responsible for that,” said Valdespino, President and Chief Executive Officer of Valley Presbyterian Hospital. “It was more about this desire that I’ve always had to help people, to support folks and to be part of a community. Back then, it felt like being a doctor would be the way to do it.” 

The draw to medicine strengthened when both of his parents died while he was a teenager. “I was around hospitals and healthcare a lot as the two of them took ill at a very young age for a protracted period of time,” said Valdespino whose family moved from Cuba to Queens, N.Y., when he was just one-year old. 

During his freshman year at the State University of New York, Stony Brook, he got a “C” in a biology class. “I decided rather quickly that the M.D. route was not going to be the path for me. I saw an article in U.S. News and World Report about how hospital administration was a growing field with a need for leaders who cared. I said, ‘Okay, let me try that. That’s a way of working in a hospital,’ and I pivoted toward the business side of healthcare, and that’s where I am.” 

After receiving an undergraduate degree in economics, he earned a master’s degree in public health from the University of California, Los Angeles. 

“That’s when I met one of my first mentors, a gentleman by the name of Marty Ross, who visited me in New York to talk about the opportunity at UCLA,” said Valdespino. “He and Dr. Dennis Pointer, who was the program director at UCLA, offered me a two-year scholarship to UCLA.”

“What was really interesting about the UCLA program is it was a year of academics and a year of boots-on-the-ground fellowship in a hospital. That’s where I met another strong mentor, Paul Viviano [Partners’ 2021 recipient of the Vision & Excellence in Healthcare Leadership Award]. Paul was the CEO at Los Alamitos Medical Center, where I was assigned as an intern. I spent a year working under Paul’s mentorship and tutelage and it was an extraordinary experience. I really got to learn about hospital management and leadership. Paul showed me everything from the ins and outs of all the departments to team meetings, medical staff meetings, and board meetings. By the end of the year, I had gotten well-rounded exposure.” 

After that, he spent a year working at a regional office of Los Alamitos Medical Center before becoming an assistant administrator at Garfield Medical Center, where he worked for three years. 

“That was the first management position where I had folks reporting to me and started to learn everything that I didn’t know about leadership and watched a lot of different leaders. It was an environment to learn that this was never going to be easy. I don’t ever remember the good old days. This industry has always felt challenging and tough, which has been part of my fascination with it.”

From there, he went back to Los Alamitos Medical Center as the Chief Operating Officer, when another mentor, CEO Nicholas McClure, hired him back. “That was like going back home,” said Valdespino. “My kids were born there. That’s where I trained. I knew a lot of the folks, and that’s where I really started developing a sense of who I would be as a leader. I have a strong relationship orientation, but I’m not the most detail-oriented individual, so I’ve learned to surround myself with people who complement that weakness.” 

He spent 10 years at Los Alamitos, rising to the role of CEO in 1990. “I’m grateful that they were willing to give this young guy a chance.”

He sees being named a CEO for the first time as one of his biggest career highlights. “Whether you did it at a younger age or later age, I just remember the support that I felt from folks around me and the excitement of being responsible for an organization,” he said. “That was an absolute thrill, particularly an organization that I knew as well as that one, having trained there and having spent years there as the Chief Operating Officer, I felt it kind of fit me hand in glove, and it was a wonderful learning opportunity. Every skill that I developed there, I’ve used here at Valley Presbyterian Hospital and elsewhere.” 

Valdespino said that was when he learned that an important part of leadership is showing employees, he cares about them. “People who know me say, ‘Don’t get between Gus and the housekeepers.’ Our food service workers and housekeepers are the ones who grind it out every day and come in for the love of the work and just want to be treated like human beings. They are near and dear to me.” 

Valdespino subsequently became Vice President and Senior Vice President at Tenet Healthcare. “I was a little bit too far removed from the hospital setting and learned there that really, I belonged in a hospital. It’s where I was happiest, and where I felt I could make the biggest difference.” 

After a one-year stint as CEO at St. Vincent Medical Center, he took time away from healthcare for three and a half years to become CEO of Big Brothers and Big Sisters of Orange County. Managing a staff of twenty with a small budget helped him learn new leadership lessons. 

“That staff gave their heart and soul every day to help kids get mentors,” he said. “Having lost my dad early, I could relate to the kids that we were supporting and helping. It was a fantastic job, but I missed the hospital environment and the ability to make an even bigger impact.”

“When the opportunity came with Valley Presbyterian Hospital, I jumped at it. I gave the same answer when I was asked at Valley Pres why I wanted the job that I gave when I was hired at Big Brothers and St. Vincent, which is I want to be able to lead, learn, and make a difference. That’s my purpose statement in life. It doesn’t matter whether it’s at a system hospital or a freestanding hospital or a small nonprofit. What drives me is the ability to lead, learn, and make a difference. I’ve certainly been able to do that here at Valley Pres in a big way.”

Valdespino has served on the boards of more than a dozen organizations over the years. 

“I think it’s fundamental for the hospital to give back to the community through its leadership to other organizations,” he said. “We help food shelters, we help senior centers, and we require all of our directors and our executive team to put in between six and 12 hours a year of volunteer work at organizations that we’ve identified in the community. Fundamentally, a hospital is a community benefit organization. Partnership is critical.” 

Valdespino lives in Irvine, with his wife, Rini. They have two grown children, Nick, a prep chef, and daughter Lauren, a nurse practitioner, along with son-in-law Michael who is a fireman, and a granddaughter, Helena.

“I encouraged my kids to pursue what makes them happy. Then, to show up, be on time, really care about what they’re doing, and give it their all,” he said. “I think my son getting into the food world was influenced by his mom. I can’t make an omelet or boil an egg. My daughter certainly was around hospitals and perhaps that encouraged her to go that route.” 

In his free time, he enjoys traveling, cycling, going to concerts and pursuing his sporting events bucket list. “Spending time with family and friends to me is what life’s all about,” he said. 

The presentation of Valdespino’s Vision & Excellence in Healthcare Leadership Award will take place at Partners in Care’s 24th Annual Tribute Dinner on Wednesday, June 12, 2024. To learn more about the event, register to attend or sign up as a sponsor, please visit Partners’ 2024 Annual Vision, Excellence and Leadership Dinner.

Partners in Care Foundation is a nonprofit organization based in San Fernando. Its mission is to shape the evolving health system by developing and spreading high-value models of community-based care and self-management for diverse populations with chronic conditions. 

Gustavo Valdespino

Gustavo Valdespino, President and Chief Executive Officer of Valley Presbyterian Hospital