Daniel Morissette
Photograph by Margo Moritz

This is Working For Me: Daniel Morissette

The CFO of Dignity Health talks about making a daily impact in society, the genesis of his snappy sense of style, and how his integrity cost him a job.

After eight and a half years as CFO of Stanford Hospital & Clinics in Palo Alto, California, Daniel Morissette, ’93, is now senior executive vice president and CFO of Dignity Health. The San Francisco–based provider, the biggest in California and fifth largest in the nation, encompasses 42 hospitals and 60,000 employees. A Midwest native, Morissette savors the Bay Area’s 250-plus days of sunshine, often running three-to-five miles per day. When work, travel, and negotiations become stressful, he clears his head through prayer and meditation. “A great mentor of mine said, ‘Let’s close our eyes for a minute.’” 

As a mission-based health-care organization, we take care of all comers. Previously they were paying nothing. With coverage provided by the Affordable Care Act, we got a little bit of a financial boost. Over time, with preventive care, we hope to see far fewer tragic and painful cases. 

In a mission-based system, I get to strive for the same successes most businesspeople do and then reapply those earnings to society. If we efficiently charge and collect like any other firm and work on making the product better, both our revenue per patient and our margins go up. With that we can spend more on equipment to diagnose and screen, open additional facilities, provide even more help to the powerless and in impoverished areas, and hire more people. We do good things for people. 

I could have stayed at Stanford forever. At the same time, it’s good for others to step up. Dignity Health is a bigger system in the same market, so I was aware of them. I was impressed by the CEO and management team and what they stand for.

I don’t know if it’s a certain Midwestern trait: I value family and friends and do the right thing regardless of consequences. Early in my career, it would have been easy to close my eyes to white collar theft, but I did the right thing. A couple of the board of directors where I was working as CFO undervalued property for the purpose of selling to connections. I received the valuation and  thought, “That can’t be right; it’s worth much more.” They were furious when I obtained an independent valuation. They applied tremendous pressure on me and eventually obtained my resignation. One of them served years in jail for theft and corruption. I could have looked the other way. You have to write your own style. 

My father was a police officer. I’m one of five children. To pay for college, I tutored, bussed tables, worked in a manufacturing plant, pumped gas, and sold shoes. I learned how to work hard and what it feels like to be supervised.

To sell shoes, I’d sprint from one end of the store to the other for women customers. I noticed that they buy more shoes than men.

My mother was a very religious and ethical person. She taught us the value of representing your best self and making an impact on society every day.

Early in my career, it would have been easy to close my eyes to white collar theft, but I did the right thing. . . . You have to write your own style.

Daniel Morissette

Early in my career, I remember distinctly an executive commenting on my suit and how great I felt because someone powerful had acknowledged me. I don’t compliment others enough; however, I’m aware of its impact and try to acknowledge them. I remember how good these people were to me, how welcoming they were.

I envision a place. I hear the ocean. I feel calm. It’s a disciplined form of taking a deep breath. Prayer, and the repetition of prayer, helps, too. It’s good to have a connection with God, to find something good every single day, to focus energy on the favorable. 

A leader is present, sets an example, listens, responds. I’m a flawed character like everyone else, but I recognize that as a leader, people follow what I do. I strive to lead in a manner consistent with the values of the organization.

I hire the best-qualified person who’s smarter than I am and eager to do the job. I have five to 10 direct reports. I support their success, clear obstacles, listen, help, set goals, treat with respect, encourage new challenges. I keep people. They come to me and say, “I can’t believe I stayed here 10 years.”

Someone very special to me told me, “No pleats, no cuffs.” I listened. I try to dress snappy. I still wear a suit every day; often on casual Friday I get teased because I’m not wearing a tie. I dress well because I’m meeting business leaders and patients.

When I was thinking about changing jobs, I turned to previous mentors, people I’ve known my whole career. They’re really close friends, wise people. It’s good to consult with people. Sometimes it’s just, “No pleats, no cuffs.”

I was in a terrible car accident a few years ago. My body broke through the seat belt. I was in great shape, which I credit with getting me through the pain and surgeries and 18-month recovery. I’m running again. I eat well. Six days a week it’s healthy but bland foods like lean fish and chicken. When I’m at a function or over the holidays, I eat lavishly.

After three weeks, you fall in love with the deal. You want to get it done. And almost any deal can get done: the question is whether you want it. The hardest deal is the one you don’t do. 

I make sure we have sufficient data to make strategic decisions. I take that discipline seriously. I use judgment and data to make an informed decision. That’s the Chicago mindset.

 —As told to Anne Moore