New North Big Horn Hospital CEO wants to continue progress


If there were to be a recipe for the successful running of a large healthcare organization like the North Big Horn Hospital/New Horizons Care Center, it might include a few key ingredients: experience, enthusiasm for the position, respect for the current staff, community ties and an appreciation for rural healthcare.

Based on that recipe for success, new hospital CEO Eric Connell is off and running in a positive way.

Connell – pronounced CaNELL – is a native of Bozeman who comes to north Big Horn County from Scobey, Mont., in the far northeast corner of the state, where he was the CEO of Daniels Memorial Healthcare Center, which, like North Big Horn Hospital, is an affiliate of the Billings Clinic. He worked with retiring NBHH CEO Rick Schroeder for two months before Schroeder left his office for the last time in late December.

Connell said he is excited to be starting his position.

“The reason why I’m in this job is not because I have this piece of paper that says I have a degree…I’m here to care about people, to care for people, and I think one of the things that Rick did really well as an administrator was connect people to that service mission and get people to be compassionate,” Connell said. “He did a lot of other great things, but I see that as the top priority for him and who he was. That’s what I want to do, as well.”

Connell said at his first meeting with the hospital district leadership, he showed a video about love he received from a former CEO of a children’s hospital, Joe Horton, who was a professor in his graduate program at the University of Utah and a mentor.

“He’s the type of leader I like to emulate, so as a graduate student, that was the first lesson he taught us,” Connell said. “Joe told us there’s romantic love, but we’re talking about brotherly love here; that’s what healthcare is. It’s brotherly love, it’s compassion, it’s caring for your neighbor, it’s the golden rule, it’s all those things. So that impacted me as a graduate student, and I had observed that in a healthcare setting because I’d been a phlebotomist for a number of years.

“I’ve seen different leaders, and the ones that loved their people were the ones that were successful. I learned you can actually do that and that’s the right way to lead. I think Rick did that, and that’s what I’m after – more of the same, compassion and respect.”

The bottom line, Connell said, is that people have choices about where they get their healthcare, even in a rural area.

“If someone doesn’t like us and we don’t do a good job caring for them, they can go somewhere else,” he said. “We want them to be here, and we feel like we have an advantage because of the groundwork that Rick has laid and what he’s developed, that people are actually choosing to come to us from other communities.

“I talked to one gentleman (patient) a couple of weeks ago. He was from two communities away. He bypassed another hospital to receive his care in Lovell. People don’t drive out of their way unless there’s something special going on. He had heard fantastic things about our organization, that the people
were caring and compassionate, that they take really good care.”

North Big Horn Hospital’s reputation is known far and wide, Connell said.

“I can tell you that, coming from another organization that was striving to emulate the example and the standard that Lovell has set, this organization is highly, highly regarded in the region,” he said. “Within the Billings Clinic family there’s a great deal of admiration for what has been accomplished to this point. I knew that reputation coming in. It is humbling to think that now it’s my turn. I just spent the last couple months with Rick, and he is a special human being, and the people here are special. To get the chance to be part of it is humbling.”

Rural healthcare

Though he hails from a larger community, Bozeman, and studied in Salt Lake City, Connell said he quickly realized that he wanted to work in rural heathcare. He worked for about five years as a phlebotomist, then entered his graduate program in Utah, working simultaneously for the University of Utah Healthcare system, which has a regional approach similar to the Billings Clinic, developing partnerships with rural facilities.

He next worked for a large healthcare system in Bismarck, N.D., which also had rural components, then moved to Scobey for two years. During those years in North Dakota and Montana, he said he realized he truly enjoys rural healthcare.

“I knew I wanted to be in the rural environment,” he said. “I learned that at the University of Utah. It was suits meeting with suits, such a big organization with many layers of management. It didn’t resonate with my soul, my purpose.”

There was another reason for moving further west. While pursuing a career in management, Connell said he knew his family would have to “move around” a little bit, but he always wanted to get closer to family.

Having come from Montana, Connell said he and his wife, Laura, jumped at the opportunity to move from North Dakota to Scobey, a town of about 1,000 people, to be closer to parents in Bozeman and Evanston, and now, in Lovell, the location is even better because the couple has parents within a day’s drive.

In Lovell, Connell has, in a way, come full circle. His grandfather was Hyrum Smith Shumway, World War II hero from Lovell who lost his eyesight during the war and made the best of it by serving others, running the Wyoming State Director of Education for the Deaf and Blind for 32 years out of Cheyenne. Connell’s mother, Susan Shumway Connell, is Smith Shumway’s daughter.

“For me to be able to come to a place where I have that connection means a lot to me,” he said. “It means a lot to my family, as well. My mom is just tickled pink that we get to be in Lovell.”

The transition

Connell said his first two months in Lovell has been focused on a smooth transition from Schroeder to himself and “continuing the good things that are happening.”

“I spent quite a bit of time with Rick learning about programs like the Studer Group and learning about our team members and getting perceptions from Rick about people and the community,” Connell said. “That was invaluable time. We were fortunate to be able to do that. That was wise of the board to allow that overlap, because a lot of times these transitions do not go well. A lot of stuff falls through the cracks.”

Schroeder had originally planned to retire several months earlier, but with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, he elected to extend his tenure to help guide the hospital district through what he knew would be a challenging time.

“I admire Rick a lot for sticking around to help get the team through, at least to this point, the worst part of COVID, which we hope proves to be true,” Connell said, “and the board allowing me a little bit of flexibility to come in and spend time with Rick, as well as create an opportunity to learn the nursing home side (of the operation). I came from a 25-bed hospital, and we didn’t have a nursing home. Rick has been mentoring me in that.”

Management style

Asked about his style of management, Connell said that, having been in healthcare from the patient care side of things, he likes to observe what is happening in the hospital and care center first hand.

“I love to get close to the work. That means I like to round on (see) patients, when it’s appropriate,” he said. “That is something that fills my bucket and keeps me passionate about what we’re trying to do here.

“One thing I learned as a phlebotomist is that the best ideas typically come from people who are closest to the work. I realized we were being disruptive when we’d go in (a patient’s room) at 3 in the morning, flip on the light and say, ‘Hey, we’ve got to draw blood. Sorry.’ Can you imagine if you’re the patient? That’s not great. So I learned that we needed to figure out a way to minimize the disruption, like ‘Let’s get all of our supplies ready outside the room before we come in so we’re not spending an extra two minutes fumbling around.’

“What that means for me now is that I want to be a collaborative leader that respects and appreciates and relies on the contributions of the people that are closest to the work. I know that I was not brought here to be the smartest person in the room. I was brought here to bring people together and continue with the good work that has been done to this point.

“This isn’t a reclamation project. We’ve already got the train rolling down the tracks, and my job is to stoke the fire with some more coal. I love to collaborate. I love to have those interactions with patients and the public. I love to hear how we’re doing, whether good or bad.”

Loving, personal attention is what North Big Hospital will continue to hang its hat on, Connell said.

“In terms of who we are and what we can become as an organization, our job is to serve the needs of the community,” he said. “That may mean we aren’t the neurosurgery center of Lovell, Wyoming, but what we can do is figure out what we can be the best in the world at. I truly believe that love is the thing that we can be the best in the world at, compassion.

“It doesn’t require building some giant behemoth facility. It doesn’t require us going out and doing some recruitment. I firmly believe we can become the best in the world at love and compassion for the people that we serve.”

Having been in the facility for more than two months now, Connell said there is no need for massive changes, but he does plan to engage in some strategic planning with the hospital board “to define how we’re going to evolve from a services standpoint and from a community standpoint.”

“I am very interested in spending some time with key stakeholders in the community over the next two or three months, as well,” Connell said. “What you don’t want is for me to come in and say, ‘Hey, this is how we did it in Scobey (or Bismarck), so we’re going to make these 10 changes in my first six months on the job. It’s really important for me, now that I’m in the position and Rick’s retired, to take the appropriate amount of time to develop the relationships, to hear the voices.

“I really want us to take – not that we haven’t done this – the time to develop a cadence of working together, develop the relationships. It’s almost like the ‘slow is fast and fast is slow’ philosophy when you’re a new administrator is really true. The faster I try to move at the start, the more people are going to want to resist change.”

Planning to stay

As a 36-year-old “up-and-comer,” some in the community may wonder how long Connell will remain in Lovell, but he insisted he’s here for the long haul. The issue came up during his interview with the board.

“Any time you’re a younger administrator and they think you have potential, they want to know how long you’re going to stick around,” he said. “We have good reason to be here. This was our dream. Seven or eight years ago when we decided to go and get a master’s and pursue this career path, it was a matter of wanting to be within a day of both families.

“I don’t know what the future holds, but part of me being here a long time is also doing a really good job, and I plan on doing that part. Sometimes boards make changes. I hope to be wanted for the duration here in Lovell, and I hope to do good work that makes me worthy of being employed here as the CEO.”

When he first went back to school to pursue his masters, Connell’s dream job was being back home in Bozeman, but he said he and his family have come to love the rural life.

“We hope to be here a long time,” he said. “We’ve done some exploring around, and my wife absolutely loves it here. And we haven’t really even gotten to meet anybody because of COVID-19. This place feels really good.”

He said he spent time in the facility in September of 2019 at a leadership development workshop organized by Schroeder. He said to himself, “Holy smokes, this place is beautiful and it’s well maintained.”

Eric and Laura Connell have four children: Erikson, 7, Belle, 5, Greta, 2, and Ember, 10 months. He said he loves the outdoors including fishing and deer hunting and spending time with his family.

He also said he hopes to get involved in the community.