“Open mic” nights at The Red Barn in Peoria, Ill., are fun times when people gather to enjoy lineups of local amateur talent. Recently, a performer entertained the crowd playing guitar and singing songs, some of which he composed himself. Few would have guessed this singer-songwriter spends his days as CFO at OSF HealthCare.
That CFO is Michael Allen, FHFMA, CPA. And in addition to his role as an executive for a regional health system, he is preparing to take on another big role: HFMA’s 2019-2020 National Chair.
Allen officially will be installed as HFMA’s Chair June 24 at the Association’s Annual Conference in Orlando. Allen’s journey to this role began when he joined HFMA in 1993 and was promptly recruited for the McMahon-Illini Chapter’s leadership track. After serving the Chapter as program chair, president elect and president, Allen went on to serve the national Association in a variety of positions, including terms as an officer and member of the National Board of Directors, chair of the Board of Examiners and a member of the National Advisory Council.
Allen recently sat down for an “Open Mike” session — HFMA style. The goal this time? To gain some insight into the thinking of this CFO who will occupy HFMA’s highest office for the coming year.
We know music and family are important to you. Tell us more about that special part of your life.
Allen: It’s part of a family tradition. We all enjoy music and experiencing life through it. I actually grew up around music, with my grandparents and parents all being musicians. My wife Kim also really likes music, and our two sons, Jacob and Caleb, enjoy music as well and play a variety of instruments.
Playing the guitar has been an important part of my life. In essence, it has been my “guitar therapy.” I just really enjoy playing and writing songs because they’re stories. It’s fun to do, and it engages my brain in different ways. I think that’s helped in my career and in other ways as well because I like to think out of the box. Writing music helps develop that skill.
How did you choose to get into healthcare finance?
Allen: The way I answer that question when asked is that I did not choose. It chose me. I started my career in public accounting, at a regional firm where we did a lot of different audits — construction, banking, non-profits and some governmental. I also worked some in healthcare, but I didn’t really specialize in it. And actually, I didn’t care for it because it’s a very complex industry. Since I did multiple business types, I couldn’t get my head around healthcare in short bursts a few times a year.
Toward the end of my career trajectory in public accounting, however, I had a new client that was a hospital. And as we did this audit for the first time, the CEO asked for “fresh eyes.” He wanted us to tell him something he should know about and pay attention to. In other words, not just the usual stuff.
It wasn’t a question we prepared for, but I looked at the partner and he looked at me, and we said: “Frankly, you don’t have any depth in your finance area. You have a CFO who’s a CPA and has a lot of experience, but beyond that, if he left the organization, you don’t have anyone else in the organization to step in.”
The CEO took our advice and asked the CFO to create a number two finance position. Nine months later, I was ready to leave public accounting and applied for the job. They hired me. So, in a way, I created my own job and got the opportunity to fully immerse in healthcare finance.
How did you get involved in HFMA, and what does the HFMA experience mean to you?
Allen: As I’ve mentioned, it was difficult to be proficient in healthcare doing it “part time” while auditing other business sectors. Right before I left public accounting, the partner who specialized mostly in healthcare, Bill Buskirk, told me I needed to join HFMA. So I joined right before taking the controller position. I got into the local chapter and, within a year, got pulled in to chapter leadership things. The rest is history.
My experience with HFMA has been invaluable, and I’m so thankful I was introduced to it early. More than anything, it’s the people and the relationships. I have a lot of HFMA friends, but it’s not just that we’re friends. It’s also having the opportunity to hear different points of view from different markets and different places — cities, rural areas and everywhere in between. HFMA has provided me with exposure to people and things I never would have seen before, such as how other people do things, solve problems and face challenges. Another thing about HFMA that’s really cool to me is that, as I’ve moved to new communities, the one stable factor in all of it has been my HFMA family. It’s always there, no matter where I go.
The second thing I value most about HFMA is the access to education, content and knowledge, and the opportunity to build my skill sets and forge a career path.
Professionally, what defines success for you?
Allen: It comes down to two things. The first is knowing I’m making a positive impact on the organizations that I’m part of. And second is always being open to learning something new and growing. That’s success to me, and if it ever stops, then I think I should be done. I’ll need to step away at that point.
What are some professional accomplishments you’re most proud of?
Allen: Early in my career, I had the opportunity to drive some big decisions for my organization. One was when we were able to provide a clear financial perspective that enabled the board and executive team to decide to partner with a university by taking over its college of nursing, which has since thrived.
The second opportunity was when we built a financial infrastructure and balance sheet that helped the organization remain independent, serving the community the way it wanted. Now, I’m at OSF Healthcare, a faith-based healthcare system that is focused on serving everybody, especially those who have less. As the organization has scaled up and gotten larger, my journey has been to modernize the finance infrastructure for the organization and bring it up to the schema to match the scale that we’ve developed.
The organization also has an outsized innovation platform and a world-class simulation center, which I think is really cool. I’m also encouraging the organization to take the innovation side, which has mostly a clinical focus, and apply it to the business side. We are embracing machine learning and artificial intelligence, and we’re embracing automation and new and different ways to do the work we do in finance. I think it’s imperative for us in healthcare finance to lower the cost of doing the back-office things so there’s more for our mission.
What helpful advice did you receive or wish you had received when you began your healthcare finance career? What advice would you give to someone considering such a career today?
Allen: It may sound cliché, but the best advice I received in terms of advancing my healthcare career was somebody nudging me to go join HFMA. I wouldn’t be the career professional I am or have reached the level that I have without having received that advice. More than anything, it put people in my path who helped me learn. And that helped me in my career.
Today, I give that same piece of advice to others. I tell them that I’ve spent 23 years as a volunteer for HFMA, and it’s always given more back to me than I’ve given to it. Another piece of advice that I would give — something that I’m not sure I ever really heard but have instinctively always followed — is to say “yes” to as many opportunities as possible in order to be exposed to as many things as possible.
How would you describe the healthcare industry today and what healthcare financial professionals can do to influence positive change?
Allen: Healthcare is at a critical juncture, and I believe it’s going to be a different industry in 10 to 15 years. Finance professionals need to make sure their organizations are prepared to navigate through the change without knowing what the end looks like. We should be comfortable with ambiguity and some uncertainty. We need to help lead our organizations around the core principles of being easy to do business with, being able to drive customer service and engagement to the highest level and being high-quality, low-cost organizations.
All these things are going to be necessary for whatever the future looks like. And I think finance professionals need to be leading the change rather than saying “no.” If we don’t get in front of it from a finance perspective, we’ll have missed an opportunity to help our organizations navigate through what I think will be a very choppy and challenging period. Delivery of great care to our communities and the people we care about is really important, and we need to be active rather than passive in getting it done.
You selected “Dare You 2 Move” as the theme for your year as National Chair. What do you want to say to the industry, and how does it fit with where we need to go in healthcare?
Allen: “Dare You 2 Move” is about the gap between where you are and where you could be, and what you need to do to get “unstuck.” It’s a message of courage over comfort. Whether it’s your professional life or your personal life, this is a call to action. If you’re sitting around and thinking about something that you want or something that needs to be done, then go after it! This is particularly important in a rapidly evolving industry such as ours. We need to be people of action. We need to move, and we need to do it now.
Career at a Glance
- CFO, OSF HealthCare
- Master of Healthcare Administration, University of Minnesota
- Bachelor’s in Accounting, Illinois State University
- Founders Medal of Honor
- The William G. Follmer Bronze Award
- The Robert H. Reeves Silver Award
- The Frederick T. Muncie Gold Award