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William Sanger ’88 treats the health of his company like he would the health of a living person. Considering his success in leading companies such as Envision Healthcare, this approach appears to make a lot of sense.
Sanger joined Envision as the CEO of its predecessor company, Emcare, in 2000. At that time, the company had $200 million in revenue and $13 million in profits. Today, Envision is a Fortune 500 company with $10 billion in revenue and more than $1 billion in profits, and for the last 1.5 years he has served as chairman of the board.
When asked about what makes a company successful, Sanger quickly points to what he refers to as “fundamental axioms” of business, the most critical being the employees’ understanding of the purpose of the company, its direction, what it stands for and, most importantly, how one contributes to achieving the company’s goals. “If a company is to have lasting success, leaders must also create an environment where employees feel extraordinary about what they do for the company,” Sanger says. “And to do that, a company must give back to the employees as well. Open, clear and honest communication is the key. By putting your employees first, they will go the extra mile.”
Another fundamental belief Sanger espouses is that of boundaries. He supports and demands boundaries in a work environment and within the policies and procedures of a company. “But when leaders create boundaries around creative thinking and individual contributions,” he says, “they become part of the boundary themselves and will stifle new and innovative ideas.” Per Sanger, some of the best ideas in the companies he has led have come from those employees who are far from the C-suite.
This type of thinking has led Sanger to take Envision from private to public two separate times, and he is in the process of taking the company private again. At Envision, he claims that the 70,000 associates who serve the organization have an equal opportunity to share their ideas.
From his depth of experience, Sanger maintains a practice of not falling prey to a fundamental flaw he has seen in medicine referred to as diagnostic bias. This phenomenon occurs when an experienced physician has seen a particular disease or condition so many times that he will often quickly diagnose without going through the use of key empirical clinical data. To Sanger, this is where mistakes are made, and diagnostic bias also happens too frequently within the C-suite. “Skilled managers who have seen similar problems over time have a tendency to want to treat the problem in a similar way, even when overriding facts may be different.”
When asked about what he has learned from his time at Kellogg, Sanger is quick to respond that “Kellogg exposes its students to many different studies in business. But the greatest contribution for me was how it teaches us a different way of thinking. Business, and life in general, is like a puzzle. Kellogg has better prepared me to solve these puzzles.”
Today, as well as being chairman of Envision, Sanger serves on four boards and has made several investments in various industries via Sanger Capital Partners LLC, including Sanger Family Wines and the Sanger Olive Oil Company.