Dan Burton first got involved with the health care data and analytics company Health Catalyst as an investor and advisor back when it was a three-person startup; today, he leads a team of close to 800 as its CEO. Dan has also embraced being what his kids call “super boring,” as a way to simplify—including wearing the same Lands' End button down and Men’s Wearhouse slacks to work every day.
What is something you’ve learned that you lean on daily?
Several years ago, I read some advice from Sir Richard Branson that has stuck with me: employees should come first, then customers, then shareholders. As leaders, we don’t interact with our customers every single day—but our team members do. So if we show our employees we care for them and want to help them succeed, that will translate into the way they care for our customers. And when our customers feel cared for, they’ll choose to renew and expand and refer us, which keeps our financial performance strong and our shareholders happy.
I try to work on improving our team member experience every single day. If my head hits the pillow without doing that, I’ve failed that day in my top priority as CEO. It was easier to keep employee experience front and center when there were 5 or 10 or 50 of us, and I could meet one-on-one with every team member. But it’s just as important now that we’re approaching 800. I still have one-on-ones with as many employees as I can—my goal is 200 every year. We also survey team members twice per year on their satisfaction and engagement, and I read every comment at least twice. I respond personally to every Glassdoor review we receive. There is almost always some nugget of truth in even the toughest feedback. The key is to try to avoid the very human reaction of defensiveness and replace it with a willingness to learn.
What one piece of advice would you give someone starting a company?
You might have multiple motivations for starting a company, but you should be sure they’re prioritized correctly. If making a lot of money is first on the list, there are probably better ways to fulfill that dream—because eventually, it will be outweighed by the challenges you face. I think you’ve got to tap into a deeper passion.
At Health Catalyst, our mission is to use data and analytics to enable massive improvement in health care. But I think just about any business can serve a higher purpose, even if it’s not as obvious as saving lives. My kids and I watched a video recently about the team that makes Star Wars movies, and one of them talked about how she loved her work because it brings out the hero in all of us. That’s the kind of passion that’s worth getting up for every morning, and it will see you through the difficult times.
What small change has made a big difference in your life?
I try to remember some advice I received from a mentor, which is that you can’t do everything, but you can make progress. So many of us suffer from the sense that we have to always be perfect at everything that matters to us—career, family life, health. But there have been many points in my life where I’ve fallen short in one area or another, in really meaningful ways. I’m learning to step back from trying to be superhuman and focus instead on trying to make a positive difference, even if it’s only incremental.
The same mentor recommended I develop a daily dashboard, which I call my “Daily 12.” It’s just a list of 12 things I want to do every day, no matter where I am in the world and what’s going on, like get enough sleep and spend an hour visiting with my wife. Often the critical areas of our lives are important but not urgent. Putting them on the dashboard tricks my brain into keeping them at the top of the list.
What don't you know that you wish you knew?
I wish I knew every one of our team members more deeply. When I see someone in the hallway and don’t know their name, I feel like I’ve fallen short. I don’t have a great solution yet, but one thing we’ve done—besides prioritizing one-on-ones—is build an app everyone on the team can use to get to know each other. It has a name, picture, title and bio for each person, and it’s gamified, so you see the picture and have to choose the right name or vice versa. I’m hovering around 85 or 90% right now, but I know I can get to 100.
What books are on your nightstand right now?
I believe if you get the principles right, the processes follow naturally. So I often find myself revisiting books where I’ve found principles that stood the test of time. Right now, I’m rereading Good to Great, by Jim Collins. I absolutely love his analysis of leadership and the seeming juxtaposition of personal humility and organizational ambition. The combination of servant leadership with the pursuit of a goal is incredibly powerful.
I’m also re-reading Stephen Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, for probably the 10th time. One of the habits is “seek first to understand, then to be understood,” which is also related to humility. Active listening is so important, whether you’re a people manager or you’re working directly with customers.
One the personal side, one of my “Daily 12” goals is to spend an hour in a quiet setting with sacred content, which I do during my commute. I might just pray or meditate, or listen to a talk from a spiritual leader, but I often listen to holy scripture. It can be hard to protect that time. There’s always more work to do than there are hours in the day. But it’s transformed the way I think about my commute. I used to hate it, and now it’s among my favorite moments of the day.
When did you realize you were wrong about something?
All the time. It’s really important for leaders to recognize that we don’t have all the answers and listen more than we talk. Literally every week, I go into a leadership team discussion with a working hypothesis and discover it wasn’t nearly as good as what we come up with together. Especially as you scale, you need the humility to realize you don’t have expertise in most areas of the company—and you need to make sure your team is comfortable telling you what you’re missing.
This week, for example, I thought it would be a great idea to broaden the scope of a new leadership role we’re looking to fill, but my CFO pointed out that it could disenfranchise several teams. There were things I just didn’t understand as completely because I wasn’t as close to that line of business. We talked it over as a leadership team and came up with a much better definition of the role and organizational structure than what I had proposed.
What unit of time matters the most and why?
Today. There’s a quote I love from the movie Kung Fu Panda: “Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, but today is a gift. That’s why it’s called ‘the present.’” I can’t change the world in a day. But I can get today right and then go to bed and wake up and get today right again. Eventually, great things can happen. Every major achievement is really the amalgamation of small daily actions that add up over a long period of time.
- Employees come first
- Develop a daily dashboard
- Principles before processes
— Dan Burton, CEO, Health Catalyst