From Croatia to Cleveland: One Question that Guides Cleveland Clinic’s New CEO

Dr. Tom Mihaljevic on doing the right thing

By Tomislav Mihaljevic, MD

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Whenever I reflect on why I’ve made important decisions throughout my life, it boils down to a gut feeling and one simple question: “What is the right thing to do?”

Should I leave my native country? Should I move away from a well-regarded surgical position for the same job at the same pay in a smaller city? Should I switch career gears in my late 40s and leave the operating suite for the C-suite?

Each of these decisions required a serious gut check. What is the right thing to do?

I was born and raised in Croatia, then part of communist Yugoslavia. My father was a middle manager in business and my mother was a teacher. We were comfortable but my opportunities were limited by my family’s known opposition to the communist regime.

By 1989, after my graduation from medical school at Zagreb University, the Yugoslav federation was fracturing and imperiled by civil war. Clearly, my continued medical training would have to take place elsewhere. After taking a three-month crash course to learn German, I earned an assistantship at University Hospital in Zurich.

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When I earned a spot in a highly respected training program in Boston a few years later, I had to decide whether to accept a solid job offer from a relative in Croatia or go to America and take a chance at becoming a doctor. What is the right thing to do?

I eventually became a cardiac surgeon specializing in robotic mitral valve repairs at Brigham and Women’s. Then, in 2004, I was asked to leave Boston and move to Cleveland for what was essentially the same job at the same pay. I would be leaving behind the offer of a department chairmanship and a professorship for what was seen by some as a lateral move at best. My colleagues in Boston were stymied. To them, my decision was completely incomprehensible with no discernible incentives in terms of money, position or prestige. What is the right thing to do?

But my gut feeling was spot on. Moving to Cleveland Clinic was the right thing to do, even though I couldn’t fully articulate why at the time. Now, 14 years later, I am the CEO and President of this incredible institution and I’m reminded that the entire culture of Cleveland Clinic is so conducive to what I believe is right. It’s the values, the environment, the idea.

Cleveland Clinic is the embodiment of the values that make this country great.

America is an idea that lives every day. An idea where people from all over the world can find a place based on merit, regardless of color, gender, sexual orientation or religion. There are very few places in the world that are made that way.

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I see the same in Cleveland Clinic, which is not just a conglomeration of individuals or hospitals but rather a living idea. An idea that we differentiate ourselves based on our individual merit, not our titles or the offices that we occupy; that we all stand for what’s right for our patients; and that we stand for the right thing even when the right thing may not be popular.

There are not many organizations that can say that. As CEO and President, my task is to not only preserve the strength of this idea, but to enhance it to the greatest extent possible.

Dr. Mihaljevic is Cleveland Clinic CEO and President.

Photo Credit: ©Russell Lee