Tom Kean: A Proven Commitment to Leadership and Service

    • October 26, 2012

In January, Tom Kean will step down from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) Board of Trustees, end his eight-year tenure as chairman, and more than two decades of service as a board member. We sat down with the Governor after the July board meeting to ask him about his years with RWJF and his perspective on the Foundation and its work.

Q: You’ve been a Trustee of RWJF longer than anybody else… 22 years. What drew you to this work, especially because your background is different?

Kean: I had been head of the Governors’ Association and the governors pick various areas. Ultimately, I ended up being the head of the education area, but before that I was on the health committee and vice chairman of the health committee. So I have had an interest in health for some time.

When I left the governorship, Jim Burke, a very prominent trustee of the Foundation and former chairman of Johnson & Johnson, and Sid Wentz, the chairman of the Foundation, asked me whether I would come aboard. Initially, I said no because I was just taking over as University president [at Drew University]. Jim Burke said to me, “No you don’t understand. This is not something you turn down.  This will be one of the best experiences of your life—serving on this board. They’re good people doing fine work. Great staff and you’ll really enjoy that.” So I said yes. And, of course, I never regretted that decision. He was absolutely right. I enjoyed every minute of it.

Q: How have your other experiences as a governor, a legislator, an educator impacted the approach you took to board participation leadership in this organization?

Kean: I’ve always liked people. I think working with the board collegially is a pleasure. I had chaired a number of organizations before I became chair of this one and I think I know how to try to bring out the best in people without stifling them. In my mind, the best kind of board chair doesn’t have to say anything at all because the board has a life of its own and can reach consensus and everything else. If you interject yourself at the wrong moment you stop that process.

Q: Were there times you had to nudge things along? 

When I joined the board, I was the young guy in the group. I didn’t come from a health care background. Almost everyone on the board had known the General, and they would tell the staff occasionally, ‘The General wouldn’t have liked that.’ It was a difficult dynamic. At that time I felt that some of my job was to encourage the staff and protect them from some of the trustees who believed that they had the General’s vision. If the staff was deviating in some way or another, they tried to step on them. You can’t have a good staff in that situation. 

Q: You knew the General, too, even though you were the youngest on the board, right?

Kean: My father was in Congress and the General had definite ideas about what the Congress should and should not be doing, so he would come see my father to tell him. I remember meeting him. He was a presence.

The General’s legacy was wonderful. He gave us such freedom. He recognized the world would change, and in the setting up of the Foundation he didn’t have hard, fast rules. He wanted us to change with the times. He wanted us to be up front and ahead of things. He had a wonderful vision.

Q: How has the board evolved? How have diversification and growth and new challenges affected what this board is like today?

Kean: When I first joined it was a very different board. The trustees were almost all retired. They were far older. They were all white. Eventually, we were able to get a woman on the board, because of our interest in nursing.

We had discussions about how we could have a foundation so interested in nursing that didn’t have a nurse on its board. Luckily, we were able to elect an iconic figure in nursing [Rheba de Tornyay], who became the first woman on RWJF’s board. Then we just kept increasing the board’s diversity.  Diversity makes it a much better board. The discussions are better because people bring a greater diversity of backgrounds. The staff, of course, is more diverse too. It was a good staff in those days and it’s a better staff today.

Q: Was there ever a time when you had to strategically serve or direct or guide things? Today, it seems that there are so many areas of our civic life, public life, political life where nobody can agree on anything.

Kean: That’s because we don’t know each other very well. This board has a system of getting to know each other. You need to have occasions when the board members get to know each other personally. We have dinners in the evening. We get together in non-board settings where we can ask each other, “How many children do you have? Tell me about your life.” Once you get to know people, it’s much more difficult to have serious arguments. You’ll have disagreements, but they’re friendly disagreements. It’s been a very collegial working relationship, but that doesn’t happen by accident. You have to work to make that happen. I think with Risa’s leadership, it has happened.

Q: Are there Foundation accomplishments that make you proud, that really stand out over your 22 years?

Kean: This is a foundation that makes an impact every day. Our nursing programs have developed that field in major ways—developed nurse practitioners. We have had a program that develops leaders in the medical field. People who were RWJF Scholars are now leaders of their profession.  We develop people in a very good way and that‘s something I have always been proud of. 

Our latest issue is childhood obesity. There’s not a greater health problem facing this country right now and the Foundation has been at the forefront. If we hadn’t gotten in there at the beginning with a $500 million-dollar commitment, I don’t know if the First Lady would have picked it as her signature effort. She might have anyway, but a lot of the other people who have gotten into this field probably wouldn’t have.

Before that, it was tobacco. This Foundation showed a lot of courage. When we went into the tobacco initiative, the tobacco companies tried to kill us. They did not take it kindly. They did everything they could to stop our work, but we kept at it. We did our research. We found out what the levers were that helped people control smoking, lessen smoking. We get into the big issues—our work in end of life, our current work in nursing. Unless we can understand the important role nurses play, recognize and value them as professionals, and make sure that doctors are working with them as professionals, unless we support and advance nursing and nurse practitioners, get more faculty members in nursing colleges and all of that, the health system isn’t going to work.

Q: You and Risa wrote in an op-ed in 2007 “We need to come together as a nation and put aside the partisanship and interest group politics of the past to tackle America’s health care crisis.” So where are we today? 

Kean: The Foundation can support what we believe in—decent health care for all Americans—but we can’t support any particular proposal to do that. In recent years, we have been very strict about that.  Risa and I can tell the people that we need to come together to get decent health care, but we can’t tell them how.  We can be the neutral supplier of information so people can come to us and say, “What are the statistics on this? Can we see your research?” We can give them all our research but we have to be very careful. We cannot be a proponent; nor should we. We have overall values and overall goals, but to get into the legislation to reach those goals, we need to step back. No matter how we believe individually.

Q: Your dad was a congressman, you were a legislator. You’ve been Governor. Your son is looking to politics. I think that going back in time, our politics were more collegial and people could compromise. I recently heard that to be a moderate of any stripe is worthless because everything is so polarized. How do you respond to that?

Kean: It’s important that people know each other as people. Congressmen can now serve together for ten years in the House and hardly meet each other. They work from Tuesday to Thursday. In the evening they go to fundraisers. Then they go home. Fifty years or 60 years ago, they stayed in Washington and worked all week. They brought their families; their kids would get to know each other. Their spouses would get to know each other. They got to know each other as human beings.

The center is disappearing and the center is what you make policy around. That’s a terrible problem for democracy and the Foundation’s got to live with it. We can’t do a lot about it, but other people who can be doing something about it…who ought to be doing something about it, but they are not. They are encouraging them, I think, in many cases.

Q: As you look ahead to say, “Sayonara Foundation,” what are you going to remember best – most happily about your experience?

Kean: The people. One of the smartest things I ever did in my life was to vote for Risa to be president of the Foundation. She has brought wonderful leadership to the Foundation, and continues to do so. The trustees that are now on the board and some trustees who have passed—to me there will always be some ghosts. I can always go downstairs and think of trustees and staff members who made contributions. I remember them with great fondness. It’s the people, past and present.

Q: So if you tweeted to the world for the 40th anniversary what would you say about RWJF?

Kean: That this is an organization that is doing it the right way. This organization takes on big problems. We limit ourselves to health and health care. In that area we’ve shown courage. We’ve shown initiative. We are science-based.  We do research before we get into something and we are after solutions—big solutions.

We had a founder who had a vision. We are still attempting to realize that vision and the people in this building never stop.  They really don’t.  They’re absolutely dedicated and it’s been a pleasure to work with them and to see it happen.