Mark Taubman arrived as chief of Cardiology twelve years ago, and has been steadily assuming greater responsibilities ever since. Now, as CEO, Taubman has developed a distinctive leadership style.
Mark B. Taubman, MD, is about to give new meaning to the “Taubman Approach.” If you’re unfamiliar with the old meaning, you probably don’t spend a lot of time playing the piano. But Douglas Humphreys does. He is chair of the Piano department at the University of Rochester Eastman School of Music.
“The Taubman Approach is a well-known, technical approach to playing the piano,” Humphreys says. “It has a strong track record of helping pianists with injuries such as tendonitis or carpal tunnel syndrome.”
The ergonomic method was developed by an eminent piano teacher from Brooklyn, Dorothy Taubman, who instructed a number of world-renowned players. When she died in 2013, a headline in The New York Times’ music section dubbed her “Dorothy Taubman, Therapist for Pianists.”
She and her husband were also the parents of an only child — a son — and he has just been named chief executive officer of the
University of Rochester Medical Center. Mark Taubman stepped into the CEO spot on January 1. He replaces Bradford C. Berk (MD ’81, PhD ’81), who stepped down to start a premier neurorestorative institute at the U of R.
Taubman and Berk are longtime colleagues and close friends, but Taubman has his own way of getting things done. Here are a few basic tenets of the “Taubman Approach” to leadership, and a look at what he plans to accomplish while at the helm.
Find Common Ground
Taubman grew up in a house filled with music. There were, of course, his mother’s students. While one received instruction in the studio, another would be practicing down the hall. But Taubman’s father, who had been coached by the same person who trained operatic star Beverly Sills, was also a strong influence. Taubman was given his first record player before he turned two years old, and he has been playing the piano since age three. Today, he owns the equivalent of eight thousand albums, including atonal music, heavy metal, and show tunes, on a hard drive in his family room. To demonstrate the clarity of sound coming from two strategically placed speakers (both nearly as tall as he is), he pulls up Paul Simon’s 1986 single, “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes.”
“He’s got a very nice audio system,” says Robert Clark, senior vice president for Research across the U of R, dean of the Hajim School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, and an expert on acoustics. “One of the technologies he uses to listen to his music came out of a company I used to work with.”
And that is how it begins. A single conversation with Taubman is typically all it takes to uncover some sort of connection, a mutual passion, or a shared experience. His remarkable array of interests allows him to quickly build an affinity with nearly everyone he meets, a phenomenon he is very conscious of.
“The number-one role of a leader is communicating with people. You have to really listen to what they are saying, and be able to understand their viewpoints as well as your own. You have to make them grasp what you are trying to achieve, so they will want to help. But before you can do any of that, you have to bond,” Taubman says. “The easiest way to bond is to talk about something you have in common.”
Take your pick: Taubman and his wife, Lois, both native New Yorkers, fashion their own series of a dozen operas each season at the Metropolitan Opera. In between, they go to Broadway shows, sometimes fitting two or three performances in during a single weekend. They have started collecting art, and playfully point to their almost bona fide masterpiece – an abstract painting by a patient (they’ve forgotten his name) at the Saint-Rémy asylum, where Vincent van Gogh painted Starry Night. Taubman, who wears a Fitbit to track his steps throughout the day, hits a treadmill in the basement every night. He admits to an obsession with Shark Tank, an entrepreneurial-themed reality show full of backstabbing billionaires, and he has a secret penchant for romantic movie endings (An Officer and a Gentleman, anyone?). He can pick out theoretical physicist and bestselling author Michio Kaku in a crowd. He loves watching sports on television, especially football, which he compares to the ballet. And then…there are those Yankees.
“It’s all about that slow battle between the pitcher and the hitter,” he says wistfully. “To me, that is the game.”
The Yankees, as anyone who knows professional baseball is well aware, have an ugly rivalry with the Boston Red Sox. But that doesn’t present a problem for Taubman, even in the midst of Red Sox aficionados.“He’s the only real Yankees fan I know whose second favorite team is the Red Sox,” Michael C. Goonan says with a big smile. Goonan, who recently retired from his post as chief financial officer, is a Red Sox fan.
“We still get along great,” he says.
Work the Problem
CEO Stats: Mark B. Taubman, MD
- CEO, University of Rochester Medical Center
- Dean, University of Rochester School of Medicine & Dentistry
- Senior Vice President for Health Sciences
- 2010 to present: Dean
- 2009 to 2010: Interim CEO
- 2007 to 2009: Chair, Department of Medicine
- 2003 to 2007: Chief, Cardiology Division
- New York University School of Medicine (MD ’78)
- New York University School of Medicine (MS ’76)
- Columbia University (BA ’72)
In fact, Goonan considers Taubman to be a chief financial officer’s dream CEO.
“The guy just loves numbers,” he notes.
When Taubman was named dean of the U of R School of Medicine and Dentistry in 2010, medical schools across the country were scrambling to adjust to a quickly evaporating pool of public and private research dollars. Their budgets were sliding deeper into the red, with no end in sight. At the SMD, Goonan and the School’s CFO, William Passalacqua, would typically be called upon to lead the way back toward black in a crisis like this. But Taubman spent nights and weekends working on a solution from home.
“He put together more than one hundred and fifty different financial models for us to consider. It might have been two hundred,” Goonan recalls with amazement. “Mark has a better understanding of what it takes, from a financial position, to run a medical center than any other dean or CEO I know.”
Taubman’s love for math and problem solving is conspicuous. The guy reads math books for fun. He animatedly holds up his favorite tome of all time, Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid. The Pulitzer Prize-winning book links the theorem of a twentieth-century Austrian mathematician (Gödel) with a mathematically motivated artist (Escher) and the similarly inspired composer (Bach), while also dipping into the possibility of artificial intelligence. (Phew.) It is full of puzzles.
“You work the problem,” Taubman says, quoting from Apollo 13. “That’s what attracts me to virtually everything I do. I love challenges — and for academic medical centers, this is the most challenging time.”
He is starting to break down the URMC’s strategic plan, finalized last year, into actionable items. Though his approach to this complex and urgent task is strikingly methodical, he strives to make it personal. He emphasizes the need to always put together the right team of people for each task, regardless of title or department. It’s a practice that worked well for him as dean during difficult times.
“He successfully enlisted the faculty in solving shared problems, creating the sense that we are all in this together,” notes Stephen Dewhurst, PhD, vice dean for Research.
“If not an entirely bottoms-up strategy, it is certainly one in which the faculty were much more involved in their own fate.”
Lois Taubman says her husband has always shown a deep concern for people, and he has an innate desire to see everyone win. She recounts a story his mother told her about one of Mark’s first days in kindergarten.
He came home bubbling with excitement.
“He told his mother, ‘Today has been such a good day! Richard got elected class president,’” Lois says. “That is Mark.”
Maintain a Sense of Humor
Being CEO of an academic medical center and dean of a medical school, particularly during this era of upheaval, is not a job for the timid or the weak. Logistics alone are hard to imagine, given the fact there are only twenty-four hours in a day. Taubman spends the majority of those hours in meetings.
“What’s his biggest challenge going to be? It could be finding time to eat,” Robert Clark says with a laugh.
“I tried to negotiate either an extra day, or seven more hours to each day,” Taubman banters, “but I couldn’t get either of those as part of the deal.”
It’s the middle of an arduously long day, but Taubman’s sense of humor remains intact. He carries it with him to most meetings, subtly pulling it out without warning. He is not one of those people who laugh at their own antics, so sometimes it takes a second or two for the joke to settle in. Then, the sparkle in his eye gives it away.
“He is very, very funny, especially in small- group settings,” says Jonathan W. Friedberg, MD, MMSc, director of the James P. Wilmot Cancer Institute (and a Red Sox fan). “It makes him very approachable.”
Taubman says he cannot imagine living life without a sense of humor. And, he adds, no one will ever see him get angry. As a cardiologist, he obviously knows the dangers of bottling up emotion. But that is not what is happening here.
“When something upsets me, I just see a problem and I want to solve it,” Taubman explains. “Instead of focusing on my anger, I focus on finding the solution. That is so much more satisfying.”
Pssst, Eastman School, Are You Listening?
While Taubman’s rise through the ranks at the URMC has been much more expeditious, he says he mentally commits to every job for one decade. Over the next ten years, he has three primary goals for the URMC:
(1) grow as a research institution by focusing on multidisciplinary Centers of Excellence;
(2) continue to innovate medical education, with an emphasis on interprofessional learning;
(3) be the top clinical health system in western New York.
“All three can happen,” Taubman says. “What underlies them is enhancing the reputation of the University and raising its profile. I want people to take notice of Rochester.”
He stops there, having made his final point. But his wife has something to add, another ambition he failed to mention aloud.
“He wants to play piano with the Eastman School Symphony Orchestra. I know that is one of his goals,” she states.
His mother, without a doubt, would be proud.