Surely Dr. James R. Downing has one of the best jobs in the world. As president and CEO of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, he runs an organization devoted to the noblest of causes — saving children’s lives.
But however lofty the mission, it still requires uncommon abilities to guide a visionary organization that is willing to undertake the most difficult challenges. Downing has a background that makes it possible. He’s been associated with St. Jude since the mid-1980s and has developed laboratory and clinical expertise. He also has leadership skills that he’s used to create teams capable of going after those challenges.
Downing acknowledges the enormity of what he’s charged with doing. “We’re blessed with the perfect mission, with ample resources, and with a workforce that in my mind is second to none,” he says. “That combination lets us do things that just can’t be done anywhere else. And it’s been a fantastic journey for me to grow as a leader. We have been able to assemble a leadership team that allows me to conduct the business we have to conduct. They challenge me all the time.
“As CEO I had to think long and hard and deeply about the vision for my tenure,” he says. “What were we going to try to accomplish? What were the areas where we needed to focus?” Along with that was finding who needed to be recruited and what partnerships needed to be established. And Downing’s vision needed to be tested. Was it the right one? Did it move St. Jude in the right direction to change the landscape of pediatric catastrophic diseases?
As his vision came together, it would then be put into something concrete, a strategic plan with clear goals as well as continuing flexibility to makes changes as needed.
“That planning process has been well ingrained into the institution and really served it well,” he says. “As CEO, a key job for me was communicating that plan in a way that really inspired the workforce. I’m constantly listening and communicating to the workforce and making sure that every single individual on this campus understands their role in accomplishing our mission and where they fit into the strategic plan.”
Consistent with that, Downing has emphasized talent development, including St. Jude’s Leadership Academy to nurture managers and directors. “That helps us recruit and retain people and helps build a collaborative work environment. It’s my responsibility to create a culture here that allows every individual to do their best work. We have a wonderful culture, a unique culture in the field of medicine and science, a highly collaborative culture.”
As CEO, Downing is keenly aware that reaching goals doesn’t mean it’s time to rest.
“We’re approaching the sixth year of our six-year strategic plan starting in July, so we’re in the process of developing the next plan,” he says. The current plan stayed nimble by taking into account the inevitability of changing landscapes. With the next plan under construction, St. Jude is relying on employees to identify new ideas and opportunities, something Downing calls the Blue Sky process. “Every year individuals anywhere in the organization can bring forward new ideas for initiatives and programs at any level, from science and the medicine to administrative. We want initiatives that aren’t in the plan but have the potential to be transformative for the institution.”
The role of CEO is not merely to shepherd things along. Downing says that for him, it’s about inspiring his teams and individuals. “Some would come in and say, ‘Well here’s an idea.’ And I’d look at it and tell them, ‘You’re not thinking big enough. You’re not thinking globally. You’re not thinking what we can do. I’m asking what needs to be done. Let’s think bigger and broader.’ People have come back and said, ‘Thank you for allowing us to dream because we can’t solve everything by ourselves.’ We constantly need to look out there and say, what is the real problem? And how might we actually solve that problem? And so collaborations are something that I’ve pushed since I started as CEO.”
One of the most powerful collaborations that Downing has overseen emerged from the need to bring experts together from around the world. “We established the St. Jude Cloud to put all of our genomic data in and make it readily accessible to investigators everywhere in the world. The biologic samples are available to everybody around the world so that they can take what we’ve generated on this campus and use it to accelerate their research, which will accelerate progress against pediatric catastrophic diseases. The St. Jude Cloud is a major scientific community tool that is being used widely now by over 400 individuals from around the world, across many, many different institutions.”
Meanwhile, the Memphis campus itself is changing rapidly with considerable construction of new facilities, from an advanced research center to a patient housing facility to a new administrative office building and more. It’s already changing the city’s skyline, even as the global effort expanding from the campus continues to aim to conquer pediatric catastrophic diseases.