John Prout is the longest-tenured health system CEO in Cincinnati.

With responsibility for more than 10,400 TriHealth employees, he leads the region's fifth-largest employer.

Prout has steered the health system through a financial turn-around, restructurings and tremendous growth in facilities, services and employees since 1988.

In health care management, one has to know a little bit about a lot of things, and Prout is an expert at carrying that through.

Yet outside of health care circles, he is relatively unknown by the community at large.

That may soon change.

"He is doing some incredible work," says Rob Reifsnyder, United Way President and CEO. "He deserves to be known."

TriHealth is gearing up to tell its story a bit louder through marketing. And Prout is chairing the United Way's Partners for a Competitive Workforce, which is about to make some noise.

"I have a strong belief that health care and a healthy community can not be done in a vacuum," Prout says. "Health care is a result of everything else that goes on. Education, the economy, these challenges cannot be separated from housing, nutrition, and employment."

Accidental exposure

When Prout was studying business at Bowling Green State University, he knew he wanted to use that knowledge for good. He just couldn't articulate it at the time.

"My parents were pushing me in certain directions and (health care) was my rebellion," Prout says.

Work as an Army medic led Prout to a well-regarded career as a health care administrator made notable by his deep-rooted belief that serving the broader community is part of the job.

Prout enlisted in 1970. He quickly became involved as a medic, taking blood pressures, making beds and cleaning bedpans.

"It was fascinating," Prout says. "And it made me wonder why things were done in certain ways and what was logical and what was not logical."

What piqued Prout's interest then still does today. When he talks about his work, it's obvious how much passion he retains.

"It's real world," Prout says. "Every day is new and changing. You have to be a continuous learner."

Balancing act

Leading a health care organization through tumultuous times requires the ability to listen, to gather information from many sources and to employ "situational management," says Prout.

In his decision-making, Prout ensures he is close to the real work in patient care.

"You have to have perspective as to what can be done. What you can do as a person and what the organization can do," Prout says.

"You do different things at different times because of what is required as the environment changes."

He achieves this by walking the floors. He holds regular meetings with staff where he answers all questions asked, even the repeats.

"The best way I know to describe him is that he has a very appropriate balance between what I call a humanitarian and a businessman," says Robert Walker, TriHealth board chairman and CFO at Western & Southern Financial Group.

Walker says Prout's ability to live TriHealth's mission is entwined with his work ethic. Prout is respected by employees and leads a financially sound entity that is making a fair return, says Walker.

TriHealth is arguably the most powerful integrated health system in the region.

For that to continue, employees must understand all services the system offers, says Prout.

"We have to tell our story more," he says. "We think the health care system is broken and we think we can help in certain ways."

An internal effort is informing staff to assist patients in navigating the system. If someone tells a nurse his sister has sinus trouble, she should talk about the Cincinnati Sinus Institute at TriHealth Physician Partners Group Health, Prout says.

Corporate citizen

Prout's volunteer work with other groups illustrates his collaborative nature.

He is guiding the United Way's Partners for a Competitive Workforce to create a regional baseline that defines the jobs gap — the only one among similar groups in the U.S. to do so. Prout says this will offer a headstart in moving forward.

Reifsnyder says Prout knows the role of a good volunteer leader.

"He lets staff operate the organization, but he provides positive strategic direction and he asks the right questions," says Reifsnyder.

Prout is a big believer in education and training.

The making of a leader

He is a College of Mount St. Joseph board member. President Tony Aretz wanted Prout's service because the college and TriHealth share a history with the Sisters of Charity. And TriHealth operates a nursing college.

"He was a package that offered a lot of health for our board," Aretz says. "He understands our mission and lives it in his personal example. And he has an intriguing knowledge of higher education and how it works."

When Prout arrived in Cincinnati, he joined the Greater Cincinnati Health Council. He is a past chairman and serves on the governance committee.

President Colleen '™Toole says health systems are extraordinarily large and complex and "one could assume they would take up a CE'™s total time."

Yet '™Toole says Prout "is and has been a key and visionary leader" in working to support and improve the way the health system works.

Prout's personal drive to serve developed early in his professional experience through interactions with mentors. Lessons often crystallized during carpool rides.

In high school and college, Prout worked as a bank teller in Columbus with Chi (Charles) Weber. They often drove together. Weber got Prout his first hospital job prior to graduate school.

In St. Louis, Prout completed a residency at St. John's Mercy Health Center/Hospital. His preceptor was Sister Mary Roch Rocklage (inducted into Modern Healthcare's Healthcare Hall of Fame in 2011.)

Rocklage was hospital president then. Prout would meet her at 5:30 a.m. and be with her until 8:30 or 9 at night.

"Her philosophy was that she would teach me to be a CEO and hopefully I could figure out the details," Prout says.

Rocklage made a big impression.

"I recovered after the first morning when I went with her to meet with a group of 100 people and she asked me to lead the meeting off with a prayer," Prout says.

When Prout landed his first job at Norton-Children's Hospitals in Louisville in 1974, president Wade Mountz was chairman of the American Hospital Association. The nation was in a gas crisis. Prout sometimes rode with the boss.

"It's interesting when you are that age to hear people talk about their day with their guard down," Prout says.

"It was probably more helpful than I ever thought."