Willis-Knighton’s incoming CEO talks about new role, his time with the health system

As CEO, Jaf Fielder will oversee 7,000 Willis-Knighton employees and more than 1,000 physicians.
Jaf Fielder (right) will be taking the reigns as president and CEO of Willis-Knighton Health...
Jaf Fielder (right) will be taking the reigns as president and CEO of Willis-Knighton Health System. He is filling a role held for the last 56 years by James Elrod (left).(KSLA)
Published: Sep. 30, 2021 at 7:43 AM CDT
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SHREVEPORT, La. (KSLA) - After 56 years as president and CEO of Willis-Knighton Health Systems — James Elrod will retire on Thursday, Sept. 30.

Now a new chapter will begin as long-time administrator Jaf Fielder takes over the title. He said being the president of the hospital was something he remembered mentioning to Elrod when he first interviewed for a job at Willis-Knighton three decades ago.

“Like most young people I wanted the opportunity to move up in the organization,” said Fielder “I think it’s highly ironic. During my first interview with Elrod — he’s got a great sense of humor, I’ve got a great sense of humor — so we were cutting up. On his way out he said ‘son what do you want to do when you grow up?’ I looked around his office and I said ‘I’d kind of like your job.’ I think it’s highly ironic that’s come to pass. I’m very humbled by this opportunity.”

Willis-Knighton’s board of directors unanimously voted for Fielder to become the next CEO which will take effect on Thursday. Elrod will still be president emeritus at Willis-Knighton and work on special projects with the hospital system.

When asked if it was going to be a challenge to live up to his mentor, Elrod, was quick to respond:

Shoot there’s no pressure. What are you talking about?

Jaf Fielder | Willis-Knighton President & CEO

Of course, Fielder was being sarcastic. As CEO, he will oversee 7,000 Willis-Knighton employees and more than 1,000 physicians.

Fielder remembered the moment he first met Elrod back in 1991.

“I walked into the front door of the hospital and as I walked in the front door I notice there was a man in a suit and tie picking up trash on the outside of the hospital,” he said. “Didn’t really think much of it as I walked in. Went into his office, sat down, started talking to his assistant, and about five minutes later that gentleman came in and introduced himself to me as James K. Elrod. I thought how cool is that, the administrator of this hospital is outside picking up trash and there’s nothing that he would ask you to do that he wouldn’t be willing to do on his own. I said that’s the type of organization I want to work for.”

Fielder also mentioned there has been a time or two when he himself picked up trash on the hospital campus.

“My goals and objectives for Willis-Knighton are going to resemble what you’ve seen from Willis-Knighton in the past which is an organization that is committed to community. It’s committed to offering convenient access to high-quality care.”

It will be challenging from day one for the new CEO, who will start his position in the middle of a pandemic.

“I’ll tell you these past 18 months have been probably some of the most stressful times for Willis-Knighton in the 30 years that I’ve been here. Mr. Elrod (said) it’s been the most in his 56 years he’s been here. Our employees are tired. Our resources are taxed. Our employees are coming to work every day and in some cases they’re working 40, 50, 60 hours a week, pouring their heart and soul into taking care of these patients. One of the nurses told me the other day that nurses that have graduated in the last five years have seen more death than most nurses see in a lifetime and it’s just a shame.

Fielder went on to say Willis-Knighton employees were resilient and have always been the number one asset to the hospital system. He added the family of Willis-Knighton will be stronger after navigating through a pandemic.

“It’s something that’s taught us a lot of things. Over the next couple of months, I’m going to be talking to community leaders, employees, physicians and department heads and we’re going to be developing our fundamentals for the future and we’re going to roll that out.”

The newest president and CEO realized he was in consideration for the job when the board reached out to him for his resume about a month ago. The hospital had been going through a succession process over the past four years with several candidates coming in for an interview.

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