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United Way President and CEO George Bell Reflects on Four Decades of Leadership

George Bell, the President and CEO of Capital Area United Way, has carved out an impressively successful and wide-ranging career spanning multiple industries. From riding the boom and bust of Louisiana’s oil industry to leading fast-growing and challenging healthcare organizations, Bell has distinguished himself as one of Louisiana’s most dynamic business leaders.

The Thibodaux native and 1981 Hall of Fame graduate of Nicholls State University recently sat down with a group of business leaders participating in our Leadership Coaching Series to offer insights into his career path path and leadership lessons he absorbed along the way.

“You can’t do it all,” he says. “That’s why you have to be very focused on building the right structure, selecting the right people, then creating the right systems and process that help you monitor the work they’re doing and making sure it all aligns to accomplishing your goals.”

Here’s a look at some of what he shared.

A Gift of Leadership

Bell discovered early on that he had a natural ability for leadership — “even when I wasn’t trying to be a leader,” he says — serving as president of his junior high student council and taking key roles in other extracurricular organizations. That continued through high school, where he participated in multiple sports and played in the school band (today he is an accomplished jazz trumpeter and band leader).

Though he helped out with his father’s construction business, Bell’s first official job was at a local department store, where he worked selling tailored suits to a professional clientele. “That job taught me how to speak, how to listen, but also how to size up people and customers and help them choose the right clothing to meet their needs, regardless of where they work,” he says. “Early on, most of the clientele didn’t look like me. Over time it gave me a level of confidence I probably couldn’t have gotten anywhere else.”

As a political science undergrad at Nicholls State University, Bell landed an internship with then-freshman Congressman Billy Tauzin, who would go on to serve a dozen terms in the U.S. House of Representatives. “That opened my eyes to a real proven leader, and somebody who was a master at developing, building and maintaining relationships,” he says.

Shortly after graduating college, Bell was recruited by a CEO of a New Iberia-based oil firm that was grappling with rapid scaling, growing from 75 to 800 employees in three years amid the Louisiana oil boom.

Tasked with getting a handle on rampant absenteeism, high turnover and myriad other personnel challenges, Bell formed employer-relations committees to come up with strategies and incentives to address those workforce issues. He also secured grants to create training programs to develop a new pipeline for skilled workers.

“It wasn’t a role that existed before,” he says. “It was a role that I grew into based on the value I added and what I demonstrated within the organization. It all started with a leader that looked at my ability and saw that I had the potential to help address problems within their organization.”

That early experience informed Bell’s pragmatic and collaborative approach to work and leadership that emphasizes problem solving. “Focus on the present, do the best job you can right now,” he says. “Meet needs, make yourself resourceful and develop a reputation that as someone who can solve problems, not create them. As someone who can work effectively with people.”

A Turn Toward Health Care

Bell continued to work in the oil industry for several years before the industry downturn in the mid 1980s dramatically altered the state’s economy.

His career would take a consequential turn when he was recruited by Healthcare giant Humana, which at the time was the largest for-profit hospital provider in the nation and was creating a network of urgent care clinics. Bell moved to Columbus, Ohio, to help get a group of seven clinics off the ground. “It was not on my radar,” he says. “It just unfolded in front of me.”

Within a year of his arrival, the clinics were acquired by Ohio State University, and Bell, at 28 and one year into the healthcare industry, took a leading role in helping the university hospital system integrate the new clinics.

“I can’t tell you how stressful that was, but how gratifying it was to go through that experience,” he says. “I learned then it’s impossible to know everything, but you have to be able to recognize what you don’t know, be able to admit it, then surround yourself with the people that do know.

“What I found was that there were people that genuinely wanted to help me. And I was so blessed to have that kind of nurturing and that kind of support early on.”

Bell was later pulled back to Louisiana as an equity partner in a healthcare startup that folded after nearly two years when state regulatory changes rendered their business model obsolete. “It further stressed the importance of humility and relationships,” he says of the business failure.

Bell says he leveraged the knowledge he gained through the startup process, as well as his previous healthcare experience, and started consulting for physicians and managed care groups. That eventually led him to a position with Baton Rouge General, where he served as Senior VP of Physician and Community Relations, including BRG’s Arts in Medicine Program; VP of Physician Relations; and President of Baton Rouge General Physicians, Inc., a wholly owned subsidiary of General Health System, which he grew from 14 physicians to more than 85 physicians over 12 years.

Bell retired from the healthcare industry in 2016, but was recruited to lead the Capital Area United Way less than a year later. He started the job two weeks before the devastating 2016 floods struck the Baton Rouge region, coordinating the United Way’s critical efforts in the ongoing recovery.

We were truly honored to host Bell at Success Labs and to learn about his truly unique and fascinating career journey.

The Leadership Coaching Series is a development program for talented leaders who are in line to take on higher-level leadership roles at your organization. Participants leave with an understanding of the competencies they’ll need as they take the next steps in their careers and action plans to help develop those competencies. The ideal candidate is a successful manager who was recently promoted or is being considered for promotion to a higher-level leadership role.

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