Bill Gassen: ‘Impacting the lives of those around us’

Chief HR officer sees his role as helping people fulfill theirs

Bill Gassen in mid conversation, sits in his office and holds a water bottle.

Bill Gassen is the chief human resources officer for Sanford Health. Here, he shares his background in law, his role overseeing a variety of departments at Sanford Health and his belief in the importance of the work all of us do.

Air Force childhood

Gassen’s father spent his career in Air Force, and Gassen was born on a military base in Little Rock, Arkansas. They spent multi-year assignments in Okinawa, Japan, and Mountain Home, Idaho. The family then moved to Rapid City, South Dakota, where Gassen’s father was stationed at Ellsworth Air Force Base.

“I still affectionately refer to Rapid City as home since I spent the next nine years there prior to graduating high school in 1999,” Gassen said.

Gassen then enrolled at the University of South Dakota, studying world religions, business and criminal justice as well as playing football and throwing shotput and discus for the Coyotes. Following his college eligibility, Gassen dedicated the next year to pursue opportunities in football before returning to complete his undergraduate studies at USD in 2004.

After graduation, Gassen worked for a transportation company for a year while his wife, Jill, started her physician assistant schooling at USD.

The following year, Gassen began law school at USD with initial plans of becoming a prosecuting attorney. However, he interned with a Sioux Falls-based law firm one summer and became interested in health care law, having the opportunity to represent physicians and hospitals. It was then that he became more interested in civil law, representing physicians and health systems.

After Gassen’s graduation from law school in 2008, he began his legal career working for the same law firm he interned for during law school. In private practice, Gassen’s primary focus was health care litigation and other general civil ligation defense.

Joining Sanford Health

Gassen joined Sanford Health’s corporate counsel team when an opening was created in the department by Nate White, current chief operating officer and president of Sanford Fargo, who transitioned from the Legal Department to operations. Gassen was hired in January 2012.

Gassen chose to move from private practice to corporate counsel at Sanford Health in part because he became interested in the aspects of health care law that were more quasi-legal in nature, rather than purely litigating cases. He also believed that Sanford Health was the top choice among health care enterprises across the region.

“When the opportunity presented itself, it was really about whether I was the right fit for them because I had already decided that Sanford Health was the right fit for me,” Gassen said.

After three or four years in the Legal Department, where his position included supporting Human Resources, the chief human resources officer at the time, Evan Burkett, contacted Gassen and asked him to join his executive team as vice president of human resources integration, leading the organization through its centralization and standardization initiative for HR. After a year and a half in that role, Burkett then retired, and Gassen followed as chief human resources officer.

People set Sanford Health apart

As chief human resources officer, Gassen oversees the following areas: Human Resources, led by Darren Walker; Technology Solutions, led by Josh Robinson; Facilities and Construction Management, led by Jim Denevan; the Sanford Sports Complex, led by Kevin Lampe; and Corporate Services integration.

As the lead executive over these key areas, Gassen communicates the organization’s agenda to his leaders and makes sure he’s creating opportunities for them to be successful.

“It’s important to make sure people clearly understand their role, clearly understand their objectives, and then get out of the way and let talented and intelligent people do their jobs and execute,” Gassen said.

Recognizing leadership

Gassen also points to the guiding leadership of president and CEO Kelby Krabbenhoft, citing his nearly 23 years of service to Sanford Health as a stable influence that has created a distinct culture within the organization. Most CEOs in the health care industry only serve for two or three years while Krabbenhoft has remained committed to Sanford Health for nearly a quarter century.

“Kelby challenges his team and the entire organization to stay five, 10 and 20 years ahead of the industry, to be decisive in leadership, to be execution-oriented, to never forget where we came from and to always communicate,” said Gassen.

When asked what he enjoys most about working at Sanford Health, Gassen said, “It’s the unique privilege to do something I love that truly makes a real difference in people’s lives for generations to come, and to do it all working for someone (Krabbenhoft) who’s passionate about the work we do, cares about me, cares about my family and cares about the entire Sanford Family.

“Further, it’s a privilege to work alongside a team of colleagues who are not only talented and accomplished executives but, more importantly, incredible and caring people who I am blessed to call friends. It’s beyond what you do; it’s who you’re doing it with that sets Sanford Health apart.”

Balancing work & family

When asked what he’s doing outside of work, Gassen’s answer is always “chasing kids.”

He and his wife, Jill, met at USD on the track and field team, which Gassen joined partly on the joking promise of now-retired Coach Gottsleben that Gassen would find a wife there. That turned out to be true. They now have five children: three daughters (ages 9, 6 and 4) and two sons (ages 2 years and 7 months).

Outside of work, Gassen enjoys spending time with his children, who are already active in things like gymnastics, soccer and track.

In reflecting on what he’s proud of accomplishing at Sanford Health, Gassen instead looks to what the larger organization has achieved.

“To have been a part of an organization that is and will continue to revolutionize the health care industry — I’m extremely proud to be a part of that and have even a small role in the things that are happening here,” he said.

“Beyond that, I’m proud of the team I have around me. I feel very fortunate to have extremely talented colleagues that I work side by side with — amazing leaders who work on the teams that I’m privileged to work with.”

Gassen is proud of the myriad ways that Sanford Health invests in their workforce, through a comprehensive benefits package, competitive compensation, employee recognition programs, development opportunities and more.

Looking to the future

“What resonates most with me really goes to legacy — it’s investing in the development of our current and future workforce, building a highly skilled talent pool for the future.”

Sanford Health provides scholarships, sponsorships and opportunities for the children of employees who want to enter the health care field, such as the Sons and Daughters program.

“I love that I work for an organization that not only says it’s a family but is willing to put its money where its mouth is,” Gassen said.

Looking ahead, Gassen said his desire is to be a steward of the hard work of everyone who came before him. He also wants to make sure he “makes good” on those investments that they have made. This does not mean maintaining the status quo. Gassen wants to continue to grow and to be better every day.

“This organization is really about the 50,000 people who get up each and every day with a singular focus, and that’s positively impacting the lives of those around us and the communities we serve. I want to thank them for the hard work they do.”

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