Why Kerry Parker is a Risk Caretaker

Visiting Nurse Service of New York’s Kerry Parker finds the power in uncertainty and vows to always provide excellent advice and service to others

Kerry Parker was forced to develop his leadership style early on, when his father passed away suddenly and he found himself helping care for his five younger siblings. At just twenty years old, Parker aided his mother in raising the rest of the children by leading by example. Combine that with a history in team sports and his early career experience in a very open law firm, and he has accumulated a powerfully formed perspective as a leader. “I want to be involved,” he says. “I want to be approachable. I want to help people along who work with me.”

Now the executive VP, general counsel, and chief risk officer for Visiting Nurse Service of New York (VNSNY), Parker has a leadership style that has been important in his rise to such a prominent role. He began practicing law in 1982 and spent thirty years between two law firms. The relatively flat organizational nature of law firms provided many valuable lessons, both in the sense that Parker could learn directly from the firm partners and that no individual is too important to roll up their sleeves and get the work done. “If you had to fix the copy machine to make copies, that’s what you did,” he says.

“I have a lot of people that report to me directly, and that’s—to some extent—by choice. I’m used to working in flatter organizations, and I like to be accessible. But I’m not a micromanager.”

Parker took away a few key insights from this time. Perhaps chief among them was to always provide excellent advice and services to others. Another was a constant drive to learn and improve. The partners also made sure to stay humble, make work fun, and treat people with respect. Combining all of these facets, they were sure to mentor and collaborate with junior lawyers. “This was really on-the-job mentoring and a lot of one-to-one attention and individualized mentoring,” Parker says. “Those are the things that stick out to me with my first position and what the leaders did.”

Those lessons have proven especially important as Parker moved in-house to VNSNY, his first role in healthcare—a field he joined, he says, by chance. While a partner at Gibbons, P.C. and Epstein Becker & Green, he began to take on more and more work representing healthcare companies, and he eventually transitioned in-house.

“I didn’t study science or medicine, but I really loved what the companies do for people,” he says. Their passion for people aligned with the compassionate, caring leadership style that Parker had been living with from a young age.

The intellectual aspect of working in a highly regulated business—of becoming an expert and then being able to advise clients—was another major draw. Parker’s passion for the field spread as he represented home health agencies, hospitals, physician practices, and life sciences and insurance companies, getting to know every corner of the industry. When the opportunity came to leave the law practice, Parker jumped at the opportunity. Rather than act as a trusted advisor to several clients, he relished the idea of focusing on just one.

“I thought about how great it would be to really get involved in the whole business,” he says. And he’s done just that at VNSNY, taking on more varied responsibilities as time has gone on. Parker started as chief risk officer, developing an enterprise risk-management program, as well as creating and overseeing a compliance department and supervising the internal audit function. Once the general counsel resigned, Parker was asked to take on that role, too. After a restructuring not long later, he took on the lead of the human resources function and government affairs, too.

“There’s real value in attorneys becoming both business and legal advisors and also educators.”

“I didn’t expect all this when I started,” Parker says with a laugh. But considering his vast legal expertise, private practice experience in healthcare and labor and employment law, and passion for developing people, it all seemed to fit naturally.

Throughout these various roles, Parker aimed to put his leadership perspective into practice however possible. Part of that means ensuring he can make a positive impact on as many VNSNY employees as possible. “I have a lot of people that report to me directly, and that’s—to some extent—by choice,” he explains. “I’m used to working in flatter organizations, and I like to be accessible. But I’m not a micromanager. We’ll have regular contact, but I expect people to do their jobs. I find that if I’m able to hire really good people who think like I do, I will place in them the trust to get the work done.” And although he notes that this approach won’t work for everyone, the people who do fit in with Parker’s style will thrive and be able to make their own positive impact on that many more lives.

To make sure all fourteen of his direct reports are on track, Parker sets individual goals as benchmarks. These goals aren’t his reports’ full-time job, but rather, they are projects that can improve the way business is done. There might be roadblocks on the way to achieving these goals, which only provides Parker with more opportunity to meet with his team and help work with them. “We collaborate to figure out the best ways to hit the goals,” he says. “What can they do to leverage resources internally? Do we need to go outside and purchase services to get there?”

But providing a positive, available example for others isn’t the only essential part of being a strong healthcare leader—especially one in the general counsel seat. The industry’s highly regulated, often unpredictable, and constantly changing nature brings a lot of challenges to Parker’s desk. He’s learned that having a solid plan is a good start, but being able to think on his feet is a necessity. “Layer on government licensure surveys and audits, regulatory changes, and things that just come out of seemingly nowhere that take you off course, and you’re going to need to redeploy people and resources to address the curveballs,” he says. “It’s definitely a hard balancing act that requires a lot of great communication and people who are comfortable with ambiguity and uncertainty.”

Being comfortable with unpredictability is something that Parker must embrace. Granted, some things in his work are predictable, such as the routines of preparing for and presenting at board meetings and making sure ongoing projects stay on track. But he views the ad hoc issues that come up as opportunities to see the organization from many different angles. Whether it’s a major deal, a big contract, or an unexpected government audit, Parker makes sure his team is ready to get all of the necessary pieces together. “That kind of throws your schedule off, but we make sure that our responses are appropriate,” he says.

In between those unexpected projects, Parker leaves room to plan ahead for the future of VNSNY. A major part of that is working to make the legal function less of a reactive, on-call organization and more of a partnering and educating organization.

“There’s real value in attorneys becoming both business and legal advisors and also educators,” he says. Now that his team is fully staffed for the first time in almost a year, he’s put together a plan to have each lawyer pick a relevant legal topic and present it to colleagues in other departments, helping to inform them and to improve their understanding of legal aspects of the business. In a sense, Parker is helping all of the lawyers on the team be the educators and leaders that he strives to be, in turn making major strides for VNSNY. “I’m trying to take a small step there, but it’s a really meaningful one toward enhancing our value to the business and not just being someone you call when you have a problem,” he says.

On a recent employee engagement survey, Parker and the HR department included fifteen survey categories essential to working at VNSNY, including communication, leadership, work/life balance, and risk management. Of the fifteen categories, risk management was the highest rated in terms of organizational strengths—proving in part that the legal and risk functions are showing their worth to the rest of the organization.

“I think we’ve come a long way in terms of sensitizing employees to the importance of risk management and to using it as a key management tool in business operations,” Parker says. That comes in no small part by Parker’s leadership as example: making himself available to everyone from the board of directors to junior team members and lending a considerate ear, offering thoughtful advice, and maintaining a positive culture.

The first Wall Street law firm to develop a healthcare practice, Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft is proud of our longstanding relationship with the Visiting Nurse Service of New York—a true pioneer in the healthcare industry for nearly 125 years. Cadwalader advises VNSNY and other healthcare clients on a full range of matters, including litigation and investigations, regulatory compliance, access to capital, tax, governance, general corporate, strategic planning, and mergers and acquisitions.

Congratulations to Kerry Parker for being recognized as an industry leader. Precision Discovery, has established itself as an industry leader in Expert Discovery Services and we are proud to Partner with Kerry and his team at Visiting Nurse Service of New York. At Precision Discovery, our mission is to reestablish evidence as the foundation of Discovery. Too often, we find that attorneys are forced to dive into the weeds of Discovery—taking them away from their true mission and passion. We bring clarity to eDiscovery and Managed Review, so our clients, like Kerry and his legal team, can focus on what really matters to them.