Mike Watters is An Agent for Change

Mike Watters channels his passion for learning and leading to help carry Essentia Health into its next stages

Practicing law wasn’t always on his radar. Mike Watters focused on two things during his undergraduate tenure: his history degree and his collegiate baseball career.

mike watters
Photo by Elise Schmitter Photography

“I was a history major at the University of Michigan because I enjoyed it. I always assumed at some point I would get a graduate degree, but I wasn’t sure in what,” Watters says. After his junior year, Watters was picked up to play professional baseball.

“At some point during my professional baseball career, my fiancée at the time—now my wife—asked me ‘Well, what are you going to do if you don’t make it to the big leagues?’” Watters remembers, laughing. “I am sure that got the wheels turning and moved me toward law school!”

Years after becoming a lawyer, Watters says he found his career aptitude test results from a visit to the career center at Michigan. Becoming a lawyer was the number one recommendation. “It appears to have been a pretty good match,” Watters jokes.

In between finishing his professional baseball career and beginning law school at Indiana University School of Law, Watters worked as a paralegal for Baker and Daniels. He was offered the job post-graduation after he had clerked with Baker and Daniels through law school and worked with them for six years before beginning an almost twenty-year tenure at CHI Health.

In August of 2019, excited for the opportunity to try something new, Watters began his position as chief legal officer and general counsel at Essentia Health. “What drew me here was that the work is intellectually stimulating. No two days are alike. I love being a lawyer, but even more, I love being around the doctors, the finance folks, the HR folks—I feel like I really get to learn the whole business. Certainly that, and the opportunity to return to Minnesota,” Watters explains.

Moving back to Minnesota not only meant an opportunity to take on a new position with Essentia, it also meant being much closer in proximity to six of his seven children, as well as three of his grandchildren. “It’s nice that we’re physically and geographically close to them and get to see them a lot more than we did when we were in Nebraska,” Watters says proudly.

Over the course of nearly twenty years at a company, there is plenty to learn about the industry and how to manage a team, and Watters plans to use his experience at CHI to bring a fresh set of eyes to Essentia. “I had the benefit of learning the healthcare system and its issues alongside some really intelligent people,” Watters says. “CHI gave me perspective on how to do things well and what to do better, too. I think the lessons learned from growing during my experience there will certainly help me in my new role.”

“I aspire to lead by example, to be inclusive in decisions across the organization, to seek out guidance and advice when I can. It’s a balance between getting input and taking action.”

At Essentia, Watters manages a core legal team of six lawyers and one paralegal, but roughly twenty people report up to him. “It’s interesting after being at one company for so long,” Watters explains. “Coming into a new organization, you have to learn how they do things here, or even, who does what. I’m trying to both learn and get to know the folks that report up to me. It’s been a change for everyone, but the team has been brilliant with this period of change.”

Simultaneously leading and learning can be an overwhelming task, but Watters sees it as an opportunity for growth. “I aspire to lead by example, to be inclusive in decisions across the organization, to seek out guidance and advice when I can. It’s a balance between getting input and taking action,” Watters says.

Essentia is currently at the front end of an $800 million project dedicated to rebuilding its main hospital in Duluth. It is a three-and-a-half year project that currently consumes most of Watters’s time. “It’s the largest healthcare construction project in the United States at the moment,” Watters says. “It’s going to bring on a huge amount of change, and it’s going to impact both the company and the surrounding area of Duluth. It’s a very large body of work, and I’m still learning and getting up to speed with it.”

Though he’s still getting used to the nuances of his role and the company as a whole, Watters believes that adapting to change like this is vital to leadership. “The most dangerous words in the English language are ‘we’ve always done it that way,’” he says. “I think that’s why Essentia brought me on: to look at things differently and find new solutions.”

He also believes, however, that to get to great rewards, one must work through the greatest challenges that revolve around change. “Today the challenge is leading the team to make necessary changes,” he explains. “A year or two from now, it could be a different challenge, but today is mostly centered around the change we are experiencing as an organization as well as my team getting used to me.”

As Watters helps his team navigate the challenges that come their way, his goal is to keep an eye toward empathy to understand how everyone is affected by these changes—all in the spirit of carrying the ship forward together. He says, “I want to be sensitive towards the folks that are most impacted by the changes going on at Essentia while at the same time helping to move us collectively toward where we need to be.”

Fredrikson & Byron is a 300-attorney law firm in Minneapolis, with 7 offices in the U.S. and globally. We are the firm “where law and business meet.” Our attorneys bring business acumen and entrepreneurial thinking to work with healthcare and life sciences clients. Learn more about us at www.fredlaw.com.