By Liz Fabian
The Macon Telegraph
Ninfa Saunders started her hospital CEO job with a little house cleaning.
The woman hired to run Middle Georgia’s medical powerhouse put on scrubs to disinfect toilets and showers in the Luce Heart Tower.
“I think you’re going to do a very good job,” said an employee who thought she was training Saunders for a job in environmental services.
When a team of executives was waiting in the hall to speak to their new boss, the surprised worker asked if this was an episode of television’s “Undercover Boss.”
“What is that?” asked Saunders, who does not make time for television.
Two years ago, before being introduced to the staff, Saunders wanted to see how things worked from the bottom up at The Medical Center of Central Georgia.
Since then, she’s made changes from the top down, including re-branding the multifaceted corporation as Navicent Health.
The moniker removes the emphasis on location in Central Georgia Health Systems, and focuses on the corporation’s mission — navigating people to wellness by putting the patient in the center of all they do. Plus, the region does not yet have a reputation for innovation that a new identity could help foster, she said.
Saunders’ efforts to consolidate local health options, collaborate with competitors and increase the midstate’s medical profile have earned her the distinction as The Telegraph’s 2014 Person of the Year.
In October, the Georgia Alliance of Community Hospitals named her CEO of the Year.
“Dr. Saunders has taken a strong hospital and made its future even more compelling,” Monty Veazy, the president of the alliance, said in the announcement. “She exemplifies dedication and excellence.”
For the second consecutive year, Saunders made Becker’s Hospital Review’s 130 Women Hospital and Health System Leaders to Know in 2014.
At age 62, she is not interested in padding her resume, though.
“I’m at the point of my career, all these accolades I don’t really need, but it gives acclaim to the institution,” Saunders said.
“This is not a job for me. This is a journey to where I’ve been called.”
BORN TO LEARN
Life has always been about learning for the little girl who grew up in the Philippines.
The daughter of educators was continually pushed to excel to the next level.
“The only inheritance we can give you is your education. No one can steal that from you,” they told her.
After Saunders broke through the executive glass ceiling while raising two children of her own, her mother thought a Ph.D. in health administration was the logical next step.
Often fueled by just two hours sleep a night, Saunders completed her doctorate in only two years while she was working long days as president of Virtua, a health conglomerate in New Jersey.
She relished the opportunity to delve into research for her dissertation and designed a health facility based on patient flow.
While a college nursing student, too much knowledge about liberty put her own freedom at risk. In a time of social unrest under President Ferdinand Marcos, it was in her “best interest” to leave her family behind and come to America, she said.
“The United States has been very good for me,” she said. “When I came here concerned about my flight in the Philippines as a student activist … coming here and being embraced and given the opportunity to excel and given the opportunity to lead. For that, I’m also very grateful, and it’s so important to me that I can pay forward.”
She is particularly passionate about encouraging advancement opportunities for women.
On Saunders’ LinkedIn page, several colleagues praised her efforts to mentor and promote those working under her.
“If you’re a woman, the criteria for selection is, what have you accomplished. Sometimes, if you’re a man, the criteria is, what is your potential,” she said recently while seated at the conference table in her office in the Peyton Anderson Health Education Center.
About a third of her executive staff followed her to Macon. They worked with her either at Virtua or Dekalb Medical Center, where she was the chief operating officer.
“For them to pick up and come, it’s very humbling,” she said. “You never feel you’re good enough for people to follow.”
Perhaps the attraction is that Saunders leads by example, said Andy Galloway, a retired senior vice president of the Medical Center of Central Georgia who worked for both of Saunders’ predecessors — Damon King and Don Faulk.
“She is a CEO, but feels like one of the people, which is important in a leader,” Galloway said. “They see her willing to roll up her sleeves. She gets there and really shows up. I think that is one of her primary traits.”
COLLABORATE NOT COMPETE
Earlier this month while celebrating the opening of a new diagnostics center in Forsyth, Saunders gathered everyone together outside the entrance.
“This feels like church. Why are you so far away?” she asked as she motioned for the crowd to come closer.
With 3-inch heels hoisting her frame of just over 5 feet tall, she was still the shortest person in the crowd.
As she greeted guests, she joked about leaving her glasses in the car.
“She’s hilarious,” said man said to another before the ribbon cutting.
A little while later, she toured the facility with an entourage of men in suits.
At every turn, she made suggestions on how to enhance the décor.
“We want to make this more welcoming,” she told the woman leading the group. “This is so sterile, guys. We’re always thinking about — ‘I’m the patient. I’m afraid.’ ”
At the next turn, Saunders pulled aside an assistant vice president to call for a publicity push to tout the benefits of the low-dose CT scan.
“She’s one of the most impressive leaders I’ve ever met, and I’ve worked with a lot of international companies,” said John Vinyard, a management consultant who serves on the Navicent Health Advisory Board. “People who observe Ninfa see wisdom. She’s just a real visionary leader, and she has an incredible ability to teach.”
A leader can’t delegate being a role model, he said, but Saunders comes by it naturally.
She is a great listener, too, said Vinyard, who met Saunders while she was leading Virtua.
“She is one of those leaders who doesn’t tell you her opinion until she hears yours,” he said.
Many Fridays, Saunders sheds her business attire and heads to the hospital floor.
“I put my sneakers on and I can fly,” she said as she headed toward an elevator, past the glass windows of the executive wing.
Saunders tore out the walls to make it seem more inviting.
“It looked like nobody could be seen inside, and I don’t like that,” she said as she started off.
Already before noon, the Fitbit on her wrist, which monitors activity, had registered 7,000 steps toward her daily goal of 10,000. She was excited she had found a polka-dotted one on the Internet — and at a bargain.
“I’m cheap,” she said with a big smile.
On the Friday before Christmas, she paired a “Navicent green” jacket with bright red scrubs as she visited the cardiac ICU.
Noticing a worker with similar holiday colors, she stopped for a hug and photo.
“I think we look good in our outfits,” Saunders told one of the nearly 6,000 employees she oversees.
In the unit, she struck up another conversation with a group of workers about hospital uniforms.
Saunders solicited opinions about her idea to coordinate colors to help patients better recognize nurses.
As she dashed off, she told one woman to consider being an employee committee representative.
While working as a union nurse in New Jersey, Saunders herself took classes at law school to help in labor negotiations.
It was in the Garden State where she met and married her husband, Jim, following a whirlwind courtship beginning with a Christmas party that led to a February engagement.
Since coming to Macon in 2012, she has courted relationships with other regional health care providers including Oconee Regional Medical Center, Houston Healthcare, Putnam General and Taylor Regional Hospital.
The initial partnership with Taylor led to Stratus Healthcare, a collaborative of nearly 30 hospitals that is being looked at as a model for non-equity collaboration across the country, she said.
Saunders has traveled to Washington, D.C., to tout its success before The Advisory Board Company.
“Competition is not going to be the operative word for us. We will collaborate,” she said.
DOING THE RIGHT THING
Saunders ends her days curled up with professional books, devouring a couple a week into the early hours of the morning.
“I don’t read a lot of fun books,” said the woman who still runs on three to four hours sleep a night.
Scouring pages to glean better business, organization or management skills, she aims to digest what she’s learned and pass it along.
She’ll fire off emails to her staff in the middle of the night.
“You’re not required to read it when I write it,” she tells them.
Her current quest is to find a better balance between work and home life for her and her employees.
“If you’re happy at home, you’ll be happy at work and you’ll be much more valuable,” she said.
By age 33, nurse Saunders was already a health care executive.
As director of nursing resources at Emory University Hospital, she was balancing budgets and juggling two children in Atlanta carpooling.
She bought the biggest car she could find and loaded that Chevy Suburban with as many children as it could hold to lessen the frequency of her rotation.
“I was never late, but I was always on the phone,” said Saunders, who wore platform shoes to reach the pedals of the gigantic SUV.
With direct patient care off her plate, she sought and secured her MBA at Emory to enhance her skills for her new role in administration.
Saunders considers Georgia home, because that’s where she raised her children.
She and Jim met while both were caring for patients at St. Barnabas in Livingston, New Jersey, where she was first tapped for management — replacing someone who had hired her as a nurse two years before.
Jim Saunders, who is now in retail investment, prefers the ease of Southern living over the traffic and congestion.
After 38 years of marriage, what does he know about his wife that others don’t see?
“Perhaps the enjoyment she gets out of little things, getting together with family and ‘relaxing day,’ when she has a full day to read,” he said.
She thrives at a frenetic pace because of her passion and love for what she does, he said.
His wife admits it is sometimes difficult to take it easy and becomes anxious to get back to Macon on Sunday afternoons at Lake Oconee.
“I’m very obsessive about what I have to do,” she said. “I don’t want that to be the standard for everyone.”
Faith is a guiding and calming principle of her life.
When in town to interview for the Medical Center CEO job, she visited the Adoration Chapel of St. Joseph Catholic Church.
She prayed God would send her to a community where people were praying for her type of leadership.
Now in that often difficult CEO job, she stops by that same chapel most days to pray on the way to the office.
“She is a person of prayer and spirituality and turns things over to God and allows God to be a guiding force in her life,” said the Rev. Allan McDonald, pastor of St. Joseph Catholic Church.
Saunders quietly serves in other ways, not looking for recognition, McDonald said.
She has been instrumental in providing health care for the homeless through the Daybreak center and recently stepped forward to try to save the Douglass House from demolition.
“She is pretty much the definition of a servant leader,” said Megan Allen, a spokesperson for Navicent Health.
Saunders has been tapped for another prestigious award that won’t be announced until next month, Allen said.
Back in her executive office, Saunders’ voice is softer and more reserved when talking about her life and accomplishments.
“The thing that really drives me, you are not to wear your degrees,” she said. “People will know about you by the way you apply yourself.”
One of the region’s most powerful women has a couple of prized possessions in her office, including a picture book from Damon King’s 80th birthday party.
King, Faulk and Saunders are smiling together on the cover.
She recognizes their contributions in bringing the hospital where it is today.
The other meaningful memento is a signed photograph of the entire housekeeping department posing in their new purple uniforms presented with the Navicent re-brand.
One of the things Saunders learned while cleaning in the heart tower was that crews had to pay for their own work clothes.
Not any more.
The staff was so proud of their newly issued, company-bought uniforms, some of them even came in during their time off to be in the photograph they autographed for Saunders.
When she thought cafeteria prices were too high for the working class, she suggested a value meal.
Now with lower prices, the lunchroom is bustling with activity from all points on the economic spectrum, she said.
Saunders’ parents died about 10 years ago, not long after they had draped the doctoral hood over their daughter’s shoulders.
They left her with a mantra — to always leave a place and people better than she found them.
“Simplicity is important, but above all, humility should be the driver of what you do. It doesn’t really matter who gets the credit as long as you’re always doing the right thing.”