Enloe’s New CEO: ‘Been there, done that’

NEW FACE OF ENLOE<br> Deborah Yancer, set to take over as Enloe’s CEO on April 2, says she isn’t daunted by the challenges the job presents because she dealt with similar ones at her current hospital.

Deborah Yancer, set to take over as Enloe’s CEO on April 2, says she isn’t daunted by the challenges the job presents because she dealt with similar ones at her current hospital.

Courtesy Of Enloe Medical Center

Monday night, following a medical board meeting that went past 8 p.m., Deborah Yancer made an all-too-familiar drive along Interstate 270. Snow was falling in Maryland that night, making road conditions worrisome enough that she didn’t want to risk the distraction of a cell-phone conversation.

She made it safely to her home in Middletown, then discussed why she was willing to leave it—not just weekdays to work at Shady Grove Adventist Hospital in Rockville, but altogether this spring, when she moves to a place she’s only visited recently and briefly.

“I’m a small-town girl,” she said. “I’m not really a big-city girl.” So while she worked in the greater Washington, D.C., metroplex, she lived in a small community where she could see mountains clearly from her house. The trade-off: commuting two hours, which she’s dutifully done for seven years.

“I’d really like to shorten my commute,” she said, by living and working in the same community: “I can devote those two hours to my life.” So she looked elsewhere, including Chico.

“I fell in love with the community,” she said. “I had never been to Northern California. It’s a beautiful place. I just had a feeling about the town and the people. I looked at other opportunities, but they captured my heart.”

That explains why Chico.

But why Enloe?

When Yancer officially becomes Enloe Medical Center’s CEO on April 2, she’ll inherit a hospital with major challenges. She’ll arrive less than a month after layoffs strip the hospital of 5 percent of its workforce, predominantly service workers, who have been battling the administration to get their union recognized. Nurses, who waged a bitter battle to get unionized themselves, will be adjusting to shifts without nursing assistants. On top of this, doctors have grown disillusioned with the medical center’s decision-makers.

Why would Yancer want to put herself in this situation—particularly with her credentials? She’s a nurse who served as a hospital administrator in Nebraska, Missouri, Michigan and Tennessee before becoming Shady Grove’s president.

Why Enloe?

Because she’s been in this position before.

Believe it or not, in 2000, Shady Grove was in worse condition than Enloe. Not only had the administration received a vote of no confidence (à la Enloe in 2006), the hospital had its accreditation downgraded to “conditional.”

“That was how it blew up,” Yancer said, referring to a crisis that built over a half-decade.

That fall, upon reinspection, Shady Grove had its accreditation status restored by the Joint Commission. In 2003, the hospital received the first of four consecutive Best Place to Work awards from the National Work Life Alliance. Two years later, the Joint Commission honored Shady Grove for improving access to emergency care.

Flash forward to Enloe: “I have dealt with that situation,” Yancer said (not arrogantly, but candidly), “and had to help an organization heal.”

This is one of the reasons she appealed to Enloe’s Board of Trustees.

Enloe, which accepted the resignation of CEO Dan Neumeister over the summer, began the search for his successor in October, after selecting a recruiting firm. A field of 80 candidates got narrowed to 25, then eight. The 10-member search committee, led by board Vice Chairwoman Judy Sitton, selected six semifinalists. The final decision came down to Yancer and a hospital president from Pennsylvania.

“She was just so exceptional in every regard,” Sitton said this week. “Based on interviews, based on references, the whole process, we found she was a strong, qualified administrator with an ability to collaborate. She’s achieved distinction in team-building that got highlighted throughout the process….

“She had good knowledge of what some of the issues are at the hospital,” Sitton added, “and she was able to characterize with examples how she dealt with like situations in her case. She was strong in a lot of areas we’re working in.”

Along with helping heal Shady Grove, she guided the hospital through a five-year effort to gain approval for an emergency care center in Germantown, which opened last August. Shady Grove itself will grow this fall when a four-story tower opens.

Enloe, too, is expanding—its Century Project includes a new wing and more parking.

Health-care professionals who did not meet Yancer during her final interviews expressed guarded optimism regarding her hiring.

“I took a few minutes and Googled around,” said David Welch, chief nurse representative for the California Nurses Association and a 25-year employee of Enloe. “It does seem her previous hospital was struggling when she came and she’s leaving it in better shape. That’s encouraging.

“Openness and transparency is one of the most important things for the hospital to work on,” he added. “When the new CEO comes in, we’re going to encourage her and the board to do that.”

Dana Simon, administrative vice president of SEIU/United Healthcare Workers-West, has a similar wish: “We’re hopeful that this will be an opportunity for the hospital to change its relationship with its caregivers, and by that I mean everyone—service workers, nurses, doctors—and hopefully an opportunity to improve its relationship with the community. The arrogant way they’ve been dealing with people has been self-destructive.”

You’ll get no argument from Dr. Roy Bishop, president of Argyll Medical Group and, by virtue of his hospital privileges, a member of Enloe’s medical staff. He sees four steps as vital for turning around the medical center:

• Stop fighting with the SEIU and accept unionization of the service workers, as it ultimately did with the nurses.

• Repair relations with the physicians. The first step: inviting Anesthesia Associates of Chico to return in place of the splinter group and temporary anesthesiologists currently manning the operating rooms.

• Encourage the board to democratize—"I see no reason why people shouldn’t vote for the Enloe board like they do for the school board,” he said.

• Change the approach and style of management.

“The biggest challenge is not of Enloe’s making,” he said. “It’s the economics of health care…. Most of the problems stem from deterioration under this financial liability. I’ve likened it to rats fighting on a sinking ship for the last biscuit.”

That said, “if you’re in a hole, you need to stop digging. I give them two years at the outside to fix it. If not, they’re going to fail financially and get taken over by a big chain.”

That timeframe pretty much dovetails with Yancer’s. Her prime focus, she said, is to change the hospital culture, and that takes several years.

The “word picture” she paints to explain this is an orchestra. “How much music does the orchestra leader make?” she asked. “None. The role of the orchestra leader is to blend the voices. Some are soloists, some are not. The orchestra is not complete without the second violin—most people in the hospital are like the second violin.

“My job is to look at individual talents, skills and places, and create a common vision and help people connect to that vision. That’s what I like doing. It’s hard work, and it takes a lot of time. You have to play together for a while to get great.”

The refrain she’s heard here is the need for people to feel respected and engaged—working in a partnership to improve performance.

“Everything I do can be done by someone else,” she said, “except author the culture.”

She has a vested stake in succeeding because she wants to stay in Chico. She sees this as a place to plant roots, perhaps ultimately retired.

Yancer, 53, was widowed six years ago. She has three grown children and two grandchildren—none farther west than Nebraska.

“All the decisions in my career were based on what’s best for my husband and family,” she reflected in her Middletown home. “This is the first time I’m making a career change of what’s best for me: where I would want to be—where I would want to live the rest of my career.

“This is just a fit in a lot of ways.”