Suzanne Jackson can still remember in vivid detail the soft hum of people in the hallways and the lights reflecting off the floor that moment when she received the first great lesson of her career in healthcare. It was the beginning of a summer program in healthcare administration at the University of Michigan, and Suzanne was accompanying the CEO on rounds for the first time.
“We were rounding in the facility, interacting with patients and employees to get a sense of how things were going,” she remembers. “The University’s Health System is huge, but it was amazing to me that the CEO knew staff by name. He had started his career in human resources and really emphasized that an effective leader is able to connect with every employee, regardless of their position, because each one plays an important role in making the hospital work.” Now the CEO of Dominion Hospital, a subsidiary of the Hospital Corporation of America (HCA), Suzanne has used her own impassioned ability and voice to bring people together to build the hospital’s success from the ground up, creating a corporate culture that demands excellence through empowerment.
HCA is the largest for-profit healthcare organization in the country, owning and operating 163 hospitals and 110 freestanding surgery centers in 20 states and England and employing approximately 199,000 people. Dominion Hospital is one of HCA’s four freestanding psychiatric specialty facilities and is the only freestanding psychiatric facility in Northern Virginia. “Dominion has been providing mental health services for over three decades, and the patients we serve are not the stereotypical image most people have in their minds,” Suzanne explains. “They’re people you see in the local coffee shop or at the grocery store. They’re your coworkers and neighbors. One in four Americans has a mental illness, and contrary to popular belief, the majority of these individuals are functioning members of society contributing to a greater good.”
In 2007, Suzanne was looking for a professional opportunity that would bring her to Washington, DC, where her husband resided. At the time, an informal meeting with the Division President was scheduled, as HCA did not have an open position, and Suzanne certainly did not have her sights set on a CEO role. Additionally, HCA was still questioning the future of Dominion, uncertain that they were going to keep it operational. However, on the day of the meeting, the current CEO of Dominion had decided to relocate out of the area, and HCA found itself in need of a new leader for the hospital. During the meeting with the Division President, Suzanne was able to inspire enough confidence in her leadership ability that she was offered the position.
“Everything just fell into place, and though I had always worked in organizations with multiple service lines, I knew that leading an organization focused on one specialty service would allow me to continue growing,” she remarks. “I went to school to learn how to run a hospital, and that’s what I brought to the table. My goal was to run Dominion as a well-oiled machine that functioned efficiently and focused on patient care. I reasoned that, best case scenario, I would do a great job, stabilize the organization, and convince HCA that Dominion was a vital asset.”
As the new CEO, Suzanne hit the ground running and focused on reestablishing good community relations. She reached out to key stakeholders—schools, community service boards, local emergency departments, and insurance companies—to let them know that Dominion was ready and willing to provide exceptional services to those in need. She also focused on developing an organizational culture of engagement, accountability, and quality patient care. “When I walked in, Dominion had an apathetic and unstructured culture, characterized by the knowledge that the hospital’s future was uncertain,” Suzanne explains. “That energy translated into the organization not performing at its potential, so I worked with the team to come up with specific, creative strategies to improve the culture and the patient experience.”
When Suzanne arrived, the hospital had between 23 and 60 patients at any given time. After five years of her leadership, that number now ranges between 67 and 92, and their revenues have more than quadrupled. “To me, that is a reflection of peoples’ renewed appreciation of the services we provide, and of the fact that we’ve been able to get the right team in place,” she affirms. “There have been some hard decisions over the past several years, but we’ve been holding people accountable and showing that this is the new day and the new attitude of Dominion, where old modes of operation are no longer acceptable. By executing on strategy and focusing on creating an environment where people can do their best work, we’re really achieving our ultimate goal of excellence in providing care to patients.”
The new day and attitude to which Suzanne refers stems from a timeless principle that has been ingrained in her since the earliest days of her childhood. “My parents taught me the importance of integrity—that your word is all you really have,” she recalls. “With this in mind, you must ensure that you do what you say you’re going to do and live by example, because once you break someone’s trust, it’s very difficult to rebuild, if ever.”
Her parents also stressed the paramount importance of working hard and making the most of every opportunity. When Suzanne’s father immigrated to the United States from Haiti, he had to start from scratch, working as an elevator attendant while going to school to become a laboratory technician. “He taught me that you have opportunities that not everyone is afforded, so you have to take advantage of them,” Suzanne points out. “You have to be grateful for the opportunities you’re given, work hard, and focus on the positive to be successfully. You need to make it happen.”
This go-getter attitude transcended what others might think of as limits. With a White Jewish mother and a Haitian Christian father who had four daughters from a previous marriage, Suzanne hails from a biracial and blended family that is far from conventional, yet she has used these characteristics to cultivate a unique spirit and charisma that have unlocked many doors for her. “I didn’t let anything stop me from connecting with people,” she reflects. Outspoken, friendly, and headstrong, her friendships defied clique boundaries. “I never wanted to be with just one group,” she continues. “I was friends with the cheerleaders, the “nerds”, the kids in my neighborhood. I never wanted to be classified in one bucket. I didn’t want to be defined by a label; I wanted to be self-defined.”
Suzanne’s parents were not wealthy, sacrificing substantially and working multiple jobs to raise their children in the suburbs of Chicago, where they hoped better school systems would open the doors to brighter futures. Both parents worked in the hospital laboratory, and Suzanne looks back at her childhood plans to be a singing, acting doctor and laughs. “I’ve always been someone that likes to help people, and I think that’s directly related to my family,” she affirms. “A lot of who you are and what you believe is tied to your childhood experiences, and my parents always had lots of friends around from diverse backgrounds that all helped each other. It became important for me to feel that I was making a meaningful impact and helping people, and pursuing a career in healthcare felt like a great way to do that.” She reconsidered direct patient care, however, after volunteering at a hospital in high school and finding that the experience made her squeamish.
Suzanne then decided to pursue biomedical engineering, but she soon realized that it didn’t fit her spirit and desire to connect with people. She was in college at the time at the University of Illinois, and she took an assessment at the campus career center that listed good career matches based on her interests and strengths. Healthcare administration was on the list, but she had never heard of it and didn’t give it much thought until one afternoon, while working as a chemistry tutor in the Office of Minority Student Affairs, she happened to be sitting at a random desk when a random fax came through the machine beside her. “For no apparent reason, I grabbed the paper and noticed that it was information about a summer program in healthcare administration that was looking for minority students,” she recalls. The deadline for applications had been extended for a week, so after some consideration, she submitted her information and was chosen for the University of Michigan program that essentially launched her career.
Suzanne then enrolled in the University of Michigan’s graduate program in health services administration, where she pursued a path that was as unconventional as her background. While her classmates got internships in individual hospitals, she instead landed an opportunity at Hewitt, a benefits consulting firm, which led to a consulting position at Ernst & Young after graduation. She flourished in that capacity, working on new projects every four to six months and traveling substantially, which exposed her to a wide variety of hospitals instead of just one. “I didn’t want to be doing what everyone else was doing,” she says. “By taking my own path, I was able to really hone my analytical skills and cultivate a unique skill set that set me apart from everyone else.”
In 2002, Suzanne happened to meet an HCA recruiter at a healthcare executive’s conference, who told her about HCA’s Executive Development Program. The program sought to address succession planning for the organization with a special focus on ethnic and gender diversity, providing a fast track to executive positions. Ready for a change, Suzanne landed the position and became an Associate Administrator I for a year and a half. She then served as an Associate Administrator II for two and a half years before moving into the Chief Operating Officer role. Coupling field experience with didactics, they brought her back to the corporate office once a quarter to meet with other associates and to work in teams to address real-life cases. “It was a great experience that offered me the opportunity to move out of consulting and back into the hospital,” she says. “What’s more, the program positioned me to have relationships in the company that were outside the bounds of my own hospital, so I had a wider knowledge base to reach out to concerning issues or challenges I was facing.”
One such challenge came a year and a half into her tenure as CEO of Dominion, when she believed a decision had been made in error and spoke to her division president about it. “It was a powerful conversation that changed my outlook concerning my role as the CEO,” Suzanne remembers. “The division president shared with me the importance of every decision I make as a CEO and emphasized my responsibility to the organization to serve as its advocate. In that moment, my responsibility and role became crystal clear. I was, and still am, responsible for the livelihood of over 200 employees and over 2,000 people who trust our hospital each year. Every decision I make or don’t make impacts them. Every time I don’t speak up and advocate for the organization, it impacts them. This epiphany allowed me to find my voice as the organization’s leader.”
With this passion and drive, however, Suzanne has also learned to cultivate the balance and diplomacy necessary to deliver messages effectively. “Any strong leader must be able to self-reflect and make the necessary adjustments to style and approach in order to produce the needed results,” she affirms. “You have to be firm but fair and communicate in a manner that’s uplifting to the individual. And all of this must rest on a foundation of integrity, which defines the type of leader you will be and how others will perceive you as a leader. It’s about the decisions you make and the actions you take, regardless of whether people are watching you or not. Never say or do anything that you would not be proud to see on the front page of the paper the next day.”
Suzanne’s commitment to integrity is not just a relic from childhood—it’s a resolution that is affirmed on a daily basis through the strong sense of Christian faith that resides at the center of all she does, as well as through her husband and daughters. “My family and faith keep me grounded and focused on the important issues in life,” she says. “My goal, whether it’s leading an organization or having a five minute conversation with someone, is to leave things better than when I arrived. I want to make people more productive, more positive, or better in some way; we are here to make a difference in other peoples’ lives. Having a loving and supportive family assists me in accomplishing this.”
In advising young entrepreneurs entering the business world today, Suzanne emphasizes the importance of pushing onward toward excellence regardless of external variables that aim to thwart success. “Don’t limit yourself, and always keep your mind open to things that are presented to you,” she urges. “Don’t get trapped in the box that is the conventional approach to things. Explore the opportunities presented to you, and be prepared to do the work to take advantage of them. Focus on learning from the situation you’re in and recalibrating as necessary.”
Beyond this, Suzanne’s example shows that a thriving business relies first and foremost on the rich network of human connections that make it all possible. “The more I grow as an executive, the more it becomes apparent to me that one should invest just as much effort in relationships as one invests in the work at hand,” she avows. “How you are able to connect makes a big difference. Are you going to be the kind of leader that influences others to do well and achieve because you’re able to connect with them and share your vision, or are you going be a dictator? As much as you need to be driven to do well and perform, you have to be driven to connect with people and value relationships, because that’s what truly counts.”
With this in mind, years after she first did rounds and observed the CEO who knew the names of all his staff, Suzanne is now that CEO. Because what’s in a name? Everything