The saying goes "It’s lonely at the top." But that is not the case for Kelly McCormick-Sullivan.
The president and CEO of the Pluta Cancer Center leads a staff of 42 employees, including oncologists, nurses, social workers, nutritionists and therapists-a team dedicated to treating people battling a disease that is no longer an automatic death sentence.
Almost everything she does is with a team approach, from her leadership style to the way patients will undergo treatment: No one has to go it alone.
One of the first things McCormick-Sullivan, 40, did when she took her post almost two years ago was to call employees into her office to speak with them individually so she could get their input. She wanted them to know their opinions mattered and their involvement was needed.
"I’m accessible. I walk through the center two times a day," McCormick-Sullivan says. "It’s awe-inspiring to watch the work that goes on here. Everyone gets it. Our team has an amazing ability to put folks at ease."
"When you talk about living the values or the brand of an organization, getting your employees to live it can be the hardest part, but as the leader here, it’s been easy for me."
Preserving that team commitment to the spirit Pluta has represented for more than 35 years was a main priority for McCormick-Sullivan when considering the decision to merge with the University of Rochester Medical Center.
URMC and Pluta officials signed a memorandum of understanding as a first step in a process that could lead to a merger.
"If our joint expectations come to fruition, it will be a positive relationship for all, most especially our patients. They would continue to be treated by the same clinical staff, including physicians, nurses and radiation therapists at our center’s current location while gaining access to the university’s state-of-the-art research, new technology and clinical trials," McCormick-Sullivan says.
While there were clear benefits for the center and its patients, she also had to keep her other key stakeholders in mind: her team.
"Looking out for those who work here was a major part of the broader question, ‘Was it the right thing to do?’" McCormick-Sullivan says.
Several employees have been with Pluta since it opened, including four of the center’s nurses. The decision to merge was the answer to many challenges, McCormick-Sullivan says. But she worried for her staff and wanted to make sure the change would be good for them.
"That’s part of my job. It’s key to the process to take care of these employees," she says.
The center was established at Genesee Hospital in 1975 by a grant from the Pluta family. It now is on Red Creek Drive in Henrietta.
The center’s services include the latest in radiation therapy technology, chemotherapy treatment and other medical services. In addition it cares for a patient’s whole well-being by offering massage therapy, support groups and nutrition counseling. It all takes place in a warm environment that looks more like a comfortable home than a clinical medical office.
Likewise, staff treat patients more like family than clients, being careful not to call out names in the waiting room but instead walking over to people when it is time for their appointment.
Employee encouragement and recognition are important to McCormick-Sullivan. She tries to make it peer-driven so team members continually support one another. The "big cheese" is a weekly tribute to an employee deserving special recognition.
January will mark two years since McCormick-Sullivan took the helm at Pluta. Kitty Forbush, a registered nurse at Pluta for 18 years, says it feels as if McCormick-Sullivan has been part of the team for much longer.
"She has become a friend. She has that relationship with everybody," Forbush explains. "She even gets to know some patients. She makes a point of connecting with people. She is by far a standout."
Forbush has been an oncology nurse for 30 years and recalls working at Genesee Hospital through the time when it closed its doors. Having a leader like McCormick-Sullivan is a great motivator, she says.
"She says her door is always open, she is accessible, and it’s true," Forbush says.
Finding a balance
The question of accessibility often comes up for working women, especially working moms. The issue is how accessible they are to their families. Can they strike a balance?
Marissa Mayer, the 37-year old CEO of Yahoo Inc. sparked a firestorm of controversy when she announced her pregnancy in July, shortly after being named one of the youngest female CEOs of a Fortune 500 company. Investors worried that the company stock could suffer from the public perception that Mayer could not run a company and manage a pregnancy and subsequent newborn at the same time.
McCormick-Sullivan, mother to three children-Jack, 8, Maeve, 6, and Brynn, 3-feels she has been able to find a good balance.
"What works for one woman may not work for another. I’ve been fortunate to work for organizations that gave me flexibility, and I have a great support system of friends and family so I’m not afraid to rely on others," McCormick-Sullivan says.
She also feels women should not be singled out when it comes to the issue of work-life balance.
"I have several dads that work at Pluta. I encourage them to find the same balance as our working moms-leave early for soccer games, take the time off when the kids are home from college, come in late to attend the school play," McCormick-Sullivan says. "Taking it a step further, I believe we should respect the work-life balance for all employees-folks that are caring for an aging parent, tending to an ill friend, spending time with a sibling-whatever their challenge might be, regardless of whether they have kids.
"My hope is that by the time my son and two daughters enter the workforce, we will embrace this notion and stop putting women in the spotlight on this topic."
McCormick-Sullivan’s career has progressed through many interesting steps. Health care has been the focus of her work, and that is understandable, since her parents were her first source of inspiration. Her mother was a registered nurse and her father was president and CEO of Unity Health.
She grew up in Fairport, then moved to Washington, D.C., to earn her bachelor’s degree in political science from the Catholic University of America in 1994. She met her husband, Daniel Sullivan, who was attending the U.S. Naval Academy. She earned her master’s degree in public communication from American University in Washington, D.C., in 1997.
The couple moved to Atlanta but decided to return to the Rochester area to be closer to her family and to raise one of their own.
She took a job in 1998 as director of organizational communications with Rochester Gas and Electric Corp. and held that post for five years. In 2004 she began a four-year run as a visiting assistant professor at St. John Fisher College, then became the manager of internal communications at Carestream Health Inc. She held that post for nearly three years before coming to her position at Pluta.
"I’m using the skills I learned from all those different jobs every day here," McCormick-Sullivan says. "Basic business tools, clients, vendors, working with different leadership styles. I can point to positive experiences from all the positions I have held."
She added a master of science degree in health system administration from Rochester Institute of Technology in 2008.
At the heart of each position has been communication, and McCormick-Sullivan is constantly looking for the best way to make a connection.
"I think it’s about reading people, understanding how they communicate," she explains. "It’s important to be clear in your message. We’ve become accustomed to sound bites and tweets. But that might not be right for every audience."
Longtime friend Molly Keogh says McCormick-Sullivan is one of the few people she knows who actually invests the time to maintain lasting relationships.
"Her loyalty to people is one of her best attributes. We grew up together as kids, and now our kids are close," says Keogh, an assistant professor at Nazareth College of Rochester.
McCormick-Sullivan introduced Keogh to her future husband, and they have been married for almost 12 years.
"She knows me so well and figured we would hit it off," Keogh laughs. "Now we all have the same wedding anniversary, June 30."
Staying close with friends and family-her husband, children, parents, siblings and a close circle of friends-is the best way for McCormick-Sullivan to spend her free time.
"Spending time with them is all about laughing, which is good for the soul. They help me keep things in perspective and remind me to take a deep breath," she says.
She also tries to go running at least three times a week as it keeps her head clear.
Volunteer work is a big part of her life. McCormick-Sullivan serves on the board at the Rochester Hearing and Speech Center and the Leadership Council for the American Lung Association. She also volunteers for Sidelines, a peer support organization for women experiencing high-risk pregnancies.
Helping people through hardships is part of the job for McCormick-Sullivan. People who know her say it is something that comes to her naturally.
The center, which has had average revenues of about $10 million for the past three years, faces challenges in the way many health care facilities do today. The rising cost of medications, the lower rates of reimbursements-and even gas prices can make treatments prohibitive for patients who cannot afford the drive to the center regularly.
McCormick-Sullivan finds a way to meet the challenges. The merger with URMC, which could be finalized by the end of the year, addresses many of the bigger challenges, and gas cards keep patients coming in for treatments.
"It’s all about understanding, and sometimes every little bit helps," she says.
There is a tradition at Pluta that brings the entire team together whenever a client has finished all of his or her treatment. It is a way to share in the celebration of life that he or she is thankful to be able to enjoy. Clients develop a bond with so many on the staff over the course of weeks or months that they feel like family by the time the treatments are over.
The team, sometimes as many as a dozen, gathers when the client is ready to leave. They stand in the lobby where a plaque hangs with a special bell. It was a gift to the center from a firefighter. He is also a cancer survivor who underwent treatment at Pluta, and he dedicated the bell to the center in honor of the people there who helped him through his treatments.
McCormick-Sullivan says it is a tradition now for everyone to gather while clients ring the bell three times on their way out on their last day of treatment. It is a sign of survival and celebration-a team effort.
"I try to be here for as many of them as I can. To know we help people make their journey happen, to know we do good for them, is so rewarding," McCormick-Sullivan says. "Sad stories come through the door, but so many happy stories go out. It reminds me that every day is a gift. That’s one of the best parts of my job."
Lori Gable is a Rochester-area freelance writer.
Position: President and CEO, Pluta Cancer Center
Education: B.A. in political science, Catholic University of America, Washington, D.C., 1994; M.A. in public communication, American University, Washington, D.C., 1997; M.S. in health system administration from Rochester Institute of Technology, 2008
Family: Husband Daniel Sullivan; son Jack, 8; daughters Maeve, 6, and Brynn, 3
Activities: Staying close with friends and family
Quote: "This is an emotional place, but it is not a sad place."
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